A native Houstonian who moved to California and grew marijuana for a dispensary for three years is now applying what he learned to grow microgreens for Houston restaurants.
Juan Molina of JSH Equipment & Supplies just returned to Houston last December. “I’ve had a crazy adventure. I went out [to California] to experience it. I’ve always been a grower way before that, though. I’ve been a grower nearly 17 years.”
Molina already had what he calls a growing shop that he says was “doing really well,” but he wanted to check out hydroponic growing systems — for all types of plants — in California. “They do a lot of growing out there. You look at the side of the freeway and there’s a strawberry field. We have trees and shrubs [in Texas], and they have actual nurseries and growing facilities. I thought that was really interesting. They’re real big into community farms. Every neighborhood has a community garden, and I thought that was awesome.”
In California, Molina set up and ran a dispensary that included deliveries to people with medical marijuana identification cards. “We had to take down their info, had to verify they were actually legal patients. Once we verified that, we’d pull up, take a picture of their card and could then log them into our system for future purchases,” he explained.
After three years, Molina says, “I made plenty of revenue and I wanted to change my scene again. That’s when I came home. I wanted to start doing something different. The hobby was fun, but I wanted to keep it as a hobby but not a job.”
He returned to Houston and soon put his knowledge as a hydroponic grower to work. At first he grew lettuce but couldn’t produce enough in the space he had available to make a profit. “You need to make thousands and thousands of heads of lettuce to make any money,” said Molina. He started trying to figure out what to grow next, and while doing research, he came across microgreen grower Larry Hountz, who runs “vertical urban farm” City-Hydro in Baltimore. (Hountz was recently profiled in a New York Times article.)
Molina liked the system Hountz was using, which he calls the “grow pure” method, and adopted it to start his own microgreen-growing business in Houston. It uses no pesticides or chemicals. Plants are grown in coco fiber mats, a soil-less medium. “You just use fresh water and harvest in ten to 15 days,” says Molina.
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The low-overhead concept has been much more profitable. He grows petite versions of mustard (“which a lot of the sushi places like for the spicy flavor and nice color”), arugula (“chefs like it for flavoring”), pea shoots, amaranth (“high in vitamin K and used for garnishes”) and basil as well as sunflowers, radishes, cabbage, kale and broccoli. Those latter three Molina says he grows for their cancer-fighting ability. “They’re a good source of energy and vitamins,” he says. “They’re high in nutrients and have everything you would need if you didn’t want to take pills.”
Molina has tried to get a spot to sell his microgreens to the public at various farmers’ markets, but says none have allowed him in. “I’ve found getting a space at a farmers’ market is really based on a friend letting you in their market. They wanted me to grow something exotic, and I’m just like, well — I don’t get it. You have one guy growing microgreens, so you don’t want to let another one in so they don’t have competition,” he said.
Updated 8/17/2016, 11:10 a.m.: Molina says that he has now found a spot at The Farm Stand at Petrol Station and will start selling his microgreens to the public there this Saturday, August 20.
Molina says he does want to sell microgreens to the general public. In the meantime, Houston diners might spy Molina’s microgreens garnishing dishes at Oporto, The Queen Vic and Hotel Granduca.