meet the farmer
Earth Alchemy Farm owners create niche market with their microgreens.
WRITTEN BY SUE EDMONDSON
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
In 2011, after working in the food-service industry for several years, Rory and Shelly Ballard believed it was time to pursue careers that honored their deep connection to the land. They hoped to naturally grow nutrient-rich produce and, in doing so, contribute to the local food movement and economy.
“We’ve always been interested in healthy eating and sharing our knowledge about it,” Rory says. “Reno is developing a solid local food structure. We wanted to be part of it.”
Their potential farmland was the backyard of their Reno home, a mere tenth of an acre. Instead of feeling discouraged, the couple viewed their property as an opportunity to create a unique agricultural business.
“The inspiration to grow in our yard came from the space itself,” Rory says. “We liked the idea of being an urban model of a modern local farm, and being within a couple miles of our customers.”
Determined, they experimented with a number of crops, including microgreens.
“They’re a nutritious source of protein and vitamins, you can grow them year round, and they potentially provide a more sustainable source of income in a small amount of space,” he says.
Ultimately, two crops made the cut: sweet-tasting pea and spicy sunflower greens, chosen for their popularity, nutrition content, and profitability.
“We went into this business to thrive and make a good livelihood while providing a valuable service. We had to stick to our guns to build the business part,” Rory says of their Earth Alchemy Farm.
That included taking Good Agricultural Practices courses to ensure they instituted appropriate food-safety practices. It also included choosing a name that reflected their philosophy.
“Alchemy is the art of transformation. I like to think of our farm as transforming a yard into an edible landscape,” Rory says. “On a deeper level, it’s how we can work with nature. Plants help heal the environment, and eating food grown in a healthy environment is medicinal.”
The couple invested in a 600-square-foot greenhouse for microgreen production.
Although it fills much of their backyard, there’s enough land remaining to raise a variety of perennial herbs, hundreds of pounds of vegetables, and pet chickens.
Inside the greenhouse, tall metal racks house some 300 trays of peas and sunflowers in various stages of growth. The center rows of ready-to-harvest greens create a striking, emerald mini-forest, the leaves forming a canopy that frames thin stems. Propane heaters warm the air during winter, and windows open to cool the crops during hot summer days. Fans ensure good circulation year round.
Rory is the company marketer.
“When we started, I basically did cold calls, dropping off samples and brochures to local restaurants and shops,” he says. “Now much of our business comes from referrals. I think our product sold itself.”
Shelly, whose quiet nature complements Rory’s outgoing one, manages daily operations, from planting the organic seeds in the trays of organic soil to product delivery.
“There’s a rhythm to it,” she says. “Once we got the cycle down, it became manageable.”
Currently, they supply 100 pounds of microgreens weekly to 16 local restaurants and the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno. They also have a year-round CSA for their greens. In the warmer months, the CSA includes naturally grown herbs, cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes.
Living Their Dream
With a system in place, they can enjoy the occasional day of rock climbing or biking.
“We like to be outdoors,” Shelly says.
It’s not surprising when Rory says their greatest pleasure comes from growing.
“It’s amazing that you add water to a tiny seed and it turns into a huge plant,” he says. “There’s nothing more magical.”
Freelance writer Sue Edmondson writes for various publications in Nevada and California. Until she tasted microgreens, she didn’t know something so small could taste so good.
For details about the Reno farm, visit www.Earthalchemyfarm.com