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Beaverton 'microgreens' find bigger market

Strata Farms' young veggies and herbs are getting a trial run at New Seasons and other interest

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dan Christensen, who owns Strata Farms, grows microgreen veggies in his vertical farm in his garage in the West Slope area.When Andina, Clarklewis, Bamboo Sushi and other top-notch restaurants want the best tiny greens for their fanciest plates, they don’t always get them from some bucolic farm in the country.

Some of those tasty vittles are grown inside Dan Christensen’s garage in a typical suburban neighborhood on the edge of Beaverton.

Welcome to Strata Farms.

Inside the family’s spotless garage, layered on large vertical racks, glowing lights shine down on stretching shoots of peas, radishes, broccoli and dozens of other vegetable grown in miniature, better known as “microgreens.”

There is no greasy, gassy odor here, just fresh-smelling air wafting across layers of green and purple-hued plants.

Tiny sunflower plants have an unmistakable nuttiness. Shiso hints of licorice and mint. Radishes boast a spicy twang. The round leaves of nasturtium pepper the tongue. Corn shoots jump the taste buds like a stick of sugar.

Christensen is a 35-year-old former central Washington farm boy who grew up growing onions and carrots. His father and brother still work the soil, but he went off to become a hydraulic engineer.

Still, he never quite got over farming.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Daniel Christensen grows small-sized vegetables and herbs in his vertical farm inside his West Slope-area garage.

“It started out as just a hobby,” he said, noting that he was attracted by the lighter environmental footprint, smaller space requirements and year-round efficiency possible with indoor farming.

Christensen certainly didn’t launch the microgreen movement — it’s been going for decades and includes a handful of other growers around Portland and many more in places like California and Europe.

But the water expert might just take these short plants to new heights.

Starting a couple years ago, with some of his first crops selling at the Beaverton Farmers Market — where he’ll be back again on Saturday — more of Christensen’s greens soon will see the light of day.

Already available in several restaurants and specialty markets, a line of Strata Farms’ tender vegetables and herbs will start a trial run selling at selected New Seasons markets in two weeks. Among the test markets are the Cedar Hills and Raleigh Hills stores on either side of Christensen’s home in the Ridgewood neighborhood. Two Portland stores also will carry the bags and plastic clamshell packs of his microgreens.

Christensen’s products packaged for markets range in price from a low of $5 for a small bag up to about $15 for a quarter- to third-pound in plastic containers.

“It’s a niche, high-end market,” Christensen acknowledged. “It’ll never really be the same price as lettuce.”

Christensen said microgreens are decidedly not the same as sprouts, which are often grown in stifling conditions where bacteria and mold can flourish and potentially lead to illness.

“I constantly fight that (misperception) at the market,” Christensen said. “A lot of people know what (microgreens) are, but there’s a ton that don’t.”

Instead, Christensen’s small plants grow for seven to 20 days, depending on variety and customer demand, in a well-ventilated room. Their roots reach into an earthen-like layer of grown coconut husks and other amendments, then down into a second tray of water and soluble fertilizer below.

The young plants are not only intensely flavorful but also packed with nutrition, he said.

“Whatever (flavor or nutritional value) that plant is known for, it will typically have a lot higher amount” as a microgreen, he said.

The scientist in Christensen carefully controls temperature, lighting, water and nutrients while experimenting toward ever more efficient growth through hydroponics and lighting systems. Though not certified organic, Strata Farms has a closed-loop system requiring no herbicides, fungicides or insecticides in a pest-free environment.

For now, Strata Farms is a side business for Christensen, his wife Amber and their three children. During the regular work day, he is concerned with much larger water movements like the flow of the Columbia River.

In fact, Strata Farms is just now recouping his initial investments and heading into the black.

But he sees potential for growth in his young company. The most obvious path, he said, is to find more customers and scale up with a warehouse-style growing operation and more automation.

But he also is thinking outside the warehouse.

Christensen can imagine a day when schools have their own vertical farms, growing healthy vegetables for their cafeterias on site. He is in talks with the Beaverton School District that might result in a pilot project at the district’s Terra Nova farm site in the Bonny Slope area.

His business might even evolve into more of a consulting, technical services and supply firm, contracting his expertise out to small-scale growers and consumers — tucked, perhaps, into restaurants and employee and school cafeterias — to set up their own low-maintenance vertical farms.

“You can farm all year round and supply food anytime of the year,” he said.