Zolfo Springs’ Florida Grows Expands to Wauchula as Business Booms
by PAUL CATALA
They’re little toppings with a big bang that just keeps getting bigger as their popularity explodes. In fact, one microgreen farm in Zolfo Springs is going a little more macro.
Microgreens are the seedlings of edible plants that are becoming popular for use in meals to add color, flavor, and nutritional value. They are different from larger herbs and vegetables that can take weeks or months to grow in that they can be grown, harvested and eaten a week to 10 days after the cotyledon — a part of the embryo within the seed — has developed.
Due to the rapidly growing interest in microgreens, Florida Grows Inc. is moving from its current location to a larger facility in Wauchula. Brent Thompson and his niece Jillian Thompson launched Florida Grows in 2015 with the intent to build an indoor hydroponic lettuce farm, but when an associate from Pennsylvania introduced the pair to microgreens, the roots were planted for their now-booming business.
Florida Grows currently serves Polk, Highlands, Hardee, Manatee and Sarasota counties, delivering to restaurants, health food stores, produce stands, and farmer’s markets across the region.
Brent Thompson, 48, says the microgreens – which only grow a few inches – come in between 50 and 60 varieties. He says they can have a more intense flavor than larger vegetables and herbs. As far as nutrition, studies have shown microgreens may have more health benefits and can be up to 40 times more potent in phytochemicals – chemicals in plants that affect health.
On average, studies have shown microgreens have four to six times more nutrients than their mature counterparts, and that’s led to increased popularity and increasing business for the Thompsons. They’re moving their operations to have more growing capacity.
“Because the family has a lot of business entities, this move helps everyone involved,” says Thompson, referring to his family’s citrus caretaking and heavy equipment hauling.
Currently, Florida Grows has about two-tenths of an acre of grow space. The new location, which will expand grow space to about a half-acre, will be partly taken over by Jillian Thompson. The company now averages $400 to $500 a week in sales during the busy season.
Like farmers across the country and beyond, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has cut into some of its business, but Brent Thompson thinks the company’s move will help bring back and stabilize more business.
Florida Grows is expanding from 647 square feet — with three offices in a warehouse, a nursery, a grow room, and a processing room — to 1,200 square feet. The new building has twice the rack capacity, and grow space and will be run part-time by Brent and Jillian Thompson, along with Brent’s sons Alex, 24, and Nicholas, 18. Nicholas’ twin, Serena, is a student at Florida Southern College in Lakeland and the family resides in Sebring’s Spring Lake community.
“It’s definitely a family community effort to make this happen,” says Brent Thompson, who grew up in Wauchula. “Hopefully, Florida Grows will be able to do something a little more by next year. We feel like we have a lot of irons to strike, and there’s options everywhere. Hopefully, once we get moved in the next two or three months, something will break loose for us.”
Part of that break comes through Florida Grows’ microgreen sales in several of Polk and Highlands counties’ more renowned establishments, such as produce stands in Lake Wales, Walker’s Produce in Bartow, Faded Beer Garden & Bistro in Sebring, Eighteen East Restaurant in Avon Park, and Café Zuppina in Lakeland.
David Ailstock, Eighteen East owner and cook, says he gets Florida Grows microgreens for his dishes every Wednesday, mostly sorrel and mixed greens. He says he uses them as garnishes for shrimp, pork chop, and portabella mushroom dishes and he “doesn’t believe in garnishes that can’t be eaten.”
“The customers love them, and I use them a lot. They all taste great and look pretty,” says Ailstock, who is in his 10th year with Eighteen East.
As microgreens become more popular, more companies are cropping up. Thompson says there are “dozens” of competitors and one of those is owned by Lisa Welsh of the Vitality Farms Co. in Lakeland. Although they have business competition, Thompson and Welsh formed the International Microgreen Growers Association Florida, a professional association of microgreen growers and companies providing products and services to the microgreens Industry.
The idea, Thompson says, is to “help each other.”
“By forming this loose co-op, that gives us the ability and grow space and volume to be able to go after bigger customers such as, hopefully, maybe in the future, Publix or Disney or anything like that,” he says.
As the Thompsons’ company grows and expands, sales have increased. For the 2020-21 fiscal year, they averaged more than $20,000 in sales, an increase of 15 to 18 percent from the previous year.
With the move and expansion, Brent Thompson sees better returns ahead as microgreens continue to bloom in homes and restaurants. He touts the mini veggies’ high count of vitamins, calcium, zinc, and magnesium as part of their appeal to consumers, but getting folks educated on the product is still necessary.
“They’re very versatile, and the nutrition overall is off the charts. You’re getting three or four times the vitamins and minerals. But so many people in this area don’t know what they are, how to use them, or what they’re good for,” says Thompson.
Currently, Florida Grows delivers primarily to South Lakeland, Winter Haven, Lake Wales, across Highlands County, the Lakewood Ranch Farmer’s Market, Sarasota, and Bradenton. Thompson plans to increase distribution to the west more as more folks get hooked.
“Once people try it, they love them; they keep coming back,” he says. “They realize the nutritional benefits, they realize the flavors that they get and want to keep buying.”