Small produce with big potential

Features - Cover Story

Here’s how Fresh Origins has grown to be the leading producer of microgreens and edible flowers in the United States.

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Bigger produce isn’t necessarily better, if you ask David Sasuga. By growing the tiniest edible plants possible at the highest attainable quality, Sasuga has grown his company, Fresh Origins, into the leading producer of microgreens in the United States.

Based in San Marcos, Calif., with a total of 80 acres including 1.4 million square feet of covered production space, Fresh Origins ships an average of 2,500 pounds of miniature greens and produce every day. In addition to MicroGreens and slightly larger PetiteGreens, the farm also produces a colorful spectrum of edible flowers, tiny veggies, and other flavorfully innovative products to serve professional chefs nationwide.

In fact, a chef gave Sasuga the idea to focus on microgreens back in 1995. Before then, Sasuga had spent 20 years producing bedding plants through his first company, Sunrise Growers, which ultimately spun off a plug-growing operation called The Plug Connection in 1987 with partner Tim Wada.

Throughout his growing experience, Sasuga’s interests led him toward edibles.

“I always wanted to grow edibles rather than ornamentals, and that led to growing more herb and vegetable plants for garden centers and nurseries,” Sasuga says. “We were growing some tomato transplants for a special order, and when the man came to pick them up, he was intrigued by the basil seedlings we had. He had never seen basil in that form. He revealed that he was a chef in a fine dining restaurant and wanted to use these tiny basils there.”

Initially, Sasuga was “perplexed” why anyone would want herbs that tiny, but the chef was onto something big. Sasuga worked with a restaurant consultant to test the idea in other kitchens, and soon, the culinary world craved the unique colors, tastes, textures and pizzazz that microgreens added to a dish.

“I began to look at seedlings in a whole different way,” says Sasuga, who began experimenting with earlier harvests of edible crops — starting with “basic herbs like basil,” and gradually adding vegetables over time.

Fresh Origins carefully hand-waters more than 120,000 trays of greens each day.

Tiny trials

Discovering which plants can be harvested after a couple of weeks — when they’re only an inch to an inch-and-a-half tall — requires research, trial and error. Factors like seed cost, availability and germination rates determine which plants might work as microgreens.

“It’s pretty much the same [process] on a shorter time span — just younger versions of what we were already growing,” Sasuga says. “It’s interesting because I started with bedding plants that had a fairly short timespan compared to other ornamentals; then went to plugs, which had an even shorter time span; and then microgreens, which have an even shorter time span. My experience as a plug grower went a long way toward helping me transition into microgreens.”

As one of the earliest growers to focus on this niche, Sasuga didn’t have best practices or even definitions to follow. So he developed his own.

“There was a steep learning curve since there weren’t any viable resources on how to do this — including seed selection, harvesting, packaging, sales and marketing,” says Sasuga, admitting that marketing was the biggest challenge in debuting MicroGreens. “Everyone thought they were sprouts. I worked hard to establish a dialogue to educate my customers and the internet in general on the definition of how and why microgreens are different than sprouts.” (For a more detailed comparison of microgreens and sprouts, visit freshorigins.com/microgreen-facts)

Fresh Origins grows microgreen seedlings in 10x20 trays filled with peat moss inside of gutter-connected hoop houses. Through experimentation, the company keeps learning more to improve its operations and plant selection.

“Over the years, we’ve gotten more organized and generally more efficient as we’ve gotten better at understanding this crop cycle,” Sasuga says. “It’s just a lot of small improvements, like what kind of greenhouses we need and how to lay them out properly for a nice traffic flow. We’ve changed from growing on the ground to growing on tables, and we’ve changed from wooden to steel tables — just naturally evolving.”

Major micro-innovation

Fresh Origins continually introduces new varieties, both in response to specific customer requests, and through its own in-house experimentation. Today, the farm produces more than 400 varieties of edible plants and flowers, including Micro Basil Nutmeg, Micro Tangerine Lace, Petite Lucky Shamrock and Petite Pumpkin Green.

The company trademarks the names of individual plants and product categories because: “We work hard to develop our products and want to protect that investment,” Sasuga says. “We believe this is a competitive advantage.”

The farm’s most recent innovations include Herb Crystals, Flower Crystals, and Fruit Crystals, which combine fresh produce with pure cane sugar to create crystals that add a colorful punch of crunchy flavor to dishes, drinks and desserts. Fresh Origins introduced its first crystals about five years ago after nearly five years of research and development.

“Microgreens are highly perishable,” Sasuga says. “I wanted to find a way to provide shelf-stable flavors, so I experimented with ways to preserve the delicate flavors of the greens. The result is that we have authentic flavors in a product that lasts months, without the use of added flavorings or colorants.”

While crystals have helped extend the shelf-life of some produce, the short crop cycles and even shorter windows of salability are constant challenges. Most crops are harvested within two weeks, and in most cases, must be sold within two or three days. Fresh Origins’ team hand-harvests produce at peak freshness, then ships through distributors to chefs who receive their orders the next day.

“All of our crops are planted on speculation,” Sasuga says. “Every seed we plant is with the hope that we’ll sell it, but it’s not pre-ordered. This can mean lots of dumping and losses, so you’ve got to have a market for it. We try to stay close to it so we’re watching production, sales and dumps on a daily basis.”

Sustainable by nature

Fresh Origins’ operations are inherently sustainable, but Sasuga is reluctant to greenwash it. He believes that, “Farming, by nature, is sustainable” — especially the way he does it in sunny Southern California, without any supplemental lighting.

“San Marcos has the best climate for growing microgreens year-round, because we have one of the highest light levels in the country,” Sasuga says. “Other areas with high light levels, like Florida, have too much humidity to properly grow high-quality microgreens. Most of our product goes outside California, because we can provide better quality than what’s grown in other parts of the country (with artificial lighting).”

Using free sunshine drastically reduces the farm’s energy costs compared to greenhouses in colder climates. Fresh Origins also makes the most of other natural resources like water by carefully hand-watering more than 120,000 trays of greens every day. An intricate drainage system captures excess water and rainwater, and stores it in a reservoir on-site.

For pest and disease control, Fresh Origins is careful about its approach to avoid wasting valuable resources, Sasuga says. As a first line of defense, all greenhouses are screened and flanked with miles of sticky tape insect traps to minimize the need for spraying. When spraying is necessary, Sasuga opts for the safest materials, such as garlic, clove and rosemary oils.

Scouting is also a key piece of Fresh Origins’ pest and disease control efforts. “When you have a crop time that fast, you have to watch it very closely because things can happen in hours and days, rather than weeks and months,” says Sasuga, whose team scouts by “walking around the old-fashioned way.”

Though quick crop turnaround has challenges, it makes pest and disease control a little easier. “For the most part,” Sasuga says, “the crops are pretty fast, so insects don’t have a lot of time to get established.”

As of one of the earliest microgreens growers, Fresh Origins had to create its own best practices.

Not-so-local growth

Culinary demands continue to drive growth for Fresh Origins, as chefs and mixologists search for ingredients that add crispy, colorful panache to upscale dishes, desserts and drinks. Although the company only sells through produce distributors that supply restaurants and food retailers, it stays in close contact with the chefs who use its products.

“We’ve maintained relationships and communication with chefs we’ve met over the years,” Sasuga says, and as a result, chefs regularly contribute recipes, photos, videos and other content that Fresh Origins uses on its website and social media to show its products in action.

Sasuga’s daughter, Kelly, is key to these culinary relationships, through her dual role in Fresh Origins’ marketing department and as R&D chef. (Several other family members are also involved in the family-owned company, which has 375 employees — including Sasuga’s brother, who’s head grower.)

By staying focused on this culinary niche, Sasuga predicts steady growth as Fresh Origins continues to innovate and improve. Because his location in an ideal growing climate has been key to producing the quality his customers demand, Sasuga’s advice for other growers is simple:

“Find out what grows best in your area, then focus on quality and being the best,” he says. “You can grow a pineapple in Chicago, but should you? It will not be sustainable, it will take a lot more resources, and it will be poor quality compared to what’s grown in the right climate. I wouldn’t sacrifice quality for being able to say that it was locally grown.”

Brooke is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.