Go to a restaurant that embraces the farm-to-table ethos, and you’ll likely encounter a menu (or chalkboard) singing the provenance of various animals and vegetables in the kitchen’s coffers.
Rarely, though, does a restaurant mention – let alone herald – the origins of its microgreens.
Jeremy Witt and Matthew Latham of Vertical Fresh Farms aim to change that. The brothers-in-law and business partners grow 25 varieties of the fashionable, infantile plants, which typically – but not exclusively – serve as edible garnish to composed dishes and salads in fine-dining restaurants.
The farm operates year-round in Kenmore, where lack of arable, open land is of no consequence. That’s because Witt and Latham take advantage of cubic square footage, not acreage, to maximize production. And as for soil, they simply don’t need any.
Vertical Fresh, you see, is an indoor farm housed in a one-story commercial building just past the city line. Instead of sowing seeds in the ground, Witt and Latham grow on stacked beds lined with proprietary felt growing mats made locally from recycled products.
They deliver nutrients to the plants by way of enriched water and transmit light energy in the form of LED bulbs. The temperature and humidity in their two grow rooms are precisely controlled. And because pestilence is practically a nonissue, they never have to resort to chemical sprays.
Otherwise, Witt and Latham have plenty in common with conventional farmers. They must be attuned to the crops’ well-being, for instance. At least one of them is on site every day tending to their rotating cast of microgreens, all at various stages of development. And with a turnover time of just two to four weeks, depending on type, planting and harvesting microgreens is a weekly occurrence.
That frequency coupled with the farm’s proximity to their clients means product gets in the hands of chefs within a day or two, and they are delivered under ideal conditions.
“They’re not getting packed in coolers and put on trucks with doors that get left open when it’s 10 degrees outside,” Latham explained. “I deliver the product, and they’re warm when I do.”
Unlike microgreens ordered through the mail or wholesale food distributors, Vertical Fresh bypasses middlemen and lengthy distribution channels. In effect, their microgreens arrive in restaurant kitchens at near-peak vitality, where they might last two weeks or longer if properly stored.
The partners’ commitment to quality has made Vertical Fresh a favorite supplier of many Western New York chefs. Witt and Latham count Black Iron Bystro, Bacchus, Craving, Marble + Rye, Sinatra’s, Rowhouse, Thin Man and the Terrace among their dozens of regular clients.
Vertical Fresh also differentiates itself from its competitors by way of sheer variety. In addition to usual suspects parsley, dill, cilantro, chervil and basil, Witt and Latham plant dozens of less-customary options.
Chef-owner Bryan Mecozzi of Black Iron Bystro appreciates the diversity and their willingness to take requests: “He has some really bold options as far as microgreens go.”
Succulent borage leaves, which smack of cucumber, adorn Black Iron Bystro’s lustier dishes like cream soups and duck poutine, while caraway microgreens are the garnish of choice on the corned beef sandwiches served at senior living community Canterbury Woods.
Red vein sorrel, which packs the sort of juicy tartness that lights up your jawbones, is another chef favorite, as are pea tendrils, which Mecozzi likes for their “wily look.”
Sunflower microgreens, among others, are always on hand at Bacchus. There, chef Brian Mietus uses them as accessory to delicate dishes – like shrimp and crab salad.
Mietus hasn’t always been a fan of microgreens. When Witt and Latham first tried to sell him on Vertical Fresh, he was skeptical.
“I always thought it was sort of a cop-out,” Mietus explained. “You know, throw some microgreens on a plate so you can take a picture.”
After tasting through Vertical Fresh’s diverse product line, his opinion changed. “Obviously, they’re beautiful. But the flavors are what turned me on. Now, we’re buying a ton.”
As Mietus learned, microgreens are more than frippery. Unlike the vulgar displays of curly parsley and extraneous orange slices that ornamented American plates for much of the 20th century, the microgreens Witt and Latham grow have the potential to be as elemental to a dish as fat, salt, or spice.
Vertical Fresh’s reputation seems to be catching on. This year, Witt and Latham plan to double their facility in Kenmore, and production and distribution in Rochester may not be far behind. They are also busy working on their Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification – a requisite for selling in grocery stores like Whole Foods. But as their business grows, Witt and Latham won’t waver on remaining local. As Latham explained it:
“We have customers that can say ‘These greens were picked today a mile up the road.’ That’s key for us.”
*Read Caitlin Hartney's last farm feature, on Teacup Farm, below, or click the farm features tag to see all of them: