By Kristie Snyder,
Ellen Brown is a farmer with no farmland. She grows her crops in the downstairs kitchen and backyard of her split-level house on Snyder Hill Road.
Ellen is a sprout farmer. Her crops are small — sometimes tiny — but they pack a nutritional punch. Sprouting is simply the process of germinating seeds, and then maybe letting them grow a little bit. "Sprouting makes more nutrition available," Ellen explains. "Nutrients become more absorbable, and the taste of sprouts is great." According to Ellen, sprouts are high in vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and phytochemicals.
Her "sprout kitchen" is a light-filled room in the downstairs of the home she shares with her partner, Mat, and 10-month-old son, Jacob. Jars of sprouts line one wall and flats of sprouts line another. In between are a table for packing and a spot for Jacob to play while his mom tends to the sprouts. When the weather warms a bit, the sprouts will move to a backyard hoophouse, or even just outdoors, but when we visited in March it was frigid outside, and the little plants were snug in their kitchen.
Ellen began growing sprouts about four years ago after trying out market gardening and deciding she preferred the mobility of sprouts. "It's a moveable garden," she says. "You don't need to own a large piece of farmland to be a part of the local food community."
Ellen sells her sprouts at GreenStar, the Ithaca Farmers Market, P&C at East Hill Plaza — right up the road from her house — and at various local restaurants, including Hazelnut Kitchen and Manndible Café. A mix of sprouts and other products, such as raw dressings and dips, are also available via a CSA subscription. She says her customers are looking for something a little different. "They're really into local food, and really excited about sprouts," she says.
She grows "garden sprouts" — sprouted in jars with daily water rinses — and "microgreens" — grown in soil in flats. Each variety starts with soaked, organic seeds; beyond that, each seed has its own requirements. The garden sprouts are grown in an array of jars on shelves in the kitchen, where they receive plenty of light from the south-facing windows. It kind of looks like a mad scientist's laboratory, only instead of chemical concoctions, each jar contains a tangle of roots, shoots, and seeds. The jars of onion sprouts, with their stark white roots contrasted with the black seeds, are particularly arresting.
All of the sprouting seeds are rinsed twice a day, and take anywhere from a few days to a week and a half to grow to completion. Once grown, they're packed into the tubs that you'll find on the top shelf of GreenStar's Produce case. Varieties include onion, radish, alfalfa, red clover, broccoli, and various mixes: Everything, Crunchy Greens, Garden Mix. GreenStar carries all of the garden sprouts in the Produce Department, and Deli customers may occasionally find them on a sandwich or salad.
Microgreen varieties include sunflower, buckwheat, pea, and wheatgrass. The peas like to germinate in the dark, while the sunflowers must be weighted, by stacking the flats atop one another. The sturdy little sunflower sprouts are so strong they can topple their own stack, just by growing, if they aren't harvested in time. Microgreens aren't currently available at GreenStar, but can be ordered directly from Ellen by the flat.
So other than tossing them on salads or in sandwiches, what does one do with sprouts? Ellen laughs. "We have tried to use sprouts in every possible way," she says. They can be eaten fresh, juiced (wheatgrass being the most popular choice here), used in cooked dishes (the sturdy pea sprouts are great in stir fries). Her family eats crunchy bean sprouts with rice as their staple winter food, when other produce is scarce. Winter may be when sprouts are most appreciated, as other fresh foods are few and far between, but sprouts are delicious and nutritious year-round, however you choose to use them.
Ellen Brown of Dancing Turtle Sprouts with wheatgrass (foreground), buckwheat (background), and sunflower (top) microgreens.
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This winter was something special, wasn't it? Our lowest high was 1 and our lowest low was -13, but we made it! Spring is officially here! We made it through the ice and cold and snow and I think it's pretty much official — we live on Hoth. But April brings forth new bloom and opportunity to fill your gardens with plants and food and flowers and beauty. Blue Heron Farm seedlings will be here soon, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsley, lettuce, kale, chard, collards, pansy, viola, and lots of perennial herbs! If you prefer the DIY approach to growing seedlings, April is the time for starting warm-weather plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. We have organic and local seeds along with McEnroe potting soil and growing mix, so all of your growing needs are covered. Enjoy the nice weather while it's here, because we'll all be riding Tauntauns in four feet of snow again before we know it.