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The Boston Globe “Micro Management"

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

By Alison Arnett

NEW BEDFORD - An icy rain is beating against the plastic covering on a greenhouse in this gritty mill district. Inside the 10,000-square-foot space, the climate is moist and warm. Pea greens are sprouting their first tendrils, radish sprouts and ruby-streaked mustard greens are pushing up from the soil, and the tiniest collards and tatsoi are just a fuzzy, green haze on the peat moss. The aroma of wet earth, vegetation, and spring is in the air.

Growing in winter in this expansive facility is a project that excites produce wholesaler and retailer Henry B. Wainer. He was frustrated that he couldn’t get microgreens in the colder months, he says. That led to a program to grow locally year round, and this greenhouse, built on the site of an old box factory, is one example of Wainer’s experiments to push what can be raised in a frigid New England winter. The entrepreneur, president of Sid Wainer & Son, which ships produce to chefs all over the world, wanted to be able to meet the demands of his customers.

The scene inside the greenhouse is as verdant as late spring. And everything is miniature. Herbs like epazote, used in Mexican cooking, and aromatic lemon thyme will grow to about 2 inches high before being clipped, washed, and packaged. Pea greens will be harvested at 5 to 6 inches. By the next day, these darlings of trendy menus - they can cost $20 for an 8-ounce container - will be on restaurant tables. Chefs will create salads, garnish a fish course, even add a sprig or two to a dish of sorbet.

The winter harvest in this and in two other Wainer greenhouses is colorful. The tiniest African blue basil is growing, along with other doll-sized plants: chervil, popcorn shoots, carrot greens, shungiku, peppercress, golden beets, arugula, and red shisho.

Wainer, a big man who has the unflagging enthusiasm of a boy, is the third generation to run the business, which his grandfather founded in New Bedford’s seaport in 1914. He joined his late father, Sid, after college and helped the company expand and prosper, adding more restaurants to their client list and shipping produce and specialty foods to airlines, institutions, and high-end markets. Business has tripled in the last six years, Wainer says.

For years, Wainer and his father bought most of their winter produce from California, Europe, and beyond. It arrived at Logan International Airport, was quickly transported to New Bedford, packaged, and shipped out again. Now, with this greenhouse and two more in South Dartmouth, and a farm under the supervision of company vice president Victor Simas, Wainer & Son can plant different varieties of fruits and vegetables year-round, then introduce their favorites to local farmers who grow for them. Farmers receive seeds along with a growing plan and advice. Wainer sees both environmental and financial benefits in this sustainable approach. “We saved $400,000 in fuel last year by buying from New England,” he says.

Every season except winter, Sid Wainer grows produce and buys from farmers. Squash blossoms, heirloom tomatoes, 35 varieties of potatoes, Tuscan kale, fresh soybeans,strawberries, raspberries, Cape gooseberries, and other fruits and vegetables are now going from this region across the country. Simas and farmers David Rose and Milton Teixeira test as many varieties as they can, always looking for the ones that grow well here.

More growing is done on a former apple orchard near the sea in South Dartmouth, where Wainer and his family live. The company is experimenting with berries, which are wildly popular wherever they’re offered. In yet another new project, a 5,600-square-foot moveable greenhouse will be erected there in April. “We think we can extend the growing season right into December,” Simas says.

The relationship with local growers benefits the farmers, too. They’re guaranteed sales of their produce. “We want to make sure they make money,” Wainer says. He sees the company’s role as connecting regional farms to chefs here and around the country.

That makes experimentation crucial. The trend today may be arugula and micro greens, but tomorrow another fad may take over. One crop that has met with recent success is fresh soy beans or edamame. Wainer’s ability to supply restaurants with locally grown soy beans gives him a market edge.

In the company’s expansive main plant near the New Bedford greenhouse, in a former blanket factory, chefs create dishes for the public to sample in an adjacent retail shop. A climate-controlled room displays hundreds of varieties of cheese. It’s a tasting showcase for representatives from airlines, cruise ships, and educational institutions to come for classes and discussions, and to see, cook, and taste all kinds of food. Jim Maxwell, Wainer & Son’s executive chef, might be stuffing piquillo peppers with herb goat cheese, garnishing them with black olives, and from the greenhouse, adding tatsoi and amaranth. A flourish of popcorn shoot pokes out from a plate of duck confit.

The demand for herbs is high, says Simas. Varieties the company once had shipped to them from California can now be grown here. One is lemon thyme, which didn’t travel well. It arrived when it was turning black. Now the feathery herb is growing on trays in shallow soil. “If this works,” says Simas, “we might give a whole greenhouse to the crop.” Some herbs, like epazote, were difficult to source. The company has a theory about that. “If you can’t find it,” says Simas, “grow it.”

During the winter, it takes 21 to 27 days from planting to harvest, Simas says. By May, the span will be condensed to seven to 10 days. “It’s not the heat,” says Rose, the farmer, who previously worked for the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture. “It’s really the light.” Longer daylight means shoots come up faster.

As Simas checks a tray of basil sprouts, he says that the current trend for small vegetables makes the testing imperative. He’s hearing that chefs now want “petite” vegetables, which are not quite as small as “micro” and not as big as “baby.”

One chef in Las Vegas has asked the produce company to provide carrots and other vegetables that are each only 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch from end to end. “He wants the whole vegetable to show up intact when a sushi roll is cut,” says Wainer.

Chef, consider it grown.

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