WILMINGTON — “People never believe lettuce has a flavor,” Randall Rhyne said as he walked through his shop, CraftGrown Farms, on Castle Street.
Located where Aluna Works used to be (603 Castle St.), the microgreens and hydroponic farm is a modern twist on producing healthy, homegrown greens.
“What do you think spicy is?” he asked.
He handed over a handful of what he calls “painkiller.” The microgreens’ unassuming little leaves and stems tasted rather sweet at the start, but with each chew, lit up the entire mouth and tongue.
“But it fades quickly, doesn’t it?” Rhyne inquired.
The heat, in fact, didn’t last long.
He handed over a sunflower leaf — what he called a “palate cleanser.” Just like that, a blank slate on the tongue was prepped for a new flavor.
Microgreens and lettuce tastings are open to the public daily at Rhyne’s indoor farm, which is outfitted with 90, 8-foot, hydroponic LED strips and multiple mini greenhouse systems.
Rhyne is growing various microgreens, including but not limited to broccoli, cilantro, kale, collards, spinach, anise, basil, plus multitudes of lettuce — arugula, endive, fin star (a hybrid of romaine and iceberg), tatsoi (a mustardy Asian lettuce), Swiss chard, skyphos (red butter) and Muir (sweet green lettuce), among others.
“I seeded these on the 28th,” he said, pointing to small stems of greens that actually looked like tiny enoki mushrooms. “They’ll be ready for sale in two or three days.”
“What can I say? I like bourgie lettuce.”
Rhyne’s love for microgreens started a few years ago while he was deployed in Iraq and then Syria.
A staff sergeant for the Army Reserves, while on assignment Rhyne kept in touch with his neighbor, retired veteran Jason O’Connor, via social media. Back home in Richmond, Virginia, before Rhyne was deployed, they had begun growing their own gardens of fresh food.
While forced to eat the same 12 MREs day in, day out when deployed, Rhyne said having access to fresh, healthy vegetables never seemed more desirable. A friend told him to look into growing microgreens when he returned. He did.
By 2019, Rhyne and O’Connor started their own healthy homegrown food business, Two Veterans Farm. They grew microgreens in O’Connor’s garage, and Rhyne bought a ½ acre of land for them to build a 55-foot-by-25-foot greenhouse to grow tomatoes and other vegetables. Plus, they tilled another small portion of the rectangular land for root vegetables.
They sold their wares at the local farmers market and started a subscription veggie box. The box included homegrown microgreens, leafy lettuces and root vegetables. It was a modest business at first, but once Covid-19 hit, it exploded.
“We went from eight customers to 28 in two days,” Rhyne said.
The problem then shifted to making sure they had enough product to keep boxes filled as their customer base kept growing through the pandemic. Yet, they didn’t have enough product planted.
“And you can’t sit there and say to a plant, ‘Grow faster,’” Rhyne quipped.
The two partners had different ideas on where they wanted to take the business. Rhyne wanted to grow larger quantities of the same crops to fill boxes, especially since the subscription side of the business was bringing in $2,000 every couple of weeks. But he said O’Connor wanted higher diversity of smaller batches of crops.
When they couldn’t come to an agreement, Rhyne decided to branch out into the niche market of microgreens and hydroponic lettuces.
“I just don’t like being a dirt farmer or farming outside,” he said. “What can I say? I like bourgie lettuce.”
He made the decision to move to Wilmington in June to launch his idea. The space on Castle St. already was outfitted with indoor drainage and a cooler perfect for running CraftGrown Farms.
Rhyne has created a near-perfect growing environment, so his plants have optimum flavor profiles and rich nutrient density.
Take broccoli, for example. He doesn’t allow the plants to grow beyond an inch or so out of the soilless jute mats (a wood-pulp byproduct that’s 100% compostable) before cutting them. It gives the plants 40% more nutrients than if allowing broccoli to grow to its full floret.
“A seed is the plant analogy of an egg,” said Rhyne, who also used to be a biology and earth-science teacher. “From an egg, you get feathers, bones, and the whole organ system of a chicken. A seed is the same: You’re getting the most nutrients when the plants are young.”
All microgreens grow on the jute mats, while lettuces and herbs grow in the hydroponic system. Basically, hydroponics allow Rhyne to grow vegetables without dirt. Plus, he doesn’t have to worry about outdoor environments that affect the growth: bugs, deer, weather, hours of daylight, pH of the soil, among other factors.
“The roots are where water takes up nutrients, leaves are where gas exchange occurs, and light is photosynthesis, what powers the whole process,” he explained.
He turns on the LED lights from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. every day, and the system constantly provides a drip to the plants in their infancy from a sump pump that recycles and cleans the water through a UV filter.
“Water is a vector for the nutrients to get into the plant,” he said. “All I’m doing is providing support structure: water drips down the LED strips, roots have access to the water, with plenty of oxygen, fans are blowing on them to keep air moving, so they can transpire, and C02 can get taken in and oxygen can get pushed out.”
“I control it all,” Rhyne added.
Rhyne cuts off the process before the plants flower, as to not change the way they taste.
“Once lettuce bolts, it goes sour, bitter and nasty,” he said.
Growing the business
The lettuce, herbs and microgreens have become popular already among restaurateurs in town. Rhyne is selling basil, tastoi, kale, arugula and other lettuces to chefs at Floriana’s, Pinpoint and Trucks in Wilmington. He’s currently growing 80 endive plants for The Chef and the Frog in Whiteville.
He wants to build his restaurant clientele, as well as draw in more foot traffic from the public. The public is welcome into the shop during operating hours for a taste tour, and to purchase the lettuce and greens first-hand. He sells microgreens for $3 per ounce and lettuce for $4 a head.
Rhyne will even take requests to specialize a customer’s order. If they want pea shoots, he’ll make it happen. A special blend of seeds? He can work on that, too.
With every plant bought, Rhyne arms customers with instructions on how to keep the plants for longer use.
“A lady in Virginia had a head of lettuce that lasted five months and never went bad,” he stated. “She used two leaves a day for her husband’s sandwich. My lettuce tends to stay very pretty. If you keep it the way I tell you to, you will eat it before it has a chance to go bad.”
Rhyne is hoping to team up with his Castle Street neighbor John Willse at Wilmington Wine to do events soon.
“John and I are putting together a tasting,” he explained. “Wines with microgreens and maybe get Daniel from Floriana’s to come and make a meal.”
Though CraftGrown Farms technically opened in July, Rhyne didn’t produce growth to sell until September — October is when the business began to turn sales. A subscription box will be folded into the mix soon enough.
Rhyne is toying around with adding gourmet rainbow carrots and baby beets, maybe a French Breakfast radish. “The flavor of a young beet is ridiculously wonderful,” he praised. Still, he doesn’t foresee going into full vegetable production.
Though he will evolve his herb menu. Rhyne is considering growing varieties of thyme and mint that restaurants and bars could use.
“I’m even growing a dessert microgreen,” he said.
He cut a small snippet of bronze fennel and lemon balm.
“I think this would be great with ice cream,” he said. “But I had a new customer come in yesterday, tasted it, and launched into a 20 minute list of everything it would be great with. That’s the fun part of the job.”
CraftGrown Farms is open Monday through Friday, noon – 6 p.m. and Saturdays, 2 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Have food or drink news? Email Shea Carver at firstname.lastname@example.org