A Switch to Microgreens -- Agrarian Feast
Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Series 1: Opening Farmer Profiles, Episode 2
Welcome to the second episode of Talk Farm to Me! It's been two weeks since Episode One: Saving a Dairy Farm - Mauer's Mountain Farms with farmers Jennifer Grossman and Peter Mauer. And now it's time to walk a mile in the shoes of another farmer team: brothers-in-law Vincent Cuneo and Luke Snobeck of Agrarian Feast. Vince and Luke are farmers, yes, but they did not start out that way. And they became farmers in an unusual way. And they have an unusual farm. And some of their partners are unusual. Come on over to their farm with me and see how they do what they do and how they got there. Keep in mind that recording interviews on their farm presented its own peculiar challenges and that is just another part of the story. Have a listen! 20 minutes.
Today, Thursday, is the day to Talk Farm. So glad you have joined me! Your participation in Talk Farm to Me is super meaningful. First, to me. It's a labor of love and I am learning a lot about making each episode even better. I know more every day. Second, for farmers. The more we know about them, their individual stories, their lives, the better off we are as a society. Empathy begins with understanding and who better to know and to understand than the folks who make our oh-so-important food!
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XOXO Farm Girl
PS I have included a few links below to resources mentioned in the episode as well as a full transcript to the episode that is provided to ensure full access to the content for all.
Music: Lobo Loco, All Night Long (ID 774) and Spencer Bluegrass (ID 1230) www.musikbrause.de Creative Commons License (by-nc-nd)
Links to key content:
Curtis Stone, The Urban Farmer
Jean-Martin Fortier, Market Gardener
Full Episode Transcript:
Luke Snobeck: 00:00 Yeah. Our building is literally glowing pink out of the windows. It's kind of insane.
Farm Girl: 00:16 Welcome to Talk Farm To Me. I'm your host, Farm Girl. On Talk Farm to Me the farmer takes center stage and we find out what they do and how they do it. And no matter how you spend your time, I'm pretty sure you have more in common with farmers than you think. So sit back and relax and I'll bring a farmer, and maybe a cow or two, right into your living room for a chat.
Farm Girl: 00:56 On the day that I interviewed farmers, Vincent Cuneo and Luke Snobeck, I pulled up to a funny little wooden building with an arched facade and roof. What was extraordinary about the building was not so much its shape, but the fact that a deep humming fuchsia light emanated from its twin set of double French pane doors. Hot pink. The building is the headquarters of Agrarian Feast, the USDA organic microgreens farm set in the Catskills. Inside millions of microgreen seedlings take hold and are sold locally and regionally to the best restaurants and grocers.
Farm Girl: 01:37 The farm, which is two and a half years old, has an interesting story to tell. One about life choices, about precision and ingenuity, about what's right and about how the future could be different, better for all of us. So come with me to the farm, Agrarian Feast. And before we get there, close your eyes for a moment and imagine the most intense pink color you can muster. You will hear the hum of the fans, the buzz of the lights, and if you listen carefully enough, you will hear the effort of each tiny seedling as it stretches to become a delicious little microgreen.
Vincent Cuneo: 02:37 My name is Vincent Cuneo and I was born in Corsica. I'm French.
Luke Snobeck: 02:42 I grew up in Minnesota.
Vincent Cuneo: 02:44 I studied filmmaking in Paris.
Luke Snobeck: 02:47 I went to college there for painting.
Vincent Cuneo: 02:51 I became a very specialized technician for film editing and film coloring, so it was part special effects.
Luke Snobeck: 03:01 After I graduated college, I moved to Chicago. I landed a job as a bike messenger.
Vincent Cuneo: 03:08 And I worked in advertisement in Paris for that. Mostly TV and advertisement.
Luke Snobeck: 03:14 And then after that I had a couple of friends that started a small brewery and they hired me on to do their graphics and illustration so I did beer labels and marketing for them for five years.
Vincent Cuneo: 03:27 That didn't really work out too well for me. I didn't like it, but I worked in it for years and it was just very frustrating. I found it very meaningless. I think I went to film school because I love grand old cinema, and then I ended up working on crappy advertisements doing some computer work on it and it was just abominable.
Vincent Cuneo: 03:48 I met my wife who is American when I was in Paris and I worked for her for years in New York City. She's an artist, so I helped her on the production, fabrication, computer work, like I was kind of the assistant, or she says, the muse, but I say, the assistant.
Vincent Cuneo: 04:07 I had this idea of starting a farm. I wanted to pick something that would be the spearhead to build a bigger and more diverse farm. This farm is a lifestyle choice to live on a piece of land and try to take care of it. I was really needed change of direction in our life. Just building something long-term and doing something that is in accord to our own values. I think that's really what was the drive for me, because my frustration in the field of filmmaking and art came from just settling for something that I found was a kind of pathetic. I needed a real change.
Vincent Cuneo: 05:09 I've never worked on a farm. I've never known a farmer, but I spent a lot of time actually researching before we started this, and I started small scale projects of a few different things. So I grew quails for eggs and meat, and I grew mushrooms on logs in my woods and I started a small greenhouse in my garden for microgreens. I did find some mentors on the internet. One of them is Curtis Stone and he was very, very successful as a market gardener, but also as an educator.
Curtis Stone: 05:44 Today, I'm going to show you guys how to transplant the easy way, the simple way, the old school way, nothing special here as far as technology, just basic transplanting with minimal tools. That's coming up next on the urban farmer.
Vincent Cuneo: 06:03 And I hope he will visit one day here. Another a very important person for me is Jean-Martin Fortier. He's very business oriented like I am. For him it's always been about building a successful company as well as building the best farm.
Jean-Martin: 06:25 It's important for me to teach the technical knowledge that I have that I've gained through all these years. That's one thing, but the other and perhaps the most important is, farming is hard work. We put a lot of hours. It's a big dedication of our time to do this every day, day in, day out. And you know, for me, from my perspective, the only way that I've been able to keep a balanced life is to have good techniques and good methods that make me really efficient.
Vincent Cuneo: 06:56 And this is, this is really where I find a lot of inspiration.
Farm Girl: 07:12 After countless hours with Curtis and Jean-Martin on YouTube, it was time for Vincent and Luke, who are brothers-in-law and now partners, to test their knowledge on the farm and with customers.
Vincent Cuneo: 07:25 I designed a microgreen pack package of a few ounces with a label and I showed up in random grocery stores in New York city and I told them that I was a farmer, which was not true, and I told them that I was going to sell them microgreens, which was half true and it worked, it worked.
Luke Snobeck: 07:45 I think we had maybe six shelves in here to start with, and then we just added more shelves as we got more accounts and just grew organically like that. No pun intended.
Farm Girl: 07:58 While some things were easy, others were terribly challenging.
Vincent Cuneo: 08:03 I didn't know it would be so awful for the money for the first two years I thought we could be able to make it the second year pretty well, but the second year was really pretty terrible too. It's not that hard to grow bad microgreens, but it's really hard to grow them well. We were growing bad microgreens for the whole first year, really just struggling with the technique and the knowledge that is required to do it consistently well.
Luke Snobeck: 08:32 It's called the circle of death because they just keep getting bigger and bigger circle, just dying into each other and then the tray is pretty much ruined.
Vincent Cuneo: 08:42 Yeah, the first year we had a lot of bad sunflowers and bad pea shoots and it was very frustrating because it feels like wasting resources. We're planting those seeds and then you have this awful results. Instead of getting pound of sunflower, you get a half pound. We just had to figure it out. This setup is kind of unique so we had to discover how it would function.
Luke Snobeck: 09:05 So yeah, we had a lot of failed crops that we've tried. I think we got it a little more figured out now.
Vincent Cuneo: 09:12 There are lots of different tricks. The germination and the seed density in the humidity level, the temperature, the amount of light.
Farm Girl: 09:32 Besides steeping themselves in all of the information they could find on YouTube, as well as two years of trial and error, vincent and Luke applied themselves to innovating pretty much everything they did on the farm. They converted an old building into a grow house. The grow lights, which were adapted from lights used to grow cannabis emit only the red and blue parts of the spectrum. The only light that plants really need to grow. Instead of the expensive versions that existed, they altered the electricity of some of the shop lights to make not only the mechanism but the cost to run them full time, much less expensive. They jerry rigged various other mechanisms as well to convert an old shed into a walk in cooler, to transform a truck into a refrigerated vehicle, and even work closely with seed providers to create sunflower microgreens that had never really been done this way before.
Vincent Cuneo: 10:33 The most high tech thing that we use is our soil. It's designed and crafted by Karl Hammer from Vermont Compost Company, which is in my opinion, the best soil maker in the world. They send us soil that is just perfect every time, so the plants are extremely happy and we just have to add water.
Farm Girl: 10:55 I was super curious about the magic soil and its creator, so I called Karl Hammer in Montpellier, Vermont to find out what he does and how he does it. I got a lot more than I bargained for. Carl is a farmer but at heart he's a real philosopher.
Karl Hammer: 11:14 Our farming process includes laying hens, so we have a flock of right now about 800 hens and we feed them on a blend of uneaten community human food, manure, cattle manure, equine manure from our own herd of donkeys and mules and farm stables. We use forest materials, bark. We use spoiled crops and field materials, hay, haylage and we blend all those things and use that as a feed for these birds. Birds forage and add their own contribution and we compost the material after they've had their opportunity to forage on it and we make composts and we take those composts and we blend them with other materials to make a whole soil media for organic growers.
Farm Girl: 12:22 Here he paraphrases of 5,000 year old Vedic philosophy, one that he believes wholeheartedly.
Karl Hammer: 12:30 This handful of soil, husband it and it will feed you, it will clothe you, it will house you and surround you with beauty. Abuse it and it will collapse and die taking humanity with it.
Farm Girl: 12:57 The real key to Vincent and Luke's success besides the innovation and the selection of top quality seeds and soil is their attention to detail, their commitment to a tested routine and their Swiss watch like precision in all that they do.
Luke Snobeck: 13:17 The days here, it's basically either a harvest day or a "do everything else" day.
Vincent Cuneo: 13:25 We have 300 trays right now.
Luke Snobeck: 13:29 And we take a tray that's prefilled with soil, press down so it's nice and flat and we water it before you seed it.
Vincent Cuneo: 13:36 There is a chart on the wall which is how many grams of seeds we need for a 10 by 25. We have a precise measurement and we know we always use this amount.
Luke Snobeck: 13:48 We stack the trays just three high and then put a flat tray on top of that and two bricks on top of that to make good soil contact with the seeds and to keep the humidity in.
Vincent Cuneo: 14:00 So they will all germinate. Each individual seed becomes a tiny yellow seedling and once they are put under the lamps they will grow and be watered daily for between seven and 15 days. Then they grow at the same time and and they are cut when they are a week old.
Luke Snobeck: 14:21 We aim to get seven to eight clamshells per tray. So then I hand cut and pack each clamshell.
Vincent Cuneo: 14:29 We need to have the cleanest, most well organized packages of greens.
Luke Snobeck: 14:35 Put a best buy date on it, fill up a box and bring into the walk in cooler.
Vincent Cuneo: 14:40 We have a driver who drives there twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays he leaves at 4:30, does all the stops is backed by 12:00.
Farm Girl: 14:52 While they take their routine very seriously, it's easy to joke about their little glowing green house in the middle of nowhere down a long country road just two and a half hours outside of New York city. I'm surprised that the police haven't been more inquisitive. They do get quite a few raised eyebrows besides mine.
Luke Snobeck: 15:12 Yeah. Our building is literally glowing pink out of the windows. It's kind of insane.
Farm Girl: 15:18 Pretty much every FedEx and UPS delivery to the farm results in a question about what they are growing under those pink lights.
Luke Snobeck: 15:27 Microgreens, that's all.
Farm Girl: 15:44 With their artists training evident in the work that they do on the farm, you should see how beautiful each microgreens package is. Vincent and Luke are pressing ahead with plans for the farm's future. Their partnership, a combination of steady day to day operations and also pushing the envelope.
Luke Snobeck: 16:05 So we plan to hopefully the next year start construction for a new building, more or less triple our capacity from where we're at right now. And then with that we'd have about four or five more employees also and the small microgreens. I think there's a lot of room for expansion in sales especially because we haven't even tried any other states. I think the market can support it.
Vincent Cuneo: 16:36 I had never wanted to just do microgreens. That was never the plan. I think we could do more. We have land here and we have this as a very solid base to create a bigger farm. We could do more microgreens and we can do other things. I'm really interested in vegetables and trees and fruits and mushrooms. Controlled environment is also a thing that is possible but I don't think this stops here with the microgreens.
Farm Girl: 17:17 As young farmers, ones who use the internet to make their way, they know that what they are doing is an example to others and that it fits into an important bigger picture.
Karl Hammer: 17:29 And so, it's urgent that we reagrarianize. We urgently need younger folks to be farming and farming well and of course making a living at it.
Vincent Cuneo: 17:43 It is absolutely part of my values to be able to start a company and provide really good paying jobs that are meaningful. And from my past experience, I know that there are a lot of meaningless jobs around. We have a few employees already and I think they really appreciate working here.
Karl Hammer: 18:03 From a social point of view with 330 million people in the United States for instance, less than 6/10 of a percent of the labor force is actively harvesting sunshine for sustenance.
Vincent Cuneo: 18:20 But there is no way to solve that with a generation of young farmers. We have here a little bit on the East Coast because it's kind of cool or whatever.
Karl Hammer: 18:29 They are of course it overall an incredibly earnest, motivated, crowd. Driven, creative, yeah. It's hard to decide you want to be a farmer now in American and make it work at all. The way is being found and more must be.
Vincent Cuneo: 18:49 If we can do organic farming and also hire people and pay them correctly, I think it would go a long way.
Farm Girl: 18:58 Vincent and Luke have worked hard. What they know, they share, much like their mentors and their transitions from artists to farmers have left them humbled, grateful and encouraging of others.
Luke Snobeck: 19:15 Just go do it. There's not much to lose and a lot to gain. It's fairly easy to figure out this pretty supportive community. If you have questions, a lot of people are willing to help. Yeah, I started with knowing nothing about microgreens and now I know a lot.
Farm Girl: 19:41 It's been great to have you along for this episode of Talk Farm to Me. Special thanks always to our farmers for talking farm and doing what they do best. For more information about this episode, including a look behind the scenes, head on over to talkfarmtome.com. This season's music is by Lobo Loco and the animal sounds come mainly from my funny little farm. You can find more episodes as they come out on talkfarmtome.com or subscribe to the whole season wherever you get your podcasts. Either way, please share your feedback right on the website or give us some love on iTunes. I'm your host, Farm Girl. Stay tuned for a new episode every two weeks when I bring a new farmer and maybe a cow or two right into your living room for a chat.