Turning your hobby into a business is not always the goal. But when Brindha Shayana and Sathya Vasudevan discovered their passions for vertical farming, they knew it was the only way forward.
Both qualified engineers working in the oil, gas and service sector, Brindha and Sathya were eager to switch things up and start with a clean slate. This was to involve growing microgreens in their Westhill-based home.
And now, two years on, their produce can be seen in a line-up of local stores and is featured as part of dishes created by north-east restaurants, cafes and bistros.
With that said, there’s no doubt that their business, Vertical Shoots Urban Farms, will continue to grow.
But what’s the process in growing microgreens, you may ask? Well, we caught up with the partners to find out all about the process, as well as what encouraged them to start their own business.
So, Sathya and Brindha, have you always wanted to start your own business?
Sathya: We were always keen to do something different but never had the idea of starting a business.
A few years ago while we were shopping in a supermarket, a question sprung into our mind asking, where does the food we eat come from? Since then, we started to look into the origin of every product we purchased and it amazed us how foods were produced in different countries and distributed around the world in such a massive scale.
Brindha: At the same time, we also felt how important it is to grow the essential food we eat closer to the end consumer. This triggered an interest to take up a hobby growing herbs.
The pair of us started to do loads of experiments and trials day in and day out. At one point, we started to share our produce with family and friends.
The more we thought about getting local produce out to people, we realised how challenging it is to produce any kind of food and distribute it to the community. This gave us the push to think ‘why not start a business and face these challenges to do our part in solving a global issue and contribute towards a sustainable future’. This sounded exciting and we kick-started our journey.
For those that don’t know, what do you offer?
S: Vertical Shoots are currently offering a wide range of micro salads. They come in different shapes, colour and flavours. We supply them to restaurants, cafes, bistros and stock micro salad boxes in shops for home consumers to use in salads, smoothies or alongside any dish.
B: For restaurants, cafes and bistros, we grow the varieties they request based on their need. Our lovely customers include Buchanan Bistro in Banchory, Inverurie’s Fennel Restaurant, Rothesay Rooms in Ballater, JK Fine Foods, Replenish in Stonehaven, and much more.
For home consumers, we offer variety boxes – spicy mix, rainbow mix and flavour punch – which will include a variety of greens with different flavour tones. These are available for direct home delivery.
That’s very interesting. Why did you choose microgreens?
S: Two years ago, we started to think of doing something related to farming and had to start with a clean slate (with no previous experience).
So, we started growing leafy greens as a hobby, gradually learning and experimenting each day. And after some research, we came across hydroponics – soilless farming with plant roots suspended in water filled with nutrients – and vertical farming, which enables the use of any urban space to grow a substantial amount of greens.
B: This sounded fantastic and we converted a small shed in our back garden into an indoor farm. Both of us were experimenting in this setup for a year.
With every seed germinating and shoots cropping up, this became a serious hobby with great interest and it kept progressing. Then we kick-started our journey with Vertical Shoots in March last year with our aim to utilize underused urban spaces in an effective way.
Am I right in saying that the pair of you wanted to offer products that redefined the way we eat salads?
S: Yes, exactly that. When we tried microgreens ourselves for the first time, we felt it was so different from the usual salad greens we eat. Microgreens bring in a nice flavour and their colour and texture just brighten up the plate. I am sure people who have tried microgreens would agree with what we think.
B: When we looked around in the supermarkets, we could not find any such product apart from micro salad cress in very few shops. So, this triggered an idea to start growing a range of micro salads and make it more available for the local community to try and experience the goodness of micro salads or microgreens.
What encouraged you guys to launch Vertical Shoots Urban Farms? Were there any obstacles?
S: There is so much going on in this world trying to move towards a sustainable future. Innovative ideas are being implemented to revolutionize every sector. Just looking around getting to know about the new happenings encouraged us to take a step trying to do something different and be a part of this change. This thought lead to the start of our journey with Vertical Shoots Urban Farms.
B: It was the beginning of the first lockdown when we started our journey. With the restrictions in place, it was difficult to approach other businesses and customers. Slowly we started to take baby steps which got us going.
We still have a long way to go, but we have started marching towards our vision.
You mentioned that it was difficult to approach other businesses and customers, understandably. So how have you gone about promoting the business?
S: This is a work in progress as we are fairly new. To get our name out, we are active on social media, like Instagram, sharing what we do. Also, we have visited many restaurants, cafes and bistros to spread our name. Some of the people we met were amazing and kind enough to spread a word about us.
Vertical Shoots also has a regular stall at the Westhill Farmer’s Market. With the Covid-19 restrictions, it is not easy to get a space in all the farmer’s market. Hopefully, things will change and we can attend many more.
B: We also stock our greens in local shops to make our products accessible to the people of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. This will help us to spread our name within the local community even more.
What’s the process involved in producing them? And how are they distributed?
S: All our greens are grown hydroponically. The pair of us sow the seeds to start with and germinate them in a dark room for the first few days. Then, we transfer them under lights for a number of days and continuously monitored.
Each variety prefers a certain growing condition. During the growing process, we maintain the ideal temperature, humidity, sufficient air circulation and nutrition to get the optimum growth. At the end of the growing stage, we harvest on the day of the delivery, box and deliver to our customers.
By growing the greens closer to the end consumer, the customers can take advantage of a longer shelf life and freshest greens on their plate.
Can you explain a bit more for our readers about vertical farming?
S: Vertical farming is a method of farming where the greens are produced vertically in racks in a controlled environment. By this approach, larger quantities of produce can be grown in a small space.
The produce is grown hydroponically (roots suspended in water) or by aeroponics (roots suspended in a mist). We use hydroponics to grow our greens. Since the greens are grown indoors, light is provided to the plants through LED with a certain spectrum of light mostly containing blue and red. Nutrients for the growth of plants are supplied through the water.
B: By this method of farming, there can be a great saving in water consumption compared to traditional methods. With the controlled environment in place, crops which are not possible to be grown locally can be grown; for example, basil which requires warmer temperature. Vertical farming methods can be used to grow leafy greens, few types of fruits and flowers.
Why do you think the demand for microgreens is constantly on the rise?
S: The need for healthy nutritious food is increasing day by day. A lot of people are also looking towards a vegan diet. Microgreens tick all the boxes required for a healthy living.
Greens harvested in its early stages of growth are nutrient-dense compared to a mature green – they also taste and look great. We could also consume leaves of some of the vegetable crops such as cabbage, broccoli, radish etc. so there are so many varieties of microgreens, which can be consumed as a salad. This makes eating salads more interesting.
B: Additionally, microgreens can be grown indoors all-year-round and are not season dependent. So, it can be grown closer to the end consumer reducing food miles which ticks the box on sustainability.
Growing microgreens can also be a hobby which would interest many. This way people can get their hands on growing and enjoy the greens grown by themselves in their own space which could be exciting and satisfying.
Other than microgreens, do you grow anything else?
B: Offering microgreens is just a start at Vertical Shoots Urban Farms. We are working our way towards offering baby greens, mature greens and edible flowers. Hopefully, we will increase our range of products in the near future.
Over the past two years, what have been the main highlights of running Vertical Shoots?
S: You learn something new each day and it is always a treat to see these beautiful greens grow up. New ideas, experiments and DIYs on the farm keeps us thinking all the time. It gives a sense of satisfaction that we are working on something which is essential for our day-to-day living and trying to find innovative ways to grow crops closer to the end consumer for a sustainable future. This keeps us motivated to do more each day.
B: Two years ago, our experiments just started on our study table. Slowly the experiments got bigger and encroached into our living space and now we have built our own fully functional indoor vertical farm. Starting from scratch, we now grow about 15 varieties of micro salads and there are many more to be added on to the list.
You’re both clearly very passionate about the business, which is amazing to see. What are your upcoming plans?
S: Microgreens are something new for many in the local community as we rarely see these in the supermarkets. We have noticed many customers who come over to our stall at the farmer’s market really chuffed to see these micro salads as they couldn’t find them locally. On the flip side, we do come across people who don’t have any idea on microgreens but are really excited to try them out!
B: As a local urban farmer, we would like to get these healthy greens into as many homes as possible and see people consuming them in their daily food.
In addition to serving cafes, restaurants and bistros, we aim to have our produce in many more outlets and do more direct home deliveries to make it accessible to the local community. As a business, we always look to keep adding more products to our offering.
Top Tips to Growing Your Own Microgreens
There are loads of materials available online to guide you on how to grow each variety of microgreens.
The best way to learn is to try it yourself, so below are some tips provided by Brindha Shayana and Sathya Vasudevan of Vertical Shoots Urban Farms to get you started.
- Microgreens are grown in two steps: Step 1 – germinating the seeds and Step 2 – propagating the seedlings under light (sunlight or LEDs). It is as simple as that.
- Start simple. Look around your kitchen cupboard to see if you have any seeds which you use for your daily cooking. Seeds like mustards, fennel, coriander, fenugreek and many others used in cooking can be used to grow as microgreens. Although bear in mind that sometimes older seeds may not germinate well. If you are buying seeds, then make sure you buy the right seeds for microgreens which are not chemically treated and are suitable for consumption.
- To grow microgreens, you need a medium. You could use kitchen towels as a start. Soak about three layers of the paper towels in water and sprinkle the seeds on top. Spray some water and then cover with a lid to maintain humidity. Keep it in the dark for three-to-four days. Check once a day to keep them moist.
- Once the seeds have germinated, remove the lid and place them on the window sill. In the winter time when it is dark most days you could use a study lamp with a daylight LED bulb for lighting. Water them once a day and not let the medium dry out. Keep them well ventilated and maintain a room temperature about 20C (for cool crops).
- Once the microgreens are about two inches tall with the first set of leaves well developed, they are good to harvest. Cut the greens just over the medium and enjoy them in your dishes. Most of the microgreens are ready within 10-14 days.
- Keep it simple when you grow microgreens for the first time. If you fail on the first trial don’t worry, it takes a few trials to get the trick of growing. Once you get to know about the basics you could start experimenting with different mediums and a variety of seeds.
- Finally, if you need any help with growing your microgreens, we are happy to help. Just message us on Instagram – @verticalshoots