Judy Vizzari interviewed Cate and Graeme Townsend from Microtown in July 2020.
Cate and Graeme Townsend live in Eltham but hail from Warrnambool, a large town nestled along Victoria’s south western coast. They say that they chose Eltham 23 years ago because of its country feel, they “love the community aspect”. Now, their two girls have completed schooling at local Eltham High, Cate and Graeme have decided to make another move – not to a new location but into a new endeavour. They’re introducing a relatively new intensive farming technique – micro vegetables.
From outside their home, you can’t see the energy inside, this is just a pretty little street with a typical blend of mid 20th century weatherboard and brick houses, so when I pull up outside I’m really not prepared for what I find inside. Graeme greets me at the door – he’s tall and smiling and Cate is equally welcoming. I learn that she is an accountant who worked in finance in Melbourne city whilst Graeme is a ‘sparkie’ who worked around suburban Melbourne.
Their’s is a steeply sloping block which, Cate tells me, may have once contained a creek. The slope still provides plenty of backyard moisture, enough to keep her extensive vegetable garden well-watered. Leading off to the right of the deck is a small, free-standing air-conditioned room with a four metre frontage. This is their ‘micro factory’.
Inside it’s warm, but not hot and the air is constantly moving. The walls extend perhaps 4 metres back and are fixed with Meccano-like shelves.
On the left wall, I see rows of small black plastic pots filled with tiny, colourful seedlings and illuminated by micro multi-coloured lights. The range of plants being grown is diverse and includes amaranth, basil, kale, red cabbage, rocket, watercress and wheatgrass. In height they reach only a few centimetres (micro size). They’re multi coloured; red, some with red stems, yellow, purple and various shades of green – they all have distinctive shapes and are very pretty.
The shelving on the right wall is curtained with black plastic but appears to be a storage area, as does a central row of shelves. Behind this curtain is another collection of pots, but these are in a different stage of development – they contain germinating seeds and the darkness mimics an underground environment. Some of these pots have just a smudge of germinated seeds and others have larger legumes like peas and are topped with little polystyrene caps; from here, growing seeds will later be transferred to the lighted shelves.
Graeme tells me that the plants are grown in specially blended soil, that they’re watered by a custom automated watering technique, and that the lights are set to provide appropriate colour, or lack of it, to enhance growth. It seems that, whilst plants need darkness to germinate, to thrive they need the differing hues of sunlight depending on their stage of development. The temperature in this space is kept at a constant 22 degrees celsius.
Firstly, why microgreens?
Cate grew up on a farm in Crossley (near Warrnambool) and has always loved growing plants so this ‘seed’ of an idea was perhaps planted years before, but their curiosity about microgreens was also sparked to some extent by having heard well-known Canadian academic, Dr David Suzuki, speaking on the importance of innovative sustainable farming to produce healthy food sources. Their interest was further encouraged by learning about the high nutritional value of very young vegetables and how they have been used successfully in the invalid convalescence and the treatment of patients suffering from emotional disorders and autism.
So what are microgreens?
In Cate and Graeme’s words: “Microgreens are young vegetable greens that are only a few centimetres tall, with an aromatic flavour, coming in a variety of colours and textures. They contain concentrated nutrient content. Despite their small size, microgreens pack a nutritional punch (up to 40 times more nutritional value than mature vegetables). Microgreens are considered to be baby plants, falling somewhere between a sprout and baby green, but they shouldn’t be confused with sprouts (which do not have leaves). Microgreens are usually harvested 7–21 days after germination, once the plant’s first true leaves have emerged. They’re more than a garnish.“
You can read more on the Microtown website.
Are there many microgreen producers?
Yes, there is a small group of microgreen producers, but it is a growing industry and Microtown is a local provider with a home delivery service.
Cate and Graeme started growing microgreens in 2019, soon they were sharing them with friends and quickly found that there was so much demand that they needed to make decisions about ‘growing’ the business to a commercial level. By the beginning of 2020 they were able to do just that (Graeme dedicated himself wholly to the business in January whilst Cate gave up her Melbourne job early March).
Where do they sell their greens?
Their client base has increased along with their input. They now offer online ordering. They also deliver to Mercers Restaurant and some local cafes, who recycle their pots and trays by returning them when they receive their follow-on orders. They are also a stallholder at Eltham Farmers’ Market, where you can find them on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month.
A popular sideline product is a window-sill boxes which houses five pots of microgreens. This is a hands-on business – Graeme manufactures them and they are attractive and functional adornments to any kitchen window-sill. The plants happily live in their pots in the window box for up to a fortnight when it is placed in a light and airy place.
How do you use microgreens?
Just like any other vegetable, microgreens can be incorporated into a range of light and nutritious meals or eaten raw in salads. Check out their website for some interesting recipes – how does blackberry and corn microgreen salad sound, or red lentil dahl? They have lots of innovative suggestions which are suitable for vegans, vegetarians and healthy eaters and they are forever sourcing and publishing more recipes.
So I’ve now sampled microgreens at home, loved the peas and enjoyed the beetroot and greens. There’s a pot of purple amaranth sitting on my window-sill ready to be incorporated into tonight’s meal and I’ve been inspired to sow some amaranth seeds in the spring. This visit has been a learning journey and an inspiration for my future gardening projects.