Go to Greens
How one Vermont farm is using the internet to grow distribution — and profits
It’s easier to find Gourmet Greens on the internet than on Dodge Road in Chester. No sign adorns the front of the modest brown building and adjoining greenhouse where 800 pounds of “greens” are grown, harvested and shipped a week. Owner Rich Rommer wants to keep it that way. “We don’t have a sign because we don’t want people to find us,” he says with a hint of misanthropy, noting people drive up from Connecticut and Massachusetts in search of their favorite sprout source. “There is a lot of extra work involved in retail. I don’t want to have a store here. I’m a farmer.”
If you’re picturing an old guy in overalls and rubber boots, rub your eyes. Rommer is a 50-year-old graduate of the Hippocrates Health Institute in Boston who tends his crops in a T-shirt and Birkenstocks. He grows four products, year-round, without ever having to go outdoors. His soil-grown sunflower, radish and snow-pea greens get shipped twice weekly to stores as far as Maryland. You can find them at local health-food stores and co-ops. Gourmet Greens also grows wheatgrass — the chlorophyll-rich “nutriceutical” thought to “eliminate toxins as you drink it,” Rommer says.
The future of farming in Vermont may end up looking a lot like this: smart, specialized operations catering to people who will pay for certified organic. Reaching enough of those people of course, has always been the challenge for far-flung growers. The internet now allows virtual Vermont cultivators to reach their customers directly, and to sell them related products online. In addition to sprouts, seed and soil, Gourmet Greens’ website brokers new and used juicers that range in price from $89 to $560. Sales of online merch have improved the bottom line for Rommer, who estimates he will gross about $230,000 this year.
On a drab November day, the brilliant green shoots are a welcome contrast, maturing under grow-lights in flats about the size of industrial baking trays. Seven days after planting, they are ready to harvest. With a straight-edged razor blade, and the dexterity of a cosmetologist, Virginia Brown slices off the plants about three-quarters of an inch above the soil line, and stacks them in a rubber basin, sending the root-filled soil back to the compost. It’s a labor-intensive process because no sharp-edged instrument has yet been developed to mechanize the shearing. And harvesting is the easy part compared to seeding, watering and composting the organic soil, which Rommer also sells over the internet.
But the effort pays off. Like most things in small, plastic packages, specialized salad greens command a good price. Rommer gets between $5 and $8 per pound from wholesalers. Retail customers — who email their orders online and receive them by next-day air — shell out $35 for the first pound, most of which pays for shipping. “I thought I was going to grow a little bit of everything — carrots, lettuce and all those other things. I soon realized there is very little money in those things, because you are competing against agribusiness,” Rommer says. Large producers tend to stay away from sprouts, he says, because they require so much individual attention.
“If you are a farmer out in the middle of nowhere, like most of the farmers in Vermont are, this could be very viable,” says Lindsey Ketchel at the Vermont Department of Agriculture. She describes Gourmet Greens as an “incredibly innovative and creative solution” to the challenging problem of sustaining small-scale agriculture in the state. “How would you like to be a dairy farmer with the USDA telling you how much you can get per hundredweight?” she suggests for comparison. “Farmers have to get a fair price for their product, and have control over their market, to succeed.”
One thing Rommer does not have control over is ever-tightening health regulations — the result of increasing national concern about food safety in the wake of numerous foodborne illnesses. Sprouts have come under increasing scrutiny since a number of people got sick, presumably from contaminated sprout seed, in outbreaks in California, according to an article in the trade publication Growing For Market. The culprits were thought to be hydroponic alfalfa sprouts, which are cultivated in warm, bacteria-friendly water. They are more likely to cause illness, in part because it is virtually impossible to separate the seed from the sprout.
“Soil-grown sprouts such as wheatgrass, sunflower sprouts and pea shoots have not been implicated in any contamination cases,” the article continues, “but it appears so far that they will be subject to the same regulatory action as the water-grown sprouts.”
Earlier this year the parents of a sickened child filed suit against a hydroponic grower in Oregon. Around the same time, Rommer decided to disassociate himself from the aquatic side of the industry by substituting the word “greens” for “sprouts.”
But getting around the regs is a bit more involved than changing the language on labels. The Food and Drug Administration now requires alfalfa sprout growers to soak their seeds in a 2 percent chlorine solution for 10 minutes before planting. Seed suppliers require a signed affidavit from growers, promising they will follow the disinfecting procedure. The same practice is recommended for soil-grown cultivators like Rommer. But “we wouldn’t be certified organic if we used that hazardous chemical,” he points out. An added irony is that chlorine is a known carcinogen. Health-conscious wheatgrass buyers are not likely to appreciate the deadly marinade.
Rommer has instituted some improved safety measures of his own, including better seed storage containers and improved “traceability” in the event of a recall. He also tests every new seed shipment by sending the resulting greens to a lab to certify they are free of pathogens. The relationship between growers and regulators doesn’t have to be contentious, he says. “They are trying to ensure the safety of the food supply. They should be there, just like troopers on the interstate are there to keep speeders under control. I don’t have a problem with that.”
But Rommer does have a problem with greens being singled out for scrutiny — operations like his are “more like a dirt farm ... I think if they are going to require people like us, who grow greens in soil, to soak seed in chlorine, they should also require Swiss chard, lettuce and mesclun growers to soak their seed, too, even out in the open field.” Rommer does recommend washing his greens, as you would lettuce or any other salad stuff. And his sunflower greens come with a warning: “Remove any seed hulls before eating.” Rommer keeps close watch over his own growing operation, overseeing every stage of the process from seeding to shipping. It’s an organic cycle that plays itself out every day. Most of the heavy lifting is done by noon. While part-time workers bustle between buckets of soaking seed and bags of freshly harvested radish greens, Rommer is just as likely to be showing off the company website as tending to the furnace, which burns oil and wood.
Employees approach Rommer with every imaginable question. Only one worker, Virginia, seems sufficiently self-reliant to cover for the boss. A teenage boy, Nick, oversees the composting operation, which takes up a large portion of the greenhouse. A homeschooler, he is getting an excellent hands-on lesson in microbiology and horticulture, tending to a dozen wooden bins in various stages of decomposition.
Nick is also the sole worker to turn down a couple ounces of free wheatgrass juice during the mid-morning break — a company ritual, apparently, that suggests Rommer really does believe in his product. In fact, Rommer was still pretty young when he first experienced the benefits of good nutrition. At 18, he went to the doctor with a severe case of acne, and was told to stop eating certain foods. “I avoided those and it did clear up my face,” he says. “So I saw the connection.”
He saw the connection again when he came back from Europe, buff and healthy after eating vegetarian for several months, and resumed an American diet of hamburgers and cookies. “My face broke out, I gained weight, and I said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to lose this health that I came upon by accident.’”
Someone suggested he check out a nearby health-food store in suburban New York City, and he picked up a 95-cent paperback titled, How to be Healthy With Natural Foods. Says Rommer, “I just kept on reading.”
That interest led him to read and later work for wheatgrass guru Anne Wigmore, who was advocating a “live food diet” in Boston, and later, to an organic farm in upstate New York. He spent six years gardening — and making wheatgrass concoctions — for a wealthy woman in Rochester. It was there, 18 years ago, that he started the greens business. Rommer’s Vermont-born wife, Kathy, convinced him to move it to Chester, midway between White River Junction and Brattleboro, in 1986.
Although some might find Rommer’s views on the harsh side — he won’t hire smokers, for example, and is very much down on dairy — he still practices what he plants. “We are able to make a living, without sacrificing our lifestyle, in Vermont,” he says, pressing the fresh green blades through a company juicer until the pulp spirals out like a fibrous emerald turd. Administered like a dose of Nyquil, the liquid tastes like lawn clippings mixed with sugar, with a slightly medicinal aftertaste.
They go through about three pounds a day at Liquid Energy — juice capital of Burlington, on the Church Street Marketplace. Rommer was the only local source of wheatgrass, until he trained a farmer in Fair Haven to grow enough to supply the cafe. “I’ve learned over the years that when you give, it comes back,” Rommer suggests. No one provides more convincing proof that you can reap what you sow.
For more information about Gourmet Greens, or to order online, check out the website at gourmetgreens.com. Or call 875-3820.