Oliver Homberg, co-founder of Boston Microgreens, recalls eating the currant in his grandmother’s garden as a reminder that sparked his connection with growing food.
Now Homberg, the owner of Boston Microgreens, gets his hands dirty every day – but he doesn’t work outside.
The municipal farm is located in a basement room on West Broadway in South Boston and delivers freshly cut microgreens directly to Boston chefs and customers twice a week.
“Everything you see here has a purpose,” said Homberg. “It has a restaurant or a customer it goes to.” To maximize space and minimize waste, the farm is grown entirely to order.
Microgreens are the young greens of vegetables. They’re usually only two or three weeks old and a few inches tall – but they have nutritional value, often with higher concentrations of nutrients than their full-blown counterparts.
They also have an intense flavor, so they are loved by many chefs for their flavor and nutritional boost that they add as a pretty little garnish.
Homberg founded Boston Microgreens in 2018 from the South End apartment he shared with co-founder Matt Alto at the time. After studying together at Northeastern, Homberg and Alto were curious about growing microgreens on YouTube – and months later they sold their home-grown vegetables to restaurants in their neighborhood.
When Alto separated from the company amicably (Homberg said they were still “best friends”), Homberg went all out with the business and signed a lease for the South Boston premises in February 2019, which he now shares with a few other employees parts that are both full-time and part-time.
Homberg offers 70 different types of microgreens with different growth sizes.
“If a chef says, ‘I want my Thai basil leaf an inch and a half every Tuesday and Friday,'” says Homberg, he can do just that.
During the pandemic, Boston Microgreens rolled out a CSA service that they still deliver to customers’ doorsteps on Tuesdays and Fridays. The “nutritional mix” contains eight nutrient-rich microgreens – sunflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli, beet, Swiss chard, radish and buckwheat – which are harvested the same morning.
Customers can also order all of the microgreen offerings a la carte as long as they are willing to wait a couple of weeks for the greens to grow.
“There’s a bit of lead time,” says Homberg, “but it’s fun because you know we’ll literally grow your product for you.”
On the business side, Homberg tries to run the company as sustainably as possible. They source only renewable energy from Eversource and their compostable packaging is made from corn.
They also all use organic farming methods. “No pesticides, herbicides; we grow 100% cleanly, ”said Homberg.
They recycle about 95% of their water through an irrigation system. The greens trays are on flood tables, and Homberg and his team can use the app to fill the flood tables with water from small reservoirs on the floor.
The plants just soak up what they need and the rest of the water flows back into the reservoir. Boston Microgreens even worked with the FDA to clear this new irrigation system at both the state and federal levels.
Microgreens are relatively new to the mainstream culinary scene – and Boston Microgreens is helping with the writing of the playbook.
The irrigation system isn’t the only cool technology used in microgreens. The company uses its own software that was developed with the help of volunteers from the Northeast.
The software “controls everything that happens on the farm,” said Homberg. “Without that, we could never grow all of these varieties.”
For example, if a chef wants more or less products on a given day, says Homberg, the software calculates how much of each plant to grow and how many days in advance, without the human labor of going into Excel and placing orders manually change.
Soon, Homberg said, he and a team plan to publicly release the software as an app for other farmers.
“Within six months the beta will be tested,” Homberg said, noting that this could change the way micro-green farms operate across the country.
The new system will help farms have an accurate grow-to-order system, reducing wasted labor and wasted food.
While indoor microgreen growing is nothing new, Homberg hopes Boston Microgreens will help create a model for more urban farms.
“This can be done in unused spaces, in urban spaces and in small teams,” said Homberg. “It’s a potential business model for generating independent income. It can create jobs, and it can create sustainable food systems and local food systems. It is great.”
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