Most Manitobans find it easy to support the local food movement in summer and fall, when farmers markets and gardeners see the big flush of production, of all types of fruits and vegetables. July to September is the best time of year for home cooks and chefs, when flavors and selection are at their peak.
Committing to consume local produce grows less exciting in mid-winter when the selection available in Manitoba narrows to root vegetables and squash – almost. Lately, there has been an increase in local greenhouse production, making tomatoes and cucumbers available year-round, and even more exciting, there are farm businesses establishing here that produce microgreens.
Microgreens are grown from seed in trays for just under two weeks, meaning they are more advanced and nutritious than sprouts. Because they are grown in a soil medium, they are less susceptible than sprouts to carry any pathogens and pack a nutritious punch. Microgreens hold 4-40x times the amount of nutrients as their full-grown counterparts.
At Sweet Prairie Microgreens in Ile de Chenes, Manitoba, Tiffannie Pierson adds another layer of sustainability and nutritional value by creating a mix of Bokashi compost and peat moss. Adding the beneficial Bokashi microbes to the used microgreen soil helps break the soil down quicker, so it gets re-used in the microgreen cycle after about 3 months.
Science shows that the primary building blocks of all life begin with healthy, and diverse, microbial activity. Just as microbes play an essential part in our own body's health, microbes also play an important part in the health of our soil and gardens. Simply put, plants thrive when the soil is full of beneficial microorganisms and adding quality compost to the soil is the only way to get that. The presence of these beneficial microbes enables better nutrient transfer from the soil into the greens.
Unfortunately, we do not have good data on the micronutrient content of modern-day fresh produce from grocery stores in winter in Manitoba, but there are studies being released in other jurisdictions showing declining nutrient density in mass-produced, globally transported fruits and vegetables. To many people, that claim is totally believable without statistical evidence, because of the noticeable difference in taste between store-bought produce and our lovingly tended fresh alternatives.
In our family, over the past couple of months since adding Sweet Prairie Greens to the lineup of eco-conscious, nutrient-rich and regionally adapted foods that has become Prairie Routes, we have gradually moved away from our old green vegetable staples from the grocery store. Led by my teenage daughter, we have now found ways to use pea and sunflower microgreens in salads, sandwiches, and stir-fries. They are excellent lightly sauteed alongside pan-fried pickerel too.
Tiffannie’s radish microgreens are a bit spicy for my kids’ taste, but for me and the adult diners I cook for, these add an amazing pop of flavor to many different dishes. And they are beautiful. And – here is the best part – they are produced less than 30km from Winnipeg in the middle of winter.
I shudder to compare that to the food miles traveled by the wilted and who-knows-where-from alternative green vegetables that I used to buy. Never mind the impact of factory-style monocrop vegetable production in terms of pesticide and fertilizer runoff in the intense production zones that they come from, the difference in transport alone makes Sweet Prairie Greens a highly responsible food choice.
Responsible, delectable, beautiful, and nutritionally superior local food choices is the value offering of Prairie Routes. At the same time, we are committed to educating the public and connecting people with the source of their foods, and to lifting up the farms and food companies that deserve a great deal more support for the positive impact their businesses are having on our local environment.
It is not a simple process that Sweet Prairie Greens relies on to create such an impactful new food choice to eaters in Manitoba – the chemistry and biology behind Tiffannie’s soil-building work would be over the heads of all but the most eco-conscious agronomists currently working in the agriculture industry. But again, for those of us who believe that nutrition in food stems from the health of the environment it is grown in, and connect this to the flavor we experience, science and data are beside the point.
Connecting with the source of food is getting easier, more impactful, and ever more important in the world we are facing in 2021. As habits change towards more home cooking and developing healthy human resiliency supporting Prairie Routes and Sweet Prairie Greens becomes a natural choice.