When the well on Nate Peitso’s Agoura Hills farm stopped pumping, he assumed it was broken. But when a specialist arrived to fix it, Peitso learned that nothing was wrong with the pump. There was just no water.
Nate operates Maggie’s Farm, one of the largest sellers of lettuces and herbs at local farmers’ markets. Like most other farms in California, the drought looms over his livelihood. Not long after his well went dry, his colleagues at West Coast Nurseries in Oxnard complained that business was down. Many of the greenhouses on their 50-acre property were left unused, which for Nate spelled opportunity.
Three months ago, he launched a microgreens operation at West Coast, where the water remains plentiful and the temperatures steady. “Microgreens are great because there is a good margin on them and we can make some money,” says Nate. “And it’s very difficult to do well. The barrier to entry as far as knowledge and cost is huge, but [West Coast] already had the infrastructure and we know how to do this.”
Growing microgreens, which became big business after restaurants started serving them in the 1980s, requires an entirely different infrastructure than growing lettuce starts. Greenhouses must be completely enclosed, and tables need to withstand heavy flats of soil and gravel; plus, there are tricks of the trade. “The guys who are seeding the flats are artists,” Nate tells me. They have developed a special blend of soil that is heavier on the top. When the greens sprout, they don’t bring the soil with them. “The trick with microgreens,” he explains, “is to make sure that there is no soil on the leaves.”
Maggie’s Farm’s mix includes between 20 and 30 varieties of microgreens. The bulk of it is cress and mustards, which are both flavorful and long-lasting, but he also puts in scallions, sorrel, basil, and cilantro for extra pop.
So far, Nate’s biggest clients are the produce buyers who purchase microgreens for hotels and high-end restaurants. Rhonda Rego of L.A. Specialty says the product has become more accessible over the years. “Fifteen years ago, they were selling four ounces for $30,” she tells me. Now, clients like Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Wilshire can pay a mere $36/pound for Nate’s mix.
The price can be shocking initially, but Nate is the first to explain to his customers that the greens should be used as an additional burst of flavor or to make a dish beautiful. “They look like they belong in a jewel box in a jewelry store,” he says and laughs.
You can find Maggie’s Farm microgreens at the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica Farmers Market and at the Sunday Mar Vista Market. Check out this video of Nate and his team in the greenhouse: