Sunday, April 20, 2003

Economy shrinks sales of microgreens



By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When your business niche is almost as small as your product, hard economic times can hurt. Denise Dailey knew that from the start, and now she's feeling it.

We first told you about Dailey's Walton Creek Farms near Madison, Ind., in January, where Denise, husband Dennis and son Kyle grow tiny microgreens in greenhouses. Chefs around the country use the trendy little greens - most under 3 inches tall - in salads or as accents on plates.

But the weak economy has slowed business at many restaurants, which means the chefs aren't ordering as much of the pricey microgreens (minimum is $19 per 6 ounces plus next-day delivery). The Daileys, who were the first to grow microgreens in Indiana and one of the first in the Midwest, also face increasing competition from other growers around the country.

Now open to public

"In any business, you have to welcome change," Denise says.

So beginning last week, the family opened its greenhouses to the public, selling not only microgreens, but fresh herbs, mushrooms and antique rose plants. Later in the season, they plan to sell heirloom tomatoes and other seasonal vegetables.

"In order to continue to make a living here at the farm, we decided we need to capture some of the local market," Denise says.

From the start, she has been the driving force behind the family's microgreen venture. Until 2000, she worked as a resource specialist at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Until he recently retired, her husband was a union plumber. The Daileys raised hogs and tobacco on the side, but when pork prices bottomed in 1998 and tobacco futures turned bleak, Denise began looking for an alternative crop. Ideally, she wanted an enterprise that would allow her to stay at home with her grandchildren.

California thing

Denise read about the microgreen rage in California, and with the help of her husband and son, began cultivating the greens in hydroponic tanks. They sold their first microgreens to a Louisville restaurant in 1999 and by the next year, the Daileys were shipping all over the country. Last year, they served customers in 39 states, including restaurants in Chicago and on the East and West coasts.

Even though business has slowed, the Daileys are still busy planting, harvesting and shipping the exotic greens, such as arugula, red amaranth and purple kohlrabi. Denise is on the phone and computer, taking orders from chefs, while watching her grandchildren. Her seventh grandchild arrived this month.

"Sometimes, it gets really hectic around here," she says. "But when I need to go play with the kids, I can do that. We still have that opportunity."

Walton Creek Farms in Deputy, Ind., is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. For directions or more information: (888) 259-6623 or www.waltoncreek.com.




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