Urban Agriculture Story: Growing Microgreens with Wizard Greens’ Magic Touch

by Dominique Bernier,

Small-scale urban agriculture projects are inspiring for many people, but often they project the idea that they can’t be financially viable unless they operate as a non-profit organization. A microgreens startup from Ottawa is among those proving this idea wrong.

Wizard Greens was founded by Joshua and his spouse Sarah in early 2018 at the same time that they became new parents. I had the opportunity to meet with them (including the baby) for the first time in February of 2018. This was their early beginning as local food entrepreneurs. They contacted me to learn more about RakeAround, e-commerce and to discuss the potential of growing and selling microgreens in Ottawa.

I can clearly remember their excitement as they talked about their project, logo and marketing strategies. I was fascinated by their business approach; it was very similar to The Design Sprint, developed by GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) to design, prototype, and test ideas with customers in a very short timeframe.

Although they were not yet operational, they were testing growing techniques and giving samples to potential clients. This allowed them to get quick feedback, make proper changes, re-test, validate products people were ready to pay for, acquire early adopters and end-up with a solid understanding of their market prior to launching.

When they opened late in the spring of 2018, their concept of growing microgreens on order only was validated. For them, it turned out to be the best way to address demand. It involves no over-production, no food waste and it is very cost effective.

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Family picture in Wizard Greens facility

Less than a year after launch, their business is thriving. Wizard Greens supply 5 medium size retailers, a food distributor, Algonquin College, a convention centre, and other clients such as restaurants, hotels and caterers. Their products are also available on RakeAround for people in their neighborhood. With all of the hype they have created, Josh and Sarah are now focusing some of their time on putting together the perfect multifaceted team to work on future projects that are already expanding and taking shape. This includes developing an educational platform to extend services even further.

The people behind Wizard Greens

Joshua graduated in Business Marketing from Algonquin College. He got working experiences with Fortune 500 food industry companies, covering fields like quality assurance, marketing, supply chains and research and development. He has been a part of the development of large Supply Chain & Logistic events right down to niche branding strategy meetings between CEO’s and VP’s from the largest companies in North America.

After a while, Joshua started to align his mindset with the food industry. He acknowledges the importance of learning best practices from some of the largest companies in the world but understands the differences involved in operating a smaller business. However, at a global level he also acknowledges that there are some serious problems to solve in terms of food production and supply chains, as well as lasting effects on the environment and human health.

By aiming to make a difference, Joshua developed a passion for gardening. He started to grow food in his backyard and met Sarah, who also had an interest in growing food.

Sarah’s background in social work and life-long love of food inspired her to want to be a part of Wizard Greens, knowing the importance of providing the community with healthy local food. She has spent a lot of time in the kitchen and after working on an organic farm, growing microgreens seemed like a natural step to take. Sarah has a love for nutritious healthy food and knows the importance of a plant-based diet in promoting health and well-being and also reducing our environmental impact on the Earth.

“Most recently I’ve been creating new vegan dishes as The Meal Mystic and sharing my photos and recipes online. I’ve been figuring out how to incorporate microgreens into our meals,” Sarah explains. You can browse her photo’s and recipes on her website. Sarah’s absolute attention to detail and visionary outlook has helped shape Wizard Greens into the company it is today.

alt textJoshua
Sarah
alt textThe Family at the Market

Before starting Wizard Greens, Joshua and Sarah felt like they needed a different lifestyle than just working in offices. Therefore, they decided to take a break from their respective careers and started a project of their own.

They moved to Celista, BC and lived on Spotted Moose Farm just outside of Kamloops to experience farming and have an adventure. When they returned to Ottawa, they were given 5 NanoTech T5 Reflectors from the company SunBlaster to grow food indoor. At the time, Joshua and Sarah didn’t know much about microgreens. Sarah had seeded a few batches on the farm and with that knowledge they decided to give it a try within a few trays.

After tasting their microgreens, some of their friends said they would love to have some, and then quickly everybody they knew wanted some as well. They moved from one to two racks just to supply family and friends. In less than a year, they added up to 9 racks to supply the growing demand, which is showing no signs of slowing down.

When I asked Joshua and Sarah what triggered their choice of growing microgreens as a business, instead of other crops, they said that for the small amount of space required, you can make a great living.

They believe that it is possible to have many localized microgreens growers who can use some space at home. “It could be possible for other crops, but would need vertical setups to expect similar revenue per square footage”, Joshua said.

Sarah is back to work after maternity leave. As a busy professional and a mom, her involvement with Wizard Greens is now limited, but remains important. At the start she was all encompassing, doing everything from harvesting, packaging, financials and promoting through social media. She has stayed involved at more of a strategic level, but still helps out with just about everything. Joshua currently takes care of managing daily operations, business and relationship development, strategic planning and managing special projects.

What are Microgreens?

For those who don’t know, microgreens are seedlings of edible vegetables and herbs, harvested after sprouting. As far back as the ’80s, their intense and unique taste, as well as their delicate and sophisticated appearance, became an ingredient of choice for many chefs in fine dining restaurants. The range of flavors goes from sweet to spicy.

According to a 2012 study, microgreens may have particularly high nutritional value compared to mature vegetables. No nutrient needs to be added to grow microgreens, as sprouts feed on their own seeds. Once harvested, some stay fresh up to 21 days if refrigerated. As microgreens growers are on the rise, this product is being democratized, although it remains a premium product. Nonetheless, it can seriously upgrade the taste of a meal, and could definitely impress your guests with a fresh and sophisticated touch. Some can be grown in less than 8 days following a 3 step process: germinating, sprouting and harvesting.

alt textGerminating
alt textSprouting
alt textHarvesting

Business Concept and Performances

Wizard Greens focuses on growing over 10 varieties of microgreens (Purple Kohlrabi, Bok Choy, Red Radish, Daikon Radish, Speckled Peas, Yellow Peas, Sugar Dwarf Peas, Broccoli, Mustard Greens (Wasabi), Arugula and Garlic Chives). Additionally, they grow some specialty products on demand, including Beets and Ammaranth.

They also do their own micro-sauces. Similar to pesto, this recipe created by Sarah is uniquely made with Speckled Peas, a bit of basil, sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast and a touch of miso. It’s allergen-friendly and fully vegan. The taste is fresh, zesty and really enhances sandwiches, pasta, salads and potatoes.

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Sarah and Joshua displaying their microgreens and pesto at a local store

The microgreens are grown on order. It requires up to 20 days to grow and as low as 8 days depending on the product. Products are always delivered ultra-fresh, as soon as they are harvested. Wizard Greens operates in a 256 square feet room, using 9 racks. There are 5 shelves per rack and 4 trays per shelve. Each rack can keep 20 trays in total. Depending on the type of crops, this can yield up to $25 a tray. Crops are planned to maintain an average yield of $17.5 per tray.

“Controlling your environment and set-up, including temperature and humidity level, helps you to grow crops faster.” - Joshua

Joshua explained that you can turn over a rack at least once every 10 days, but it can be more. As he stacks trays for the germination process for up to 5-6 days, each rack can produce more than 4 harvests per months. With an average harvest price of $350 per tray per month, one full rack (20 trays), can generate above $1,400 in sales monthly.

Although there’s sufficient room for 1 or 2 additional racks, Joshua prefers not to cluster too many. He likes to have space to work and move around. Too many racks would reduce efficiency, as the time spent moving to a separate room instead of working in the same room directly with the micro’s would decrease a person’s per hour wage, he explained.

He also wants to give himself some time to make sure all his processes will be well-honed before scaling up. For him, automation and data could cut down significantly on the time spent growing microgreens, from seed to fork.

Therefore, efficiency should be considered as the perfect balance between time spent growing versus yield value per sq.-ft. It means that efficiency is not only a question of productivity: “You could get a higher yield per sq.-ft., but using an insane amount of time and physical effort to accomplish that, it just wouldn’t be as worth it”, he said.

Automation and Data to Improve Efficiency

For Wizard Greens, the power of technology and data should be used to enable small-scale growers to make informed business decisions, increase yields, lower costs and efforts, and improve margins to generate sustainable revenues.

Since its inception, Joshua and Sarah have invested close to $25,000 in buying equipment for Wizard Greens, and have put from 40 to 60 hours a week over many months to learn how to do things properly and set everything up. This doesn’t include their efforts in marketing, setting a sales strategy and price points, and establishing relationships with clients, suppliers and distributors. These are very important elements in running a business and it is vital that a sufficient amount of well-balanced time allocation is dedicated to all areas of the business.

To mitigate these costs and efforts in the near future, Wizard Greens decided to collaborate with the Electrical Engineering Department of Algonquin College to build a patented fully automated irrigation system.

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On the right picture above, Joshua is standing with the students (David, Vincent, Brent and Jason) who developed the automated irrigation system. This collaboration was done through a Department program. This Program provides students with hands-on experience in developing projects using digital technologies for startups and small companies. “Once this project and projects like this are completed, our operational costs will be cut significantly down,” Joshua said.

It will also help them put together Wizard Greens’ operations manual. Supported by data, Joshua plans on being very thorough identifying steps to follow to generate optimal results. The objective is to smooth out all the leg work and provide a turnkey solution to hobbyist growers interested in professionalizing themselves and starting their own microgreens businesses.

Once the automated watering system and other such systems are implemented, process improvement strategies will continually be carried out for efficiency purposes. Operating a room size similar to Wizard Greens’ will easily generate over $60K in yearly revenues and would require no more than 35-40 working hours per week.

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Wizard Greens facility is 256 sq.-ft.

Benefits of Partnerships with Education Institutions and Students

In my article on Dublin’s urban agriculture landscape, the Belvedere College Urban Farm project, initiated with the help of Andrew Douglas, showed the high potential of involving students in urban agriculture.

Students working on projects such as Wizard Greens’ is also a solution to address the labor scarcity in engineering and other in-demand skills. The quest for top talents is becoming extremely competitive, and salaries are being pushed to record levels. If Wizard Greens had to hire a private contractor or full-time skilled employees, it would have cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars, thus compromising their innovation potential and putting their dream out of reach.

Franchising a Proven Model

Joshua and Sarah seek to turn their innovations into a franchise package, where most of the friction points and operational time-consuming aspects of this business will be removed.

This would start with an initial investment followed by a learning/training phase. The training phase would be rather short due to the assistance of the automated systems. As a franchise, the investment and efforts required to create such a business would be considerably smaller than what was put in initially. In return, the expected harvest value could range from $ 7,000 to $ 10,000 per month. “Depending on your personal salary and expenses you could pay off the initial investment in less than a year if you budget correctly”, Joshua said.

Joshua explained that another significant benefit of being under a franchise umbrella with Wizard Greens would be access to driven-down supply and distribution costs. Seeds and hemp mats would cost much less than starting a similar project on your own. Moreover, he plans to provide a support service that will assist franchisees.

“Quality assurance is a key. It makes sure that standards and protocols are being followed.” - Joshua

While continuing to improve their system, Joshua and Sarah aim to launch the Wizard Greens franchise package in 2020. It is interesting to note that part-time franchise options will also be possible. “Depending on the space available, someone willing to work only 15 to 20 hours per week could generate up to $35,000 in revenue”, Joshua said. “Of course these numbers are being worked through. We’re not at the stage were we can define them fully and I don’t want to say anything that may or may not be true. These are all estimates, but they’re very practical estimates because it is already working for us”, he specified.

According to Wizard Greens’ results, he is confident that numbers will be dragged further down, in terms of operational costs and time spent to work, especially once he has concrete data generated from the automated systems.

For Joshua, time is the most important thing in regards to how long it takes to do each task. “The largest portion of your time is usually spent harvesting”, he said. “But you can always hire someone to do this portion of the work”, he added.

Although automating harvests could be possible and would provide complete automation of operations, it is not a priority for Wizard Greens at this point, considering the level of complexity and costs required to implement such a system at a small scale. The higher the level of sophistication of the system, the higher the initial investment required to start a microgreens business. An automated seeding system is next on their list.

”“I’m not somebody that had $100,000 to invest, and I expect that most people aren’t. I want to keep things realistic.” - Joshua

Nonetheless, by the time his franchise package will be launched, he is confident that Wizard Greens’ solutions for franchisees will help them generate above $60,000 yearly revenues for a 35-40 hours weekly effort. Hence providing people with the opportunity to optimize their means, space available and time spent growing microgreens. It’s about getting a high ROI while keeping the level of risk to a minimum.

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Joshua explaining to me the concept of a hyperlocal franchise of micro-scale urban food growers

Why Franchises?

For Joshua, there are opportunities worldwide, as the global population is growing and urbanization is accelerating. Therefore, urban agriculture projects or innovations that optimize limited spaces in cities by increasing yields and revenue per sq.-ft., such as Wizard Greens is doing, have a lot of potential.

“The concept of the franchise is to go anywhere and everywhere. There is nobody who’s doing it yet. There is no hyperlocal franchise of micro-scale urban food growers, let’s make it happen” - Joshua

Joshua explained that if they had followed the normal path, which is to go to a bank, get a loan, rent a warehouse, and grow at a huge scale, they would have taken a bigger risk and could have failed.

That’s why growing at a micro-scale allowed him to tweak things, figure out new ways of growing, improve products and optimize settings in a way that it can be achieved for others.

“You’re not going to be playing in the major leagues before you’ve been properly trained and have some experience.” - Joshua

To spare anyone the trouble of starting from scratch as he and Sarah did, he decided to gather all the knowledge they acquired and put it into a manual. “I’m doing that, those steps, and I’m making sure that they will be correct for everyone, so nobody has to walk the bad path. That’s the point of having franchisees”, Joshua said.

Are Certifications Required?

It is important to note that law and regulations vary from town to city, and from provinces (or States) to countries. As a company, Wizard Greens understand that trust and credibility are essential when building a brand. Although they are not certified organic, Joshua explained that their microgreens are grown on hemp mats, using only organic seed, water and light. The mats are 99% hemp, with a natural biopolymer that holds the hemp together. The reason they can’t get the organic certification is that current legislation in Canada requires organic products to be grown in soil.

Grown from organic seeds
alt textThe mats are 99% hemp

Sarah added that they are in the process to get their Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) certification, an alternative to Certified Organic. It is specially designed for growers who sell locally and directly to their customers. The process consists in submitting to an annual inspection by fellow Certified Naturally Grown producers, and paying the annual fee, she said. Moreover, Wizard Greens recently got a Kosher certification, which opened doors for new clients.

Certifications may sound daunting, but being located in Ottawa, Ontario, both Sarah and Joshua said it has been easy abiding by local laws. However, Josh feels new laws may be appearing in the coming years as the legalization of Cannabis may impact indoor growing.

Following regulations is a legal requirement and is an absolute must. Joshua is aiming to secure other large clients such as hospitals, schools and retirement homes. That’s why Wizard Greens’ franchise package aims to define clear standards and protocols to follow all regulations (world-wide), and help franchisees reach these types of clients. That would be one of the best ways to sell microgreens in bulk, optimize production and generate sustainable revenues for franchisees, according to Joshua.

When discussing the changes that should be made to the current food system, Joshua and Sarah are clear: prioritizing local food.

“I feel the solutions are obvious. I think we know the solutions. And yet it seems very tough. People feel that making it happen is very challenging. I took the risk to make it happen and to be honest, it was not that of big of a risk.” - Joshua

Wizard Greens’ example shows that the world is open for innovative, disruptive, sustainable and profitable ideas to change our food systems.

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About RakeAround and Selling the Food You Grow Online

The practice of urban agriculture is soaring, stimulating new innovations that increase yields in small spaces in cities. People like Joshua and Sarah are true ambassadors by innovating and promoting the benefits of growing in cities, and E-commerce can play a role in what they do.

Online shopping has reshaped our buying habits, especially for city dwellers. As e-commerce-for-all is still relatively new, RakeAround provides a simplified online selling process to help small-scale urban food producers generate revenues, without the burden of attending farmer’s markets or spending too much time searching for customers.

Proximity buyers can find their products in one click, using the “What’s near me” feature. Our user experience is designed to make buying local products simpler, fresher and faster by considering both producers’ and consumers’ busy urban lifestyles.

You’re an urban food grower with harvests to sell? Let us help you reach buyers in your city!

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About the author
Dominique Bernier

Dominique is the co-founder of RakeAround. For him, demographic trends, the democratization of technology and the personalization of food will shape food systems of the 21st century.