On a third of an acre just a mile from downtown St. Louis, a group of farmers are working to create a more sustainable local food system. New Roots Urban Farm, a collective project, brings together local farmers who hope to make fresh food more accessible to the community by teaching people how to grow their own. On the same piece of land lies Bee Simple City Farm, where New Roots member Mary Densmore and her partner James Meinert raise bees and chickens and grow dozens of different varieties of microgreens in a small greenhouse.
Although the couple, who met while volunteering for Jesuit Volunteers Corps in Nicaragua, initially planned to focus on honey, their microgreens quickly took off and are now the bread and butter of their business. The edible plants are harvested young from a range of vegetable and herb seeds, including cilantro, dill, red Russian kale and wasabi; in addition to offering a boost of flavor, each variety is rich in nutrients. Bee Simple microgreens are available at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, Local Harvest Grocery, Fields Foods and Fair Shares CCSA; the farm also offers online ordering at beesimplecityfarm.com.
Why did you decide to focus on microgreens? I started looking into ways that, given my limited amount of available space, especially being in the city, I could grow for a living. The microgreens took off really quickly because, at the time, there weren’t very many people growing them, so I was able to carve out a niche for myself; at the farmers’ market, there were a lot of people that were already bringing tomatoes or lettuce or radishes. The thing about microgreens is they taste exactly like whatever the seed is, so the sunflower microgreens, for instance, are really nutty and kind of sweet like a sunflower seed. I started growing sunflower, arugula, basil and broccoli – I started with just a handful of microgreens my first year. Every year, I’ve added a few more; now I do about 30 different kinds. –Mary Densmore
Why did you want to have a presence at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market? The farmers’ market is one of the joys of this business. Mary and I love community, and we love building community and connecting with people. Some people who do farming and microgreens sell direct to distributors or direct to restaurants, and they never actually get to interact with the people who eat the food that they grow. For us, that’s really important – getting to see the people that are eating the food that we grew with our own hands. –James Meinert
How do you recommend cooking with microgreens? It’s kind of a cop out, but I always tell people, “Put them on everything!” Tacos, salads, sandwiches, wraps, spring rolls, eggs, pizza, avocado toast. They just have really great flavor; it’s a more complex flavor than adding lettuce. –M.D. Really any place people would use lettuce or some other kind of fresh greens, the microgreens work really well and will give you a more interesting flavor. –J.M.
How do you make such a small plot of land work for your needs? We plant really densely; in the greenhouse, we plant in horizontal racks which we then stack vertically. And just the short life span of microgreens – we can harvest them after 10 days or 2 weeks; we don’t have to wait 100 days to get a tomato. –M.D. A broccoli plant takes up a lot of space in the garden for a long time – and you only get one head of broccoli. In the same amount of time, we can do 15 harvests of broccoli microgreens. Microgreens are actually one of our responses to having that limited space. Something that we take pride in and that we try to maintain is our ability to grow ecologically, our ability to know that the tiny piece of land that we tend to is better when we’re finished growing on it and not worse – that we’re not just extracting everything we can from it just to make money. We want it to be a mutual relationship with the land, and we’ve figured out how to do that with the microgreens and the chickens and the different systems we’ve put in place to work together. –J.M.