As a kid and even into my college years, when asked what my parents do for a living, I would say, “we grow sprouts” and people would make a bewildered face and ask “Brussel sprouts?” I would proceed to say, “no, like bean sprouts, alfalfa, wheatgrass…” and I was met with indifference and a quick end to that conversation. Fast forward a couple of decades and overwhelmingly I am met with amazement and smiles. We must thank the trendiness of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), indoor farming, hydroponic farming, vertical farming, urban farming… take your pick of names and we fall under all of them.
What I find most humorous is that we have been doing it for generations and now is when it is being widely talked about. Sprouting is an ancient practice going back centuries in Asia and the Middle East. All sorts of legumes and other vegetables are sprouted for their digestibility and as a protein and fiber rich food source. Sprouts are the first few days of growth and therefore the origin of all vegetables. The same broccoli sprouts we grow can become full grown heads of broccoli.
How my father, Manny Wong, and I got started in CEA is that my grandfather grew bean sprouts for a few years back in the late 1930s-1940s. My father started commercially growing in 1978 and I joined the family business full time in 2010. Sprout farms have always been mom and pop or family businesses with tiny budgets and a lot of heart. We were forced to think outside the box and reconfigure equipment or experiment with processes because there were no CEA books to reference and few resources. Even 10 years ago, financial institutions and insurance companies denied our applications or quoted us high interest rates or premiums and asked for collateral because they did not understand CEA or thought it to be a risky investment.
Ingenuity plus modest (mostly self-funded) investments have resulted in our superior quality sprouts and our being recognized as industry leaders. It did not happen overnight. Little by little through the decades we added equipment to help with the growing process, harvesting and packing. The entire growing process (except for planting) is automated with watering systems, fans, lights and rotating machines. We monitor the temperature of the water, growing rooms, packing rooms, coolers, and delivery trucks. Water is purified in house with a 4-step system and PH is monitored. Air flow and humidity is taken into account. Wash tanks and centrifuges aid the harvesting process. We have packing machines, labelers, coders… Many of these have become standards for CEA in general, but that was not the case when we started implementing them, and especially not for the sprout industry.
I am truly amazed at the progress we have made by being creative and innovative without major outside investment (and not that we had much personally to invest either.) It took baby steps and really picking and choosing where to spend funds plus a lot of literal blood, sweat and tears. My father designed and built or modified a lot of the tools and equipment we use out of necessity since not much was out there for C.E.A. or it was too expensive. While it is wonderful that so many are willing to invest in CEA, it is also possible to start on a small scale. Yes, some equipment will be expensive and necessary, but you also do not need to buy all of it or get fancy. We are proof of that.
One of the most important keys to success in CEA is an understanding of plant growth. Having that as a basis will allow you to literally grow the business. That is not to say shun capital investors, but that understanding / knowledge coupled with a lot of heart will go a long way. Do not be disillusioned by thinking you will not succeed if you do not secure millions in funding. Money helps, but more important is knowledge, wise spending, creativity and a will to succeed. I welcome you to challenge yourself.
After 45 years of owning and operating a sprout farm, my father is passing his knowledge down through our consulting business. We invite you to reach out. For more information, visit www.letushelpyougrow.com and www.fulleifresh.com.