Growing sprouts, growing a family

The Recorder. March 15 2015. Chris Curtis
GILL — Every Tuesday and Wednesday, Seay Minor drives 300 miles in what was once the family minivan, a red Chrysler with the passenger compartment gutted and retrofitted with insulation and a roof-mounted refrigeration unit to keep his cargo of delicate sprouts stable.

Spring is coming, but the changing season makes no difference to the millions of sprouts growing in the warm, humid confines of the Gill Greenery, where the five-member Minor family maintain a true family business.

Inside the former greenhouse on Center Road, the Minors grow about 500 pounds of broccoli, radish, alfalfa and other sprouts each week in all seasons for delivery to shops and restaurants in western Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

The Minors bought the land, home and sprout farm on Center Road from Sousie and Philip Maddern in 2009.

Seay and Rebekah Minor were living in Gill at the time, in the home Rebekah grew up in, and knew the Madderns from church. Seay Minor said the Madderns were looking to downsize and wanted to pass their labor of love onto a young family, and put out a letter looking for a match in the church community.

Seay Minor, now 37, had a steady, well-paid and benefited job as a Verizon service technician at the time, but had been looking for a change. The couple home-school their three children, Ethan, 14, EmmaRae, 12 and Rachael, 10, and Minor said he was looking for a family business they could all work together.

“I didn’t have a green thumb, I didn’t come in as a gardener, as someone who grows things, has a passion for that. I came in because of my passion for my family. I wanted a business where we could all work together, taking that home-schooling to the next level,” he said.

A year after buying the business, Verizon offered an early retirement buyout and he took the jump to full-time farming earlier than he had planned. “I’m still not making the money I did at Verizon, but it’s about so much more than that,” he said.

The sprouts begin as seeds bought from a bigger grower that moved into the supply business. The seeds come certified as pathogen-free but the Minors soak them for two hours in pitchers with an anti-bacterial citrus extract. Seay Minor said a chlorine solution harsher than that used to sterilize the equipment is recommended, but he prefers to soak his food in food. Cleanliness is important with a product intended to be eaten raw and unwashed in salads, sandwiches and as a replacement for lettuce. The work surfaces are stainless steel, the well water is tested regularly and bombarded with ultraviolet light, and after the structure is emptied for delivery each week, a neighbor cleans the interior with medical-grade cleaning solutions.

After their soak, the seeds are rinsed then placed into either the banks of baking sheets in the three growing rooms or into the rotating sprout drum. The drum, whose four quadrants can hold 100 pounds of sprouts each and whose slow rotations every ten minutes keep the sprouts from composting, is the way of the future for the farm and they plan to install more. The yield is 10 pounds of sprouts to one pound of seeds for most, 2.5 to 1 for green peas, which also take a week to grow. The smaller sprouts are ready in closer to four days. In the drums or the rooms, the sprouts are misted regularly, kept at 72 degrees with fans circulating air through their roots and proto-leaves.

The sprouts grow hydroponically, with nothing but water and a little artificial sunshine from normal electric lights to trick the small leaves into turning green. This is a purely aesthetic consideration, Seay said, with the green bringing no discernible difference in taste. The photosynthesis may bring a slight bitterness that he can’t detect but is told those with very sensitive taste buds can.

Twice a day on weekends, because it happens to be the right stage in the growing cycle, the whole family squeezes into the growing room and tosses the trays of sprouts by hand, fluffing the delicate mass to expose new surfaces to the circulating air.

On Tuesdays they harvest, and there are smaller chores for the children, like sticking the labels for the seven sprout varieties onto the one-ounce plastic boxes and, for one variety, bags.

Sunday, Ethan headed directly into the sprout building after church and spent 25 minutes or so constructing cardboard boxes. When the whole family heads into one of the growing rooms to fluff the sprouts, they pass a tray down to a lower shelf for Rachael.

“Honestly, I’m just selfish. I wanted that experience with my kids, I have a few years with them living under my roof, and I wanted to enjoy as much of that as I could,” he said.