Growing Sprouts for Cash

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With a setup like this, it's no wonder Evy and Jane have succeeded growing sprouts.
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Diagrams of the shelves Season Is Now uses for sprouts and the rack they use for lentils.
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The process of rinsing, draining, extracting, and weighing sprouts.
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Evy and Jane at work packing sprouts for delivery.
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A package label for The Season is Now Sprout Farm.
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Evy and Jane load up their truck to make deliveries.

Home businesses, as readers of this magazine well know, are sprouting up all over the place these days. Even here in Ballston Spa, New York, where our own little two-woman enterprise is based on sprouts themselves!

Nope. We’re not the only folks currently making a living growing sprouts, and we cheerfully admit that we’re a long way from being the first to have had the idea. But we are harvesting a steady crop of cash from our basement alfalfa field and lentil patch, we’re sure that lots of others could do the same thing in their own sections of the country, and we’d like to share some of the details of our success with you.

Check Out Your Market

The consumption of delicious and healthful sprouts, as we’re sure you’ve noticed, has skyrocketed here in the United States and Canada during the past few years. Almost every health food store and even a few supermarkets now carry at least alfalfa shoots.

But just because an outlet handles a line doesn’t necessarily mean that its manager is satisfied with his or her supplier or that supplier’s product. So make a few phone calls (even to stores that you know already offer sprouts) and set up some interviews. That’s what we did. And we met some very interesting and interested, reasonable, and creative businessmen and businesswomen who sampled our goods … and gave us some orders! It never hurts to ask.

We’ve found that we especially like to deal with the large supermarket chains, since it puts our alfalfa and lentil shoots in front of many shoppers who would otherwise never be exposed to them. But then, we also have fun servicing the small health food outlets and corner grocery stores in our area too.

And don’t forget restaurants or school cafeterias either. We’ve found that it’s a lot less work to deliver a single bulk order to one nearby college cafeteria than it is to package the same amount of sprouts in 60 dozen four-ounce bags!

So set up some appointments, run off a few small sample batches of sprouts (if you’re already a home sprouter, you’ll know how. If you’re not, any number of good books can tell you everything you need to know), make a businesslike presentation to your prospects, and see what happens. You may be surprised to find that some of the supermarkets, groceries, restaurants, health food stores, and school cafeterias in your neck of the woods are more anxious to do business with you than you might have thought!

The Initial Investment

Once you’ve checked out the demand for sprouts in your area, you’ll have an idea of just how extensively to “gear up” for production of the foodstuffs. In our case, we knew that we were going to make a go of our little home business or bust, so we plunged right into the enterprise a whole $1,000 worth!

This initial investment purchased everything we needed to launch The Season Is Now Sprout Farm on a rather substantial footing: seeds, labels, lumber for the shelves we needed to hold our sprouting jars (the one-gallon, wide mouthed containers themselves were collected free from local restaurants), nails, wood and screening for lentil trays, drainage pans, bags, boxes, box tape, a stapler and staples, tongs, cheesecloth, rubber bands, order books, a record book, a business certificate, invoices, other miscellaneous business supplies, rent, oil (heat), electricity, water, and telephone.

The Initial Details

As anyone who has ever started a business knows, we also invested more than money in the establishment of our little enterprise. A great deal of time and energy went into the collection of our “free” glass jars; the naming of our operation and the design of its labels, stationery, and business cards; visits to several printers; phone calls and meetings with bag and box suppliers; the construction of racks and trays; the design and installation of a drainage system (for rinsing and washing the sprouts); the registration of our partnership papers with the county clerk (which was easy, and was done for banking purposes); the opening of a business checking account; the placing of orders for seeds from a major natural food distributor (check your local health food stores for a wholesale source in your area); the obtaining of a liability insurance policy (it was inexpensive); and other odds and ends.

Racks, Trays, Shelves

We started right off constructing enough shelves to hold up to 160 of our wide mouthed, one-gallon alfalfa sprouting jars. Each of the units measures six feet long, six feet high, and two feet deep and is built entirely of 1 X 3’s except for the seven-foot-long 2 X 4’s that run up all four corners.

The shelves are designed so that each “layer” of 20 jars (10 in the front and another 10 in the back) is spaced 13 inches above the one below, and the lowest double row of the containers is supported 18 inches off the floor (for sanitation purposes). Note, too, the way in which each jar of sprouting seeds is securely held at an upturned angle of 45° or better for drainage.

Don’t try to skimp on these shelves! The weight of the one-gallon glass jars they hold plus the developing sprouts in those containers plus the water which drains off the growing shoots does add up. If you stick with the dimensions given here, though, you shouldn’t have any trouble.

Our lentils grow in an entirely different kind of “garden” made up of 20″ X 36″ trays constructed of 1 X 3’s with screening stapled to their bottoms. These trays slide into three racks (each rack holds eight of the flat containers) framed up from 2 X 4’s. Every individual tray holds at least 10 pounds of growing sprouts as the shoots near maturity, which means that each rack—when fully loaded—carries a minimum of 80 pounds of weight or 240 pounds of lentils in all.

Drainage System

Sprouts, of course, must be rinsed at least twice a day (both to nourish them and to wash away any mold that might try to develop on the growing shoots). Which means that a very important part of any sprouting operation is the provision made for draining the rinsed seeds. We think that our drainage setup is simple, efficient, and sanitary.

As we rinse the sprouts in the individual jars (by squirting a hose through the cheesecloth held over the containers’ mouths with heavy rubber bands), each of the jars is briefly turned upside down over a large plastic bucket until most of the water runs out. (It’s then an easy matter, in turn, to carry the bucket over to a nearby sump pump and empty it.)

The jars are next placed back in their racks, where they’re held tilted so nearly upside down that any remaining excess water in the containers can drip out of their mouths. These drippings are collected by a large sheet of five-mil plastic that is attached with staples and/or tacks to the underside of each rack’s bottom shelf. And the plastic is positioned so that the drops of water run toward the center of each collection sheet, where a hole enables water to drain into a large washtub (actually a “wash and rinse” tub which was manufactured with a fitting and attached hose already added to its bottom). The drainage hoses from all the washtubs lead directly into our sump pump, making the “drip drainage” of our sprouting jars about as automatic as it can be. Much the same system is set up under each of the racks which hold our lentil sprouting trays.

Sprout Cultivation

Once we’d taken care of all our startup details, we were ready for what is actually the easiest part of our whole operation: the day-to-day cultivation of alfalfa and lentil sprouts.

This is a snap, as you know if you’ve ever tried it. Or to put it the other way around: When you soak almost any kind of seed overnight, rinse it, place it somewhere in the dark or semi dark where it can remain at a comfortable room temperature and stay moist but not wet, and then rinse that seed and drain it down to a moist-but-not-wet condition again at least two or three times a day … there’s probably no way in the world to keep that seed FROM sprouting!

In our case, we begin each batch of shoots by soaking four ounces of alfalfa seeds per gallon jar and five pounds of lentils for each sprouting tray. (Since the alfalfa multiplies in bulk by a factor of seven and the lentils double in size as they grow, this gives us a mature crop weighing 28 ounces from each jar and 10 pounds per tray.)

The rest is just a matter of maintaining our walk-in garden’s temperature (the temperature of our basement!) at a constant 68° to 74°F for optimum growth, rinsing and draining each jar and tray regularly, and waiting out the approximately three days until the new crop is ready to rinse, bag, box, and deliver.

We bag and box our sprouts twice a week and then early the following mornings, we’re off to make our deliveries. (Every box of our little shoots contains instructions that tell the produce manager who receives it how to handle and store the sprouts and remind him or her that the tiny vegetables have a shelf life of no more than a week. This is good for the final customer, good for our accounts, and good for our business.) Then it’s on to the next batch while we wait a week for the check for that crop—the one we’ve just delivered—to arrive in the mail.

Customer Satisfaction

The top priority of The Season Is Now Sprout Farm has always been “please the customer,” and that’s precisely what we try to do.

That’s the reason, for instance, that we offer our accounts both alfalfa and lentil sprouts instead of just one variety as some other sprouters do. (At present we’re even experimenting with radish sprouts, which add a spicy tang to our alfalfa shoots.)

It’s also the reason we credit our small local stores from week to week for the sprouts we leave with them that do not sell (whatever doesn’t sell one week is replaced with fresh packages at no charge the next). Actually, we feel that this is more to our benefit than to anyone else’s; it enables us—rather than the outlets—to maintain quality control just the way we want it, and assures us that our final customers will always purchase our very best and tastiest product.

And it’s also the reason we offer our customers sprout recipes and information about raising their own sprouts.

If this all sounds foolish, we can only report that we know our final customers are satisfied with our product because we’ve received some very pleasant correspondence from “fans” in New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. We think that’s one of our little company’s nicest “fringe” benefits!

Keep ’em Cool

Once sprouts are grown, they can be stored for about a week if they’re kept at a temperature of 38°F. We didn’t have any trouble doing that as we made our deliveries with our little Datsun pickup truck late last winter and on into the spring, but summer brought a problem (the threat of wilted sprouts) with it.

Thanks to a good friend who lives down the road a piece, however, we solved that one in short order by building a big plywood box for our pickup’s bed and lining it with an inch of styrofoam. The insulated box works just like a picnic cooler: The evening before our regular deliveries, we simply place a couple of containers of ice in the box, which pre-cools the chest down to a “just right” temperature for those deliveries. And, perhaps just as good, the insulated box works the other way around during the coldest parts of winter when it keeps our packaged crops from turning into “sproutsicles” as we make our rounds.

And Do Keep Records

Although bookkeeping can be a pain, it’s also an absolutely indispensable part of doing business in this day and age. After all, unless you keep accurate daily, weekly, and/or monthly records of merchandise purchases, sales, gas mileage, etc., how will you ever know if you’re really making a profit or a loss or how much of either? And how else will you know exactly where you stand with the Internal Revenue Service?

And, speaking of the IRS, how else—unless you keep good records—will you know exactly how much your little home business will allow you to deduct from your yearly taxes? That is: When you operate a business from your home—as we do—the costs of your rent, electricity, telephone, fuel, water, transportation, etc. (costs that would be nothing but expense if you only lived in the house) can be prorated out by space and usage so that a percentage of all those expenditures is both paid for by your business and, at tax time, deducted from the enterprise’s profit-and-loss statement as a legitimate cost of doing business. Every little bit helps, especially when it’s entirely legal and aboveboard.

The Bottom Line

We are presently committed to sprouting 35 dozen eight-ounce bags of lentil and 47 dozen four-ounce bags of alfalfa shoots a week. That’s 210 pounds of the first and 140 pounds of the second. Which means (since the lentils slightly more than double in weight as they grow and the alfalfa sprouts increase their weight by a factor of seven) that we start each week’s crop with about 95 pounds of lentils and 20 of alfalfa seed. And, when you multiply those figures in turn by four, you find that we’re currently purchasing 380 pounds of lentils (at 76¢ a pound) and 80 (at $1.59 a pound) of alfalfa per month. Which means we’re spending $288.80 every month for lentil seeds and $127.20 for the alfalfa we use.

Add on $39.36 for labels, $23.62 for plastic bags, $72.12 (boxes), $24.00 (gasoline used in deliveries), $12.00 (electricity), $50.00 (prorated rent for the basement in which our sprouts are grown), $5.00 (liability insurance), and $15.00 (miscellaneous supplies), and you find that our monthly business expenses total up to $657.10.

On the other hand, the 140 dozen packets of lentil sprouts we sell each month (at a wholesale price of 48¢ each) gross us $806.40 and the 188 dozen packages of alfalfa sprouts (which wholesale for 39¢ apiece) bring in another $879.84. Add the two figures together and you get $1,686.24. Which, when you subtract that $657.10 in expenses, still leaves $1,029.14.

When we break down the hours we put in to earn this amount, we find that we spend two and a half hours each week preparing seeds for soaking, two hours spreading lentils out on their growing trays, four hours rinsing sprouts, 16 ½ hours bagging our products, two hours preparing boxes, eight hours delivering the sprouts, three hours cleaning up, and two hours on book work. Total: 40 hours a week, or 160 hours a month.

Divide that number into our monthly net of $1,029.14, and (before taxes are deducted) you’ll discover that we’re earning more than $6.00 an hour, at home, in our own business, which we run pretty much as we darn well please. We don’t think that’s too bad for a couple of sprouters!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Three good books on the subject of sprouting and sprout use are The Sprouter’s Cookbook by Marjorie Page Blanchard, published by Garden Way in paperback for $3.95 … The Complete Sprouting Cookbook by Karen Cross Whyte, published in paperback by Troubador Press for $3.95 … and The Beansprout Book by Gay Courter, published by Simon & Schuster in paperback for $1.95.

And upon our request, Evysmith and Jane S. Gray have agreed to provide further information about their little sprouting business, “just as they live it.” (Please bear in mind that these ladies are sprouters and not writers and that they’re offering this service only because MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ editors know that some of this magazine’s readers are going to want it. Don’t expect a professional operating manual. Rather, expect something straight from the heart from two women who have been prevailed upon to share some of the secrets of their livelihood with some of the rest of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS family.