Microgreen thumb

Microgreen thumb
Planet Earth Diversified is a study in the new science of small farming. Arriving at the Stanardsville site, you’re struck by both the primitiveness and dirtiness with which small scale agricultural businesses must survive, but also, the creativity and innovation. On the one hand, there are the fields of crops, the noisy chickens, the old barn and the rusty farm equipment that greets visitors to the property. On the other hand, there is the surprisingly high-tech farm office, with its flat screen TV and computer monitor mounted to the wall, and the pristine nature of his greenhouses in which Michael Clark, a former engineer with a degree from UVA, has rigged up complicated watering, nutrient-supplying and climate-control mechanisms. These systems keep his hydroponic greenhouse in ideal growing conditions and the sterile state necessary to produce ready-to-eat packages of greens, baby greens (smaller, more tender and often sweeter than regular greens) microgreens (even smaller, even more tender and even sweeter than baby), nanogreens (a term he’s coined for greens even smaller, even more tender and even sweeter than micros) and herbs of the like. Clark, who is committed to sustainability, has even created his own waste water treatment system for the greenhouse runoff (but don’t tell the DEQ—as is typical, trying to be proactive and good to the environment can only get you in trouble). 

Small packages: Michael Clark cultivates baby greens and microgreens and  herbs in his hydroponic greenhouses.

His entire operation is an example of old-school-meets-new-thinking—for example, he tinkered with an old tractor so it could make raised beds rather than conventional rows of crops. As regards his business and marketing strategy, moreover, it’s all about diversity rather than large economies of scale. If there’s a product or service to pursue from a small farm he does it—seasonal crops for the farmers’ markets; year-round greenhouse greens, herbs, tomatoes and prepared pesto; jellies from the fruit trees; distilled essential oils from the herbs; edible flowers. He even has a service of collecting used motor oil from the county police and fryer oil from restaurants, which he then filters and recycles to power his greenhouses. The guy truly is a jack-of-all-farm trades. And somehow he also finds the time to host a weekly local access television show called “Meet the Farmer TV” to raise awareness of local food and local farms.

Though his interests are varied, his greenhouse operation is his most well-known and best illustrates his incredible plant expertise and farmer/scientist persona. Walking through the lush and delicate rows of arugula, baby beet greens and micro-cilantro while Clark, in his signature straw hat and Carhartt jacket, explains the joys and challenges of cultivating such beautiful and tender but flavorful fare—high-end restaurants love to garnish with his micro-stuff—it’s obvious that being a successful small farmer is as much about learning the science of growing as it is about hoeing the rows.

These days it’s also about being market savvy. Despite being devoted to holistic and sustainable growing, Clark says, “We’re no longer doing certified organic because it’s no longer a competitive advantage.” The phrase Clark uses to label his operation instead is “Ecological Greenhouse.”  And if that term gets diluted and corrupted by someone else as many argue “Organic” has today, this farmer/innovator will probably just invent another.


Working with delicate microherbs and edible flowers is as much about presentation as it is about flavor. Protect those pretty petals with the right precision tool. Stainless steel, five-blade herb scissors. $12.50, The Happy Cook.

Planet Earth Diversified Rose Geranium Panna Cotta

From Melissa Close, executive chef of Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards

1 oz rose geranium flowers from Planet Earth Diversified
2 tsp. powdered gelatin bloomed in
1/4 cup cold cream
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup plus 1 Tbs. honey
Dash salt
3/4 cup plus 1 Tbs. cold buttermilk

“Bloom” gelatin by sprinkling on cold cream. Combine ¾ cup heavy cream, salt and honey in heavy-bottomed saucepan, until temperature reaches 170 degrees. Slowly add bloomed gelatin/cream mixture, stirring to dissolve gelatin granules. When mixture is thoroughly combined, stir in cold buttermilk until combined. Divide evenly among four six-ounce containers (silicon muffin cups work great) and refrigerate at least eight hours. Turn panna cotta onto a plate and garnish with rose geranium blossoms. Serves 6.






It’s a small world, after all: Microscope, micro-mini, microfilm, microchip,  micro-lending, etc.










Back to FOOD & DRINK ANNUAL 2009