A Business Sprouts From the Dark

Editor’s note:  Although the Sauers have not had any food safety incidents in their operation, Kroger recently announced that food safety concerns within the sprout industry have led the company to remove sprouts from all of its stores. You can read about its decision. The Sauers suggest customers let local their local store manager know if they’d like to see sprouts return to store shelves.

In a basement with no soil or sun, the soaked seeds start to germinate in just a few hours. Depending on the variety of seed, sprouts are ready to harvest in three to five days.

Steve and Pat Sauer know all about growing these tiny plants. For the past 30 years, the Franklin County Farm Bureau members have been growing sprouts for their business, Sunsprout Farms of Central Ohio, which operates in urban Columbus across the street from a high school. They grow mung bean sprouts (the fat sprouts found in many cooked Asian dishes) and the skinny, more delicate alfalfa, broccoli, clover and radish sprouts.

The sprouts are rich in nutrients and protein and were used thousands of years ago by Chinese physicians attempting to cure many disorders. When describing the growing process, the Sauers make it sound simple. But the reality is it takes the right seed, water and air temperatures, amount of light, number of times turned, rinsing, sanitization and cooling.

The Sauers knew nothing about growing sprouts when they bought the business, then a franchise, in 1982. They had a crash course before the previous owner left, tossing out most of the worn-out equipment. They were nervous but determined. They had a healthy customer list, a solid work ethic and a strong desire to be self-employed.

“It was really risky,” Steve said. “We had to borrow money, we had only 10 days of training, we had no contracts with our customers and we had no equipment. There was always the possibility we could be kicked out of the building and there was another competitor in town.”

Steve worked seven days a week on the new business while Pat, once the breadwinner, took care of their young children. The couple persevered, overcoming the learning curve and a ruined Christmas when they discovered the hot water had been left on, filling the rooms with steam and damaging equipment. As the business grew they bought a building that had once been a candy store and raised it 32 inches so the basement would be high enough for their growing and processing rooms. A hole was cut into the ceiling so a forklift could raise the crates of sprouts upstairs where they are loaded into a refrigerated truck or van.

Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks, a supporter of urban farms, called the Sauers’ journey, “a great story.”

“All urban communities hit with the recession should take a look at urban farming. But it’s more than about jobs. It’s about good healthy foods and getting back to our farming roots,” she said. A 2011 Ohio State University study found “significant levels of local self-reliance in food, the most basic need, is possible in post-industrial North American cities.” And while urban agriculture is only able to meet a fraction of total food needs, the study noted that developing farms in Cleveland could keep $29 million to $115 million in the community.

At Sunsprout Farms workers are busy filling 150 cases of broccoli sprouts and 150 cases of mung beans for Kroger stores in central, northern and northwestern Ohio as well as parts of Michigan. The Sauers also sell to produce wholesalers, an area co-op and about 20 Asian grocery stores. Each week they produce about 14,000 pounds of sprouts. Most surplus is donated to area food banks.

The Sauers recommended consumers keep their sprouts cold and dry and store them in a plastic bag or plastic container. The mung bean sprouts have a shelf life of about seven days and two to three weeks for the green sprouts.

Sprouts can add nutrition, flavor and texture to everyday foods by adding them to sandwiches, soups, salads, omelets and stir-fry dishes. For Steve, he likes to simply eat them by the handful.

“People tend to decorate their sandwiches with sprouts. They need to pile it on there,” he laughed.

The Sauers are proud of the success of their business, which they plan to pass on to their children.

“We love being our own boss and have a sense of pride seeing our product in stores,” Pat said. “I love going into the (mung) bean room in the morning and looking at it at the end of the day to see how much it has grown. It’s a lot like our business— I can’t believe how much it’s grown and how fast 30 years have gone by.”

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.

See the Mung Bean Sprout Salad recipe

Sprout varieties

Alfalfa These sprouts contain significant dietary sources of phytoestrogens, connected with the prevention of menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, cancer and heart disease. Use in sandwiches, salads and omelets.

Broccoli These mild pepper flavored sprouts are high in the cancer fighting compound, sulforaphane. Use in salads or juiced.

Clover These are a good source of flavones, which are shown to have powerful anti-cancer properties. Use in salads and sandwiches.

Lentil High in protein, they can be cooked or eaten raw. Use in steamed vegetables or soups.

Mung Bean A staple in Asian food, these fat white sprouts are a good source of protein, fiber and vitamin C. A 3 oz. serving contains only 30 calories. Use in Asian dishes and lightly cook them.

Mustard These delicate sprouts are tiny and very spicy. Use in everything from eggs to salads.

Onion With a distinct flavor, these sprouts are good sources of protein and vitamins A, C and D. Use in salads and sandwiches.

Radish These spicy sprouts are high in calcium, vitamin C and vitamin A. Too delicate for cooking; use them in salads and sandwiches.

Soybean These sprouts are very high in protein, vitamin C, folate and fiber. Use in casseroles and stews.

Sunflower A rich source of lecithin and vitamin D, these sprouts are known for their crispness and nutty flavor. Use in salads or juiced.

Source: International Sprout Growers Association