Surrounded by trays of miniature plants in a multitude of leaf shapes and shades of green, Andrew Jensen was eager to explain why tiny lettuces and miniature herbs pack a big punch when it comes to flavor and nutrition.
"Micro-greens are five times to as much as 40 times more nutrient-dense than their fully grown counterparts," he explained recently. "Ours are raised in biodynamic material, with no additional nutrients added besides probiotics, and we do everything as re-generatively as possible. This gives us the most nutrient-dense, clean greens available."
Jensen is founder of Eternal Bloom, a Pueblo-area business that raises greens and herbs and sells them mostly through farmers markets in Colorado Springs. His wife Anais makes apothecary products such as body care items, tinctures and herbal supplements, which they also sell.
The young couple's business exemplifies the kind of diversification and innovation the Colorado Department of Agriculture hopes to celebrate, highlight and encourage as it prepares to mark the 20-year anniversary of the Colorado Proud program during the month of August.
The couple's business model aligns with three main goals Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg has for her administration: supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers; scaling up investment in high-value agriculture and alternative marketing opportunities; and promoting and incentivizing soil, water and climate stewardship.
Micro-greens are one of the fasting growing sub-categories within the Colorado Proud program, which now represents 2,700 companies statewide, according to program director Wendy White.
"We've seen a number of companies that grow micro-greens join the program within the last year," White said in a recent interview from her office in Bloomfield.
Jensen has spent about five years developing his business, which involves indoor growing but also related outdoor activities, such as a soil building enterprise.
In fact, when Jensen talks about what he does, he emphasizes the bigger picture of environmental sustainability and encouraging healthy lifestyles rather than just growing quality greens.
"Urban gardening is just a small branch leading into something much bigger for us," he said. "One of our big goals is education about sustainable growing practices. In the long run, it's healthier and provides better flavor. There's more natural disease resistance, less interference from artificial inputs and less cost."
"It's a less-is-more type of thing," he summarized.
Micro-greens add a bit of a novelty factor to offerings from growers like Jensen who market fresh produce along the Front Range. But having fresh locally grown greens of any kind is often a luxury in small rural towns on the Eastern plains.
Cathy Lamb, of Burlington, started her Colorado Proud member business roughly the same time as Jensen — a little over four years ago — and has been pleased by the way the community has responded to her seasonal, greenhouse-grown produce.
Crisp Harvest Farm started out as a "hobby thing" for Lamb and her husband.
"We do hydroponics, mostly lettuce and sometimes herbs like basil and mint, and other greens like kale," she said. "We also have tomatoes and cabbages, which are grown in regular soil."
She's happy to be part of a movement that is bringing more local greens to rural towns.
"Just because we are out in sticks doesn't mean we don't want quality and good fresh produce," she said. "That is part of why I was driven to get this going. It just seemed kind of like a no-brainer. We had five acres and plenty of room to do this. It's providing a service. It does take work and dedication, but it's rewarding."
They grow and deliver roughly 90 heads of lettuce a week plus other assorted items with the help of their son, who is gradually taking over the business. They also provide micro-greens and herbs for local restaurants, including The Dish Room in Burlington.
Each week they contact a lengthy list of customers, take orders and follow up with deliveries.
"Gardening is hard work, and it is especially hard doing it organically," Lamb said. "But it's great to see more people stepping up and growing things just to supply local people in their own communities."
Jose Varela, a truck driver from Holyoke, started a similar Colorado Proud member business in the past year called Vaja Greens. In his case, he uses an aquaponic growing system, which circulates the water through adjoining fish tanks to fertilize the plants.
"We sell to several grocery stores around here, and they are very happy about it. It's been a positive thing for the community," he said.
While he started out by building a local market for his products, Colorado MarketMaker, an online searchable database run by the state, has helped him attract more customers in Front Range cities. He recently started selling through the High Plains Food Co-op, which delivers farm products from northeastern Colorado and northwestern Kansas to customers in Denver and across the Front Range.
"We've already tripled our orders in just two months," he said.
Varela admitted that even he was surprised by how much better the quality is when greens are grown locally, picked fresh and consumed close to where they are grown.
"Before I started farming, I didn't know there was so much difference from regular store-bought produce. But it really is so much better tasting," he said. "A business like this is definitely a good thing for any community."