BROADWAY, Va. — In the garish light of a ground floor production space, Ian Young — a young entrepreneur based in Broadway — excitedly clicked through a project management software called Notion.
“It’s really great because you can tag all the dates,” Young said. “You can plan for a certain day. It’s amazing. That’s kind of how I plan for everything.”
Young has pegged it down to the day when his product — different varieties of microgreens — will be ready to harvest, package and sell, labeling efficiently stacked plastic palettes of seeds and soil at different stages of planting on tall racks outfitted with lights.
In the headquarters of his business, MicroBite Farms, Young — a transitioning veteran who served in the Marine Corps — grows over a dozen varieties of microgreens, green plants like broccoli and cilantro that are densely planted from seeds and harvested in under three weeks when they ‘ve grown their first set of leaves. They’re distinct from “sprouts,” which are grown in water.
“I lost so much weight when I started eating these,” Young said. “I got kind of fat when I got out of the Marines. There are just so many health benefits.”
Before becoming a vendor at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and selling to CrossKeys Vineyards bistro and offering delivery and subscription for the tiny plants, Young — who has always had a green thumb — said he began growing microgreens as a hobby and for their superior nutrient content after having served in the military for four years.
“I just love doing this. It doesn’t feel like work to me. I love interacting with the customers at the market,” Young said. “The restaurant customers are all super friendly.”
These infant-versions of green plants also pack full-grown peppery, sweet and spicy flavors, depending on the plant. Young sells around a dozen varieties, including Red Acre cabbage, Daikon radish, sunflower, broccoli and salad mixes that combine varieties.
“I’ll eat [salads with microgreens] plain without any dressing because it’s just so full of flavor,” Young said. “You’re getting such a huge bang for your buck as far as nutrition.”
To grow them, he starts seeds in a palette of soil that’s weighed down with a concrete block. A subsequent “black out” phase encourages the plants to develop longer stems. It’s a characteristic that attracted Leonel Velazquez, new executive chef of CrossKeys Vineyards, to partner with MicroBite as one of its first small local vendors.
“We like his product and we were excited to bring it on,” Velazquez said. “We use it for our dishes here at the bistro and for our events. They’re clean, they have good taste. I like to have micros with bigger stems and he does that.”
Young, who’s currently working toward a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University, said he started selling microgreens to restaurants around State College, Penn., but launched right around the pandemic and business was slow.
“I’ve always enjoyed the idea of being my own boss, but when you actually do it it’s really hard. I’m always learning and sometimes I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing,” Young said.
Young said being in the Marines — where it’s important to be on time and prepared — helped him develop the “self-management” he needed to run his own business full-time.
“I don’t think I could have done this before the Marines,” Young said. “You have to take care of yourself and stay fit and show up on time every day. That helps a lot with this. I don’t have days off. If I forget to water or something, the (plants) die.”
Hooked on efficiency, Young said one of the things he likes about this business is the ability to produce a lot of food without using any chemical fertilizers in a small, indoor space.
“That’s kind of the endgame for me is to control everything using the sun but not direct sunlight,” Young said. “Freshness is kind of hard to come by. Distributing on a larger scale but also maintaining quality is my longer-term goal.
Young, who said he’s found his passion in growing microgreens, said he hopes to scale the business up to a large degree. Young said his goal, which “sounds like a dream right now,” is to create a large solar-powered facility.
“At some point you just have to take a chance on something, whether it’s a career track or whatever it may be. And for me, this is it,” Young said.