“Here, taste this,” says Mindy Robinson, handing me a fingerful of greens from one of the lush trays carpeted with micro-greens, young vegetables and edible herbs in miniature form.
“That one is micro-cilantro,” she says.
I pop the tendrils in my mouth and am taken aback by the concentrated punch of cilantro invading my senses. It’s like a scene from Willy Wonka, “the schnozzberries taste like schnozzberries!” Only it was micro-cilantro and micro-basil, curly cress, celery and amaranth. I had discovered Tega Hills Farm, a local farm doing big things with micro-greens.
Tega Hills Farm is located in Rock Hill, S.C., just a short trip over the state line. Owned by self-taught farmers Mindy and Mark Robinson, Tega Hills Farm began selling micro-greens at the request of Ben Miles, a local chef working at Charlotte’s Blue Restaurant at the time. The couple began experimenting with planting techniques and within four weeks had their first batch of micro-greens — instantly discovering their niche selling to chefs at local Charlotte restaurants. Prior to that, the Robinsons were producing hydroponic tomatoes and having a rough go at it.
“Micro-greens turned our business around,” says Mindy. “It gave us year-round customers.”
Micro-greens are lauded in the restaurant world for lending creative flourishes to prepared dishes in the form of flavor accents and visual interest. Tega Hills Farm sells 21 varieties of micro-greens to some of Charlotte’s finest restaurants including The Fig Tree, Bistro La Bon, Mimosa Grill, Barrington’s and Fern, Flavors from the Earth. In addition to micro-greens, Tega Hills Farm also sells beautiful, hydroponically grown lettuces to the masses at the Matthews and Yorkmont farmers markets.
“The farmers market is a huge part of our success,” says Mindy. “It is where we get face-to-face time with our customers.” Mindy expressed gratitude for the local foods movement and the interplay that occurs at farmers market between her customers, chefs and market goers alike.
As I walked around the two greenhouses, I was astounded at the enterprise the Robinsons have built essentially on their own curiosity and volition. Both Mindy and Mark were raised on farms in their youth and grew up with gardens, although neither of them received any formal training.
“We did most of our learning through the Internet and by making mistakes,” says Mindy.
Tega Hills Farm engages in controlled environment agriculture, which simply means that they grow their products in greenhouses to provide an optimum growing environment. Touring and tasting with Mindy that day, I could see the passion that has sprung up for these tiny bits of beautiful flavor. From the science of growing to the personal interactions at markets, the Robinsons love it all and have been for nearly 10 years.
It just goes to show you that big things really do come in small packages.
Keia Mastrianni loves to tell stories about local food products and the people behind them. When she's not scouting out local discoveries, she's steadily working in her vegetable garden, spending time in the kitchen and nosing through cookbooks. She maintains a happy food blog called The Sunnysideup where she shares recipes and her culinary adventures.