Chris Thoreau of blew the lid off the microgreens business…literally. He cut the top off of a shipping container to make an insulated greenhouse and started making 6 figures in yearly sales. In this interview, he talks about:
- Why the shipping container makes sense for him… but probably not you
- Why microgreens (they’re so damn simple!) and how to choose microgreen seed suppliers
- Annoying first steps: “You need to plan for success”
Why the shipping container makes sense for him… but probably not you
There are quite a few companies right now trying to sell aspiring vertical farmers modular shipping container units (this one is actually pretty cool) to start farming in. No one not involved in those companies says they work – “It doesn’t make sense” says Chris. He’s talking about people dropping $70,000 for a unit to grow salad ingredients.
How is Chris qualified to talk about this? Chris started Food Pedalers in 2009 and has been delivering produce by bike ever since. He started with $10k worth of start up and operational costs in his first year and did $12k in sales. He’s grown his business since then and now does over 6 figures yearly.
Chris turned the typical shipping container farm model its head. But it was a steady build, not just a moment of inspiration. Chris has a background in agroecology, something I’ve often mentioned, and it pushed him to start considering what he calls “non-traditional spaces” for agriculture. He started out with covered benches outside (similar to the benches I’ll be showing you how to build in an upcoming article) with the idea that these contained systems could grow microgreens at an extremely low cost, taking advantage of free solar energy, anywhere.
The mobile nature of the tables was key as urban farms have almost no land security and it’s important to be able to change sites as leases run out or the terms of agreement change.
But Chris wasn’t getting year round growth and wanted to expand to increase sales. The answer came to him: “There was a lot of momentum with urban farming and shipping containers at the same time. They were 2 trends to take advantage of.”
So, his team stripped down a shipping container and turned it into a greenhouse. “The reason we turned it into a greenhouse is because we could take advantage of free light during the summer, and even in the winter, though we supplement it, we’re still getting a lot of sun.”
But it’s not a solution for everyone. Chris describes the container as “very separated from the world – not the ideal way to grow food.”
It worked for him for 3 reasons:
- Climate – “Shipping containers work here,” says Chris of the mild Vancouver climate. “If it was in California, or Iran, it would be different,” he says, describing super cold nights and sweltering hot days where the insulation couldn’t keep up.
- Availability – Vancouver is a port city. Shipping containers were available for a low price compared to buying them from a company who has already worked to convert them.
- Mobile – without a long term agreement in a warehouse structure or for quality/improvable soil acreage, having movable infrastructure means Chris’ business is more resilient to uncertainty. However, if you have a stable space to grow, it’s worth it to invest there.
If you’re not checking those boxes, don’t buy the hype of the shipping container model. And even if you are, there might be ways to reach your same goals cheaper. Remember what Chris learned from agroecology – farming is all about context.
Essentially because they’re so damn simple. Before Chris was growing them on the modular benches setup on university property, he was growing microgreens for a profit out of his living room.
“Microgreens grow fast” he says. Compared to other crops, the turnover rate is so much higher, allowing you to have more sales opportunities. Then, add in the high premium microgreens get compared to something like lettuce, and the numbers start to make a lot more sense.
There are some drawbacks. First, they have a very short harvest and sell window. That means if you don’t have your sales lined up when your micros are ready, you are essentially throwing away money.
They are also fragile, prone to mold if your climate controls aren’t adjusted, and they need a lot of hands on time. Chris and I spent a good 10 minutes just talking about how to water them. I wanted to automate it with dripper irrigation, but he said that he found a hose with a wand attachment and a shower setting was the best way. This way, you’re never watering to saturation and are able to change the hydration regimen depending on what the plant needs. Of course, you could argue that you could do this with drip irrigation as well, but speaking from personal experience, that get’s just as ticky tacky.
Of course the drawback to hand watering is that you have to do it yourself and be patient. “The way to not get water on the floor is to NOT GET WATER ON THE FLOOR,” Chris chides with a laugh. But he did concede to keeping a shop vac handy to vacuum any spilled water up every few days and that some growers might get a lot of value out of a dehumidifier.
I also asked him what his criteria was for choosing microgreen seeds. “What you’re looking for is companies that specialize in sprouting seed,” he says. You want companies that acknowledge that there are special steps to take for hygiene and preventing contamination with microgreen seeds.
He gets a lot of his seeds from Mumms in Canada, but there are a lot more options that I’ll be covering down the road once I run my own seed trials.
As for how much to buy? “If you find a variety that you like, buy as much as you can afford” says Chris as companies often run out of certain genetics. But he usually keeps 3-4 months worth of most seeds in stock. “And the big companies like Johnny’s and High Mowing always have really high prices in their catalogs,” he laughs. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
“Plan for Success”
When I asked Chris if there was anything else that he wanted to add to our session, this was it. “Plan for success. You’re going to outgrow your prototype.”
That means two things. First, it’s doing some of the unfun work of looking into the legalities of where you are growing. “A lot of what we do get’s overlooked, but it’s still in a legal grey zone,” he says. When you’re small, it’s easy to hide food production in your home, but when you start having to ship hundreds of pounds of produce, people will notice.
Set this up early so you don’t do a bunch of work and then get told to move. Large farms like Aerofarms, Bright Farms, and Green Sense spent months doing just this – not even growing.
The second thing is to build your business to be as scalable as possible. That means keeping records and keeping your equipment modular. Chris’ first system was a perfect example of this
Starting in 2009, Chris was growing microgreens in his living room, but he knew he wanted to expand sales. “I’m already growing on a counter, why not 50 trays on a bench?” So he dropped $9000 or so in his first year and started growing those microgreens on covered benches.
When he wanted to grow again, he took the knowledge and organization gained from that and applied it to his shipping container.
Chris is a wealth of information and talking to him was incredibly important to my own farm process (we went through suppliers, work flow, and heating as well). Chris has a successful side business as a consultant for small farmers looking to break in.
Most consultants I’ve spoken to left me with the feeling that 1. They weren’t far enough ahead of me to be worth giving money to. 2. They were far too expensive for someone bootstrapping.
Chris hit a sweet spot there and is well worth any one’s time to speak with. Even if it’s not Chris, go to a consultant with a list of your ideas and implementation strategies and run down them. If they’re good, they will easily be able to tell you “good,” “bad,” or “here is how to do it better.” For example, if I’d spoken with Chris before looking into seed companies, I could have saved myself 2-3 hours of research and been ready with actionable steps in 10 minutes.
All that is to say, there is always room to learn and you should value the knowledge that others who have come before have gained. In addition to consulting, Chris also has a great website and youtube page (one of my favorites) that you can check out for more information.
Any questions for Chris? Ask in the comments and look out from some cool new podcasts from him!
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