Have you ever eaten a microgreen?
These adorable baby plants offer a beautiful, tender, and tasty garnish to almost any dish, as well as a host of nutritional benefits.
Joe Diffie, owner of Joe’s Organics, a commercial compost hauler and microgreens farm in East Austin, calls these immature plants "essentially like very tasty vitamin pills.”
From a farmer’s perspective, microgreens also fill a very specific, niche role for Diffie and his business partners: his wife Kasey Diffie and Nick Strelov.
Diffie launched Joe’s Organics in 2012 to take advantage of a business opportunity he saw in the City of Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, which required all Austin restaurants and other food businesses to compost their organic waste by 2018.
At the beginning, Diffie started hauling compost from just a few local restaurants, while keeping his full-time job at Farm to Table, a produce distributing company in South Austin. He met many of his first composting clients through the produce distributor gig, and also heard from numerous chefs that they were looking for microgreens, but no one was growing them in Austin.
Since trying to sell the finished compost he produced from the organic waste hadn’t gone well ("There’s just not much money in selling dirt,” Diffie said), he instead started experimenting with growing microgreens and selling what he produced back to his bosses at Farm to Table.
With the microgreen sales going well, and the roster of compost clients growing, Diffie made the jump to leave his full-time job and focus on building his two-part business in 2014.
"It was a real big step,” Diffie said, "I started selling microgreens to chefs directly and at farmers markets, on top of my compost hauling business.”
Microgreens make sense for an urban farmer like Diffie because they only grow for a week to two weeks, and they don’t require a ton of space or big, expensive equipment to grow.
"Ninety-nine-plus percent of agriculture existing out there is generational agriculture — so people inherit a million dollar piece of land and a half a million dollars of farm equipment and an existing business from their family,” Diffie explained. "As a guy from the suburbs that was interested in getting into agriculture, and I didn’t have any kind of a silver spoon like that or a silver pitchfork like that, it was a low-capital cost way to get my foot in the agricultural door.
"Microgreens grow very quickly and they have a relatively high profit margin,” he continued, "and there’s not much competition. It’s very specialty produce that pretty much has to be grown and distributed locally, so I don’t have to face much competition from the global agriculture market in my little niche.”
In that short growth period, Diffie’s business partner Strelov added, there’s not really enough time for pests to get established or nutritional deficiencies to develop. "All we’re putting into these plants is soil, seeds, and water, so that’s a big advantage.”
Diffie faced his share of challenges in trying to get his small business off the ground. In June of 2018, Joe’s Organics almost ceased to exist. An electrical fire swept through the small farm after a stretch of really hot days, burning down the greenhouse and the growing plants inside, most of their equipment, and the tool shed containing thousands of dollars worth of seed. Joe and Kasey’s daughter was just six months old at the time, and the day of the fire, Joe figured that was it. Time to give it up.
"I was just like, what am I going to do?” he said. "Am I going to have to get my old job back? I was very close to just getting a regular job and calling it quits and not trying to rebuild.”
But the couple must have had some small sliver of hope, because they put up a GoFundMe page with a goal of $8,000, enough to get them growing again and at least hold on to their current clients while they worked on rebuilding. Incredibly, in just two days, they hit their goal and then some, with 140 different donors contributing. A group of Texas Farmer’s Market vendors hosted a raffle and raised $1,000.
"The support from the GoFundMe ... made me realize that we need to keep doing what we’re doing because a lot of people are into it,” Diffie said, "and it also made it possible to hop right back onto our feet.
"Sometimes, especially in the waste business, you can feel like everybody’s garbage man and underappreciated. Nobody gives you a trophy for dealing with all that nasty slop, and in a sense the community support really felt like the best trophy I could have gotten at the time. It felt like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when the bells ring and all of his neighbors come in and hand him all this money and he says, ‘There is a reason to keep going.’”
Now, two-plus years since the fire, Joe’s Organics is doing well. Strelov joined the team in April 2019, and Joe’s recently started growing its microgreens in a brand-new state-of-the-art greenhouse, which will help them produce year-round, even during the brutal heat of Texas summers.
You can buy microgreens from Joe’s Organics at the downtown SFC Farmers’ Market and the Texas Farmers’ Market at Lakeline and Mueller, and on Loconomy
. You can try out the basil or cilantro microgreens as a garnish for your favorite Italian or Mexican dinner. Or, as recommended by Strelov, pick pretty much any of the microgreen varieties Joe’s sells and sprinkle them all over your morning avocado toast. You’ll also find Joe’s microgreens tucked into Lettuce’s local meal kits. You’ll also find Joe’s microgreens on the menu of some of the best restaurants in Austin — they deliver to roughly 50 or 60 restaurants each week.
"It’s basically a who’s who of the best chefs in Austin — the chefs that have the best taste,” Diffie joked. "Obviously, since they’re sourcing from our little farm.”