Local couple grows greens despite winter temperatures

Mike Porco and Kat Quinn grow nutrient-packed microgreens to sell to restaurants and buyer’s club at their home in Red Lodge.
Microgreens are planted in soil and harvested at the root during the seedling stage.

Seeing any type of fresh, local greens growing during the winter months is a beautifully, delicious sight. Situated inside a small building a few steps from their home, Kat Quinn and Mike Porco of Calabria Food Project are growing a variety of colorful and nutrient-packed microgreens to sell to restaurants and local buying groups.

Since moving to Red Lodge this past autumn, the two have been expanding their grow space to keep a consistent stock of microgreens, which are small plants harvested at the roots during the seedling stage and bursting with flavor.

Lights hang from Porco’s hand-built shelves to heat the densely-packed soil trays. The space is insulated and finding the right balance of elements for each delicate seed type has been instrumental in Porco and Quinn’s success.

“We wanted to grow greens year-round and saw a niche market with microgreens,” Porco said. Ranging from quick growing radish and arugula seeds, which can take 10 days to grow, to more complex, slower growing herbs like basil, cilantro and dill that take up to six weeks, Porco has been experimenting with various types and planting seeds specific to consumer requests.

“Chefs really like the specialty stuff,” Porco said. Microgreens, which were first introduced in California in the 1980’s have continued to grow in popularity due to their high nutrient content and bold flavor.

According to a 2014 United States Agriculture Department (USDA) led study that tested 25 different microgreens, results found, “In general, microgreens contained considerably higher levels of vitamins and carotenoids—about five times greater—than their mature plant counterparts.”

The flavor could be also described as having a more intense and concentrated taste than its adult plant. Selling to restaurants both in Red Lodge and Billings, Porco said chefs use them as edible garnishes to accompany a variety of dishes including salads, sandwiches and soups. “We put them on everything,” said Quinn, who enjoys the spicy, peppery taste of arugula and mustard greens.

Although they are not yet sold in major grocery stores, Calabria Food Project have been contributing their popular products (i.e. radish, broccoli, arugula, etc.) to the bi-monthly local buyer’s club and sell at Billing’s Good Earth Market. Not to be confused with sprouts, which are grown in a dark, moist environment where bacteria can potentially thrive, microgreen seeds are planted in soil where they grow to produce a few leaves before being harvested.

Because the greens are grown in a controlled environment, the two can be consistent in providing greens to their customers.

“Our goal is that restaurants know they can always get them,” Quinn said. “Consistency is definitely key,” Porco added.

By summer, they hope to have expanded both their facility and product line and plan to sell at Red Lodge and Billings Farmer’s Markets.