WATERLOO – Five-year-old Walt Rogers picked a large sweet pepper out of his father’s garden. First he showed Michael Rogers his harvest, then ripped into it with his teeth, pulling away a large chunk of the red vegetable.
“It’s good!” he said.
Michael Rogers, 28, began gardening in his yard six years ago after the birth of his first child. He began with a small operation, giving produce to his family and friends, but he quickly fell in love with the growing process and it has bloomed into a full-time, year-round operation — Rainbow City Farms.
After discovering the high-nutrition content of microgreens, and their quick turnaround — microgreens mature in nine to 14 days — he opened an indoor, climate-controlled environment and launched his business six months ago, supplying area restaurants with lettuce and microgreens, as well as his children and family with healthy snacks.
Packages of his microgreens also can be purchased at local Hy-Vee stores and Hansen’s Dairy outlets.
Microgreens, also considered baby plants, are a hot item for fine-dining restaurants because of their fragrant aroma and powerful taste, but also they contain up to 40 times the nutritional content of their mature counterparts. Microgreens are young vegetable greens that vary from 1-3 inches tall. Their concentrated nutrient value is found in a variety of colors and textures.
“The advantages of these microgreens is you can get a huge nutritional punch in a very small amount of greens,” Rogers said.
Rogers harvests about 50 10-by-20-inch trays of greens by hand each week using organic growing practices and no machinery. His base mix includes micro peas, radish and sunflower and is a popular item in dishes at Table 1812 and Farm Shed in Cedar Falls, and SingleSpeed and Blue Iguana in Waterloo.
He also grows and sells cilantro, basil, arugula, leeks and amarantz to name a few. Popcorn shoots are perhaps one of his trickier sprouts because they have to be grown completely in the dark to get their yellow color and intense flavor. If light hits them, they turn green, fibrous and bitter.
“I never really know how chefs are going to use those,” he said. “A lot of times, they’ll put them on different kinds of steaks or meats, and Chef Juan Hernandez at the Blue Iguana puts them on a scallop dish. He also uses a lot of cilantro.”
Behind the climate-controlled operation out back of his Cedar Falls home sit several plots of 40-foot beds of dark green, light green and purple lettuce varieties. Since he launched Rainbow City Farms, Rogers said chefs have requested his lettuce as well.
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The lettuce is a Salanova blend, a hearty variety tolerant to temperature changes that can harvest about three times a season. A recent contamination of romaine lettuce across the country also encouraged some chefs to switch to locally sourced items.
Last week, Rogers received a text from a local chef asking for 20 pounds of lettuce in the next week. Rogers was able to harvest it and deliver the greens to him within a few hours.
“When you’re having those relationships with the restaurants and chefs, you want to make sure you can deliver — quality, consistent, and clean product,” he said.
Rogers’ main tool for success is efficiency. Weeds are virtually nonexistent from his gardens and not a grain of dirt is out of place. He keeps his tools in the right spot to avoid extra steps walking back and forth.
“A lot of those minutes add up when you’re doing a lot of different things,” he said. He also sharpens his cutting knife each day to ensure a clean cut for a long-lasting product.
“I’ve just learned a ton this year, and how to plant for next year,” he said. “It’s a lot of learning and a lot of trial and error.”
His wife, Kristen Rogers, has enjoyed watching her husband evolve with the family business.
“He’s very patient, and he has really good attention to detail, so I think that makes him really good at this,” she said. The couple have four children ages 6, 5, 3 and 1.
Rogers said he wants to expand in the future.
“I love getting my hands dirty and being outside in the sun. It’s good work. It’s fulfilling work,” he said. “I love bringing food and microgreens to chefs in restaurants and see them get excited about it, that’s super awesome. Growing something that I’ve put a lot of work into and I’m proud of and then bringing that to a chef and having that chef be excited about it is really fun.”