The edge of Wellington’s Mt Victoria is an unlikely place for any type of farm but that’s exactly where you will find a basement filled with trays of hydroponically-grown microgreens.
Microgreens are the first leaves from sprouting seeds and, according to Lucy Matheson, one of the founders of company Shoots Microgreens, “They are almost too good to be true.
They are incredibly beautiful, incredibly flavoursome, and incredibly versatile. And on top of all that, they have up to 100 times the nutritional density of mature vegetable plants.”
The way the Shoots team grow their microgreens also ticks a lots of boxes to help save the planet. And, as one of New Zealand’s first urban farms, this puts Shoots Microgreens at the cutting edge of where global food production is shifting.
Their innovations were recognised at the 2020 Wellington Gold Awards where they were named a finalist in the sustainability programmes and products category.
And, on November 1, they were named outstanding supplier of the year in the 2020 Felix Wellington Hospitality Awards presented by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand.
Shoots was begun in 2017 by Lucy, her partner Steve, and former work colleague Matt Keltie.
Steve and Lucy had purchased some microgreens at a Hawke’s Bay market and over coffee in the sunshine they chatted about the amazing characteristics of microgreens, which then led to musings about commercial possibilities.
A subsequent conversation with Matt, an agronomist had him experimenting with vertical gardens and he quickly moved on to design the first version of the hydroponic growing system that now fills a basement in Majoribanks Street.
Purple space age glow
Located down a short flight of concrete steps, it’s the unexpected with an abundance of plants growing under a building in the CBD, and the purple glow of lights that makes it almost space age.
Tiered racks fill the space, with small trays of delicate plants lined up in various stages of maturity. Fans are positioned around the room to keep the plants happy, and a system of water pipes weaves through the space.
The development of the grow system took some trial and error, and the current team of three continue to work under Matt’s tutelage to fine-tune the system and, with the adjustment of lights, water and nutrients, they create the perfect growing environment year round.
Lucy says that while not technically “organic” (as the New Zealand organic standard is designed for products grown in soil), the team works to organic principles.
They are proud of the fact their grow system has no pesticides or herbicides, uses 95 per cent less water than conventionally grown alternatives, there is no runoff into soils or waterways, and the system uses significantly lower levels of land to create their beautiful product.
A hit with chefs
Shoots’ first customers were Wellington restaurants. Lucy says chefs were excited by the trays of still-growing microgreens as they had not been able to source such a product. By 2019, Shoots Microgreens had gained a customer base of more than 100 restaurants around central Wellington.
A keen foodie and entertainer, Lucy loves using their microgreens at home and she was keen to promote their product to retail customers.
After testing the market with a small farmers’ market stand at the Wellington food institution that is Moore Wilsons, the quest to innovate kicked back in and Matt moved on to design a retail in-store grow-system, which Lucy says is the first of its kind in New Zealand.
It includes built-in watering and lighting, and emits the same purple glow found in the basement garden.
“It certainly stands out in the produce section,” Lucy says.
The rack unit includes a TV screen, which shows a short story about Shoots Microgreens, its products and recipes and will soon stream live footage from the basement “garden,” bringing the customer close to the production of their food.
These racks can now be found in Moore Wilsons and an increasing number of New World supermarkets around Wellington.
Home harvest holds nutrition
“Customers can buy microgreens still growing, which is a huge benefit.
Fresh produce loses 30 per cent of its nutrients when it is harvested – so our customers can avoid that degradation and harvest their microgreens at home immediately before eating.
“No chlorine [is] sprayed on the cut greens. No plastic bags. They are fresh, nutritious and delicious. And it doesn’t hurt that they look beautiful sitting on the bench too,” Lucy says.
Lucy says that “microgreens are right beside everything. You can literally add them to almost every meal. On top of pizza. In school lunches. On top of eggs for breakfast is a favourite of mine. And, of course, they make a sensational base for a salad.”
Like many small businesses, when Covid-19 struck in March, this proved challenging for Shoots. With the city’s restaurants closed and the retail offering just about to launch, the team at Shoots were left with a garden full of microgreens and no-one to enjoy them.
So some quick thinking by Shoots’ owners led to the creation of a website where households could order deliveries during lockdown, and be inspired for recipe ideas. The service has proved successful and the Shoots subscription offering has continued.
“Home food delivery is a huge trend in our communities and the microgreens delivery is a beautiful delivery to receive,” says Lucy.
Looking to the future, they hope to expand into more supermarkets throughout New Zealand.
“We love the idea of being on the weekly shopping lists of hundreds or thousands of New Zealand homes.”
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