Tiny in size, mighty in nutrition and taste: UMass students launch successful microgreens business

  • Alex Ayanian has known since early childhood that he wanted to run his own business, but didn't know what form that would take until May of this year, when he and his friend Robert Stark co-founded Supreme Microgreens. COURTESY ALEX AYANIAN

  • Robert Stark co-founded Supreme Microgreens with Alex Ayanian. Both are students at UMass and have since welcomed two other fellow students to the business. They sell their products at local farmers markets. COURTESY ALEX AYANIAN

  • Supreme Microgreens are grown in 16 trays at a time on stacked racks occupying 16-by-18 feet of basement space. Co-founder Alex Ayanian says that all that's required to grow the superfood are trays, soil, lights, seeds, water and love. COURTESY ALEX AYANIAN

  • Supreme Microgreens co-founder Alex Ayanian says the cantaloupe microgreens are his favorite. The tiny plants taste like fresh cantaloupe. Microgreens contain at least 40 times the nutrients as the foods they would grow into. COURTESY ALEX AYANIAN

For the Gazette
Published: 9/29/2023 11:09:40 AM
Modified: 9/29/2023 11:08:52 AM

On a sunny Saturday in mid-September, two young men did brisk business selling small baggies of bright green produce at a Greenfield Farmers Market booth. Supreme Microgreens co-founder Alex Ayanian smiled brightly as an older gentleman approached. “Would you like to try a sample?” Ayanian asked, but the customer interrupted: “I don’t need a sample. I know which one I like best.” Pointing to a tray, the customer said, “I’ll take four ounces.”

Ayanian reached for super-sharp scissors and deftly snipped, then weighed, delicate shoots to satisfy the fellow’s request. The customer glanced at his shopping list, clearly intent on finishing his errands. He paid Ayanian’s co-owner, Kagan Sherson, for the baggie of greens and began to walk away, but turned back and said, “I love this stuff.”

Many readers have heard of sprouts and baby greens; in between the two is a separate category known as microgreens, which are growing in popularity after decades of being relegated to the edges of plates. Use of microgreens as garnishes began in the 1980s upscale Californian restaurant scene, but scientists have discovered that they can provide an astonishingly wide range of health benefits.

Supreme Microgreens are grown in 16 trays at a time on stacked racks occupying 16-by-18 feet of basement space. The versatile food can be used fresh on sandwiches, in salads, and in stir-fries, while frozen microgreens make fabulous smoothies.

“There are a whole bunch of reasons why microgreens are a great choice for healthy eating,” said Ayanian. The 20-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst student launched Supreme Microgreens at the end of his sophomore year last May with his friend, Robert Stark. Two more friends, Kagan Sherson and Cameron Sulivan, have joined the business. Ever since the entrepreneurs converted the basement of their rented house into growing space, “our fridge and freezer are packed with bags and bags of greens,” said Ayanian. “Growing microgreens is so much fun, now that we’ve figured out what we did wrong in the beginning.”

Before starting the business, Ayanian had never tasted microgreens. “Now I eat them every single day. The health benefits are absolutely enormous because they contain at least 40 times the vitamins and minerals as regular vegetables. All that’s needed to grow them are trays, soil, lights, seeds, water and love.”

Because the plants are so tiny, he explained, nutrients are intensely concentrated. “We harvest when two leaves known as cotyledons appear, emerging before the first set of true leaves.” Cotyledons help supply the nutrition a plant embryo needs to germinate and become established as a photosynthetic organism. Ayanian added, “A seed has so much nutritional value; when we harvest that early, it’s packed with nutrients.”

Given the outstanding nutritional value, microgreens would appeal to health-conscious folks even if they weren’t delicious. Yet Ayanian touts another selling point: “The flavor is wonderfully concentrated. Here, try these,” he said, snipping a few cantaloupe microgreens, his favorite variety. The moment the greens hit the tongue, the flavor of fresh cantaloupe explodes in the mouth. “It’s the same deal with the broccoli and Southern Giant mustard varieties,” said Ayanian with a grin. “You just can’t find that kind of flavor anywhere else.”

A glance at the menu board shows that Ayanian and Sherson are selling quite a few varieties that day, including red cabbage, purple top turnip, Romaine lettuce, Red Russian kale, Rambo radish and purple kohlrabi. Ayanian said the business “didn’t take off right away. Our first attempts were sub-par. It seemed like everything went wrong: mold, growth problems, too much or too little light or water … but we succeeded through trial and error.” Now, said Ayanian, he keeps meticulous track of data.

When asked whether all types of seeds can be cultivated as microgreens, Ayanian replied, “Many work well, but not all. I’d say there are between two- and three-hundred seed varieties that succeed — including about 20 types of radishes — but some don’t do as well, like swiss chard and beets. Generally, the smaller the seed, the better the results.”

As a young child, Ayanian knew he wanted to start his own business someday, “I just didn’t know what kind.” A first-generation American, he grew up in Woburn. His parents each emigrated from Armenia as children. “My mom came here in 1980, around age 5, when her family decided to make the move. I think my dad came around that time, too.” Ayanian’s mother works as a hospital lab supervisor, and his father serves in a supervisory role in the housing sector.

“I started out as a marketing major and added horticulture as a second major after I began hanging out with students involved with Stockbridge (UMass agricultural program),” said Ayanian. “I’ve always loved gardening and growing plants, and when I took a soil science class, I was hooked.” He considered minoring in soil science, but decided against it when he learned how all-consuming it would be. Yet he continued to feel drawn to horticulture.

When asked if his family members farmed while living in Armenia, Ayanian shook his head: “None that I know of, but my grandfather — who was a veterinarian in Armenia — now lives in Rhode Island and gardens on every square inch of his property. And I mean every … square … inch!” This, despite the fact that his grandfather works full-time managing a hospital nursing unit.

Kagan Sherson, 21, recently joined the business, bringing both agricultural experience and a passion for food justice. Growing up in rural Belchertown, Sherson began helping a neighbor with the annual sugaring process around age 5. His mother, a teacher, also maintained a garden each year.

Sherson works full-time at UMass in auxiliary services while also taking classes in soil sciences and journalism. “Overall, I’m pretty new to (growing microgreens), but I did give it a try a few years ago, when I was 16 or 17,” said Sherson. “I’m very interested in seeing things grow from seeds. The process helps me feel more energized and less depressed.”

The microgreens business gives Sherson “something to look forward to,” and he dreams of bringing fresh foods to places considered food deserts. “I’m fascinated with vertical farming,” said Sherson, using a term that describes growing crops in stacked layers. Vertical farming often incorporates controlled-environment agriculture — processes to optimize plant growth — like the grow lights used in Supreme Microgreens. But while vertical farming sometimes involves soilless techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics, Supreme Microgreens settled on growing in seedling soil mix after trying some of the other modalities.

“Everyone deserves to eat at a reasonable price,” said Sherson, “and microgreens can be part of that.”

Ayanian, too, has dreams for the future. “I’d like to own a farm and sustainably raise vegetables, flowers, animals, bees, the whole nine yards.” First, though, Ayanian will complete his bachelor’s and go for his master’s. “Microgreens are just my first step. For now, they’re a perfect way to go, since I’m a student with no land and not a lot of money. But someday … yeah, I can see it.”

In the meantime, “We sell to a huge range of customers,” said Ayanian, “at the UMass farmers’ market on campus and at regular farmers’ markets. Health-conscious folks want this stuff, and we’ve got it!”


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