Over the last few years, microgreens — those delicate fresh tendrils packed with nutrients — have gone from a niche health food to a sought-after produce item for chefs, retailers and consumers. Over the past five years, Emma Self Treadwell, founder of Green Girl Produce, has grown Tennessee’s first indoor vertical farm from a fledgling business to a year-round supplier of the leafy goods — all cultivated in Midtown Memphis.
The hydroponic method grows plants without using soil and instead uses a mineral nutrient-rich medium with water, allowing the uptake of nutrients to be more efficient.
“I basically started with one level, a tupperware tub and a farmer’s market tent,” said Treadwell, about her initial self-designed hydroponic prototype and blossoming business.
The first five years of Green Girl production were spent in a fourth floor office downtown at Emerge Memphis, at 516 Tennessee Street, working with the support of the incubator as she slowly built her business.
Green Girl Produce sprouted after Treadwell participated in a 48-hour pitch and planning event with Emerge Memphis in 2012.
“At that time I knew about microgreens and the LED light technology. I got together this idea of growing indoors with lights. I pitched the idea at the Emerge Memphis launch. I ended up winning and things moved on from there,” said Treadwell, who has family roots in farming with her dad growing up on a farm in Mississippi.
Working as a waitress for Sweet Grass alongside Chef Ryan Trimm, she found a calling for producing local farm-to-table produce while developing a garden for the Cooper-Young restaurant. Later, Taylor Berger, restaurant owner and entrepreneur, approached Treadwell about running a farm to supply his restaurants, which eventually led her to pursue Green Girl Produce.
Emma Treadwell, Jennifer Marshall, and Rob Coleman (left to right) of Green Girl Produce at their hydroponic indoor farm. (Ziggy Mack)
Today, the operation has grown from a one-person startup to a small staff and volunteers. Treadwell hired Rob Coleman as a full-time operations manager about 15 months ago, and Jennifer Marshall, a farmer, who helps with production, promotion and customer service. The team grows, harvests, packages and delivers microgreens to customers across the city.
Currently, Green Girl produces about 50 pounds of greens a week for clients Folk’s Folly, Sweet Grass, Next Door, 117 Prime, The Peabody, City Silo, Sushi Jimmi, The Grove Grill, The University Club, Dixon Gallery and Gardens and personal chefs including Andrea LeTard.
Green Girl moved growing operations from its small office space to a much larger warehouse location at 1240 Williams Avenue in October, quadrupling its growing capacity with four multi-tiered hydroponic systems, several new seed incubators and additional storage space.
As a result, more varieties, along with a greater yield, are in production. They are offering new herbs and new varieties of microgreens and are introducing lettuce this season.
“Lettuce and baby greens are a whole new market that we haven’t tapped into. Local farms can’t do lettuce year round, usually. It is very difficult to do it outside,” said Coleman, who has a degree in biology.
Green Girl customizes a variety of herb mixes and blended greens selected to complement one another in color, texture and taste.
And on occasion, deadline pressure can foster success — like with Treadwell’s Band of Misfits mix.
“It was 4:00 in the morning. I had to get deliveries ready for the next morning. I didn’t have enough product, and I made something up on the fly because it was all that I had. Kale, arugula, sorrell — it was such a weird blend. I am really big on naming the mixes,” quipped Treadwell.
Spicy Green Girl is a blend of red and green mustards with a peppery kick of flavor. Green Girl also created a microgreen version of a Mirepoix mix was created; widely used in fresh cooking as a base for recipes, it typically consists of full grown carrots, celery and onions.
“A full grown celery or a full grown carrot, there is a toughness to them. There is a woodiness to them. These micros just melt in your mouth. They are just tender and juicy and really good,” said Coleman.
Microgreens are essentially seedlings of edible vegetables and herbs. While they’ve become popular over the last few years especially in restaurants, microgreens have actually been around since the 1980s, but with a considerable increase in varieties.
In addition to greens and herbs, tiny vegetable varieties include radishes, parsnips, celery, beetroots and little carrots, along with infant pea shoots, red radish leaves and sorrel.
They are best eaten raw to preserve the nutrients and flavors. According to Coleman, the minute you cook them, you take away the nutrient value and the essence of the greens.
Green Girl Produce supplies chefs and restaurants in Memphis with microgreens and salad mixes. (Ziggy Mack)
Salad mixes are also available. Clients prep them with many of the ingredients usually found in traditional salads, like cucumbers and tomatoes.
“We are really excited about our salad mixes. There are all kinds of flavor profiles we can create. Just eat the greens with nothing else. Maybe a little vinaigrette,” said Treadwell.
In the past year, Treadwell has gotten married and had her first child, which has allowed Marshall to grow in her role in Green Girl during their expansion over the past year.
“I’ve been able to work really closely with Rob, just learning the ropes of growing techniques, harvesting, selling — all of the things that you do to produce our product. I also interact with customers and chefs,” said Marshall.
Soon, Marshall will spearhead their next phase of growth, operating the first Green Girl tent at a soon-to-be-announced area farmers market. Many of their unique herb and salad mixes will be available. They are going to start off at just one market location during the week.
“Depending on the reception and how that goes we could expand to another market or continue to do outreach with chefs and other individual buyers, or also do drop sites where we want to influence the food culture by getting our product out there. We are playing around with the different ways to best reach people,” said Marshall.