When Veronaka Evenson shops at a local grocery store, she’ll sometimes comes across a produce section full of drooping, wilting vegetables. She hates it. They’re the kind of vegetables that inspired her and other upstart farmers to change how local greens are grown and sold in Montana.
“Not only are we told that our lettuce and cabbage tastes better, but you can just see that they look lively and crisp, which is the way it’s supposed to look,” Evenson said.
Billings greenhouses Swanky Roots and Swift Microgreens provide organically grown produce that are healthier than imported produce and capable of being harvested fresh year-round.
Using the growing technique hydroponics, produce is cultivated completely through water rather than soil. Nutrients are added to the water using decomposed food waste like discarded egg shells and vegetable peelings.
Swift Microgreens also grow crops of popular greens such as broccoli, kale and radishes through a hydroponic greenhouse. Grown on concentrated nutrients, many of the crops are harvested early as microgreens. What these miniature vegetables lack in size, they more than make up for with nutritional value.
“What’s interesting about microgreens is that they are nutrient-dense,” Swift Microgreens co-founder Reed Youngbar said. “Because they are harvested prematurely, all of its nutrients aren’t able to disperse throughout the plant by the time it’s harvested.”
This premature harvest for crops such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and radishes allows for shorter periods of growth averaging approximately every 12 days. The resulting crop is noticeably more colorful with a longer shelf-life and typically used as a garnish or topping on a dish due to their convenient size.
Youngbar described the greater efficiency of growing and harvesting microgreens compared to other types of agriculture.
“We focus on cool-weather crops,” he said. “And, because we operate an indoor hydroponic greenhouse, it allows us to grow them all year-round.”
Youngbar explained how it was the health benefits that initially inspired him to start his own commercial greenhouse with microgreens containing enough nutrients to have been linked to killing cancer cells and reducing inflammation.
With recent outbreaks of E. coli in lettuce crops, Swanky Roots Co-founder Ronna Klamert echoed these benefits and acknowledged the increased attention consumers are giving to where their produce comes from and how it is grown.
“People’s thoughts on health have really changed over the past few years,” she said. “Initially it was about survival. Then it became about ‘What can I eat?’ or ‘What do I want to eat?’ And I think that people are more interested now about where exactly their food comes from.”
Swanky Roots primarily develops fully grown crops through the process of aquaponics. Combining the approach of both hydroponics and aquaculture, aquaponics grows crops using nutrient-rich water provided through the excrement of living fish. The plants filter the waste as a fertilizer and release clean, reusable water.
Klamert pointed out how the lack of soil within these agricultural methods rules out an outbreak of E. coli while the lack of herbicides and pesticides result in significantly less harm on the environment.
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The greenhouse specifically uses bluegill fish for their aquaponics system and currently grows crops including cabbage, kale, bok choy, chard and a variety of lettuce. They also provide their own selection of microgreens such as onion, sunflower, carrot and cilantro among others along with a variety of herbs such as mint, dill and rosemary.
These processes are quickly attracting farmers due to their concentrated nutritional and mineral content for plant-growth, reusable water sources, health benefits and controlled growing areas. These two businesses along with sustainable agriculture in general are also catching on with customers.
Crops from Swanky Roots can either be bought directly from their facility, from Lucky’s Market in Billings or the Beartooth and Moon Lake markets in Red Lodge. Their products can also be tasted in dishes at The Fieldhouse, Local and Lilac restaurants in Billings along with The Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge. Swift Microgreens can either be purchased at Mary’s Health Foods or delivered directly to customers living in Billings and Laurel.
Lucky’s Market Store Director Matt Heinz has noticed the positive reception of the local crops and microgreens.
“It’s always good to know that the food you’re buying is local,” he said. “Whether they know the farmers personally or where exactly their food is grown, people seem to really appreciate it.”
Swanky Roots currently offers public and private tours of its greenhouse at 8333 Story Road between Billings and Laurel. As their selection of crops and amount of space increase in the future, they hope the spread information increases as well.
“The common assumption with organically grown crops is that they’re too expensive, which really isn’t the case,” Evenson said. “We’re really just focused on spreading awareness and educating the community about the options.”
Both businesses believe this is only the beginning for sustainable crops in Montana.
“Currently, it’s very difficult to make a fair living on local agriculture,” Youngbar explained. “But there have been great gains made through groups like Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society and Yellowstone Valley Food Hub.”
These groups pull resources from local farms and businesses for widespread distribution. The business service provider 406 Market also works with Swanky Roots and other farms to create connections between distributors, manufacturers and consumers. Heinz believes the number of options for consumers is going to increase in the future. “With the way things are going, you’re going to see more and more outlets for organic produce rather than inorganic,” he said.
Young and Microgreens co-Founder Jessica Hart pointed out how these partnerships along with new business ventures are opening the door for future avenues of sustainable production.
“Starting next week, we’re actually starting up a pickup service called ‘Swift Buckets’,” co-founder Jessica Hart explained. “We’ll be providing customers with a bucket to grow their own compost from food waste and we’ll pick it up for them every Friday for our crops.”
These emerging businesses are still relatively young and are met with unique challenges such as a greater need for electrical power and a slower process for maintenance. Both greenhouses alluded to other approaches such as biodigestion, anaerobic digestion and regenerative agriculture as solutions in the future. These small-scale operations are thinking big ideas in the future.
“There’s definitely potential for expansion,” Hart said. “The tides seem to be turning for clean agriculture.”