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James McDonald & His Microgreens

Updated: Oct 7, 2018

As most of you know, we like nothing more than browsing around a Saturday morning market to hunt and gather wonderful organic produce and mingle with like-minded people.

Whenever we do this we meet people with an amazing story and we love to promote these stories and tell of their journeys so we can encourage our whole-food scene to flourish.

We bumped into the lovely James McDonald at Perth City Farm Market

( https://www.perthcityfarm.org.au/markets). We’ve been buying our microgreens from him for a while now and we are hooked.

What are microgreens I hear you say?

Microgreens are much more nutrient-dense foods than their fully mature counterparts. This is because they take all of the important vitamins and minerals found in the mature plant and manage to cram them into a much smaller package.

Most vegetables provide a diverse array of nutrients. Swiss chard, for example, is especially high in vitamin K, vitamin A and vitamin C, while beets are loaded with manganese and folate. The microgreen versions of these vegetables boast just as varied a nutrient profile and can help boost your vitamin and mineral intake quickly and easily.

In a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, microgreens contained between four to 40 times more nutrients by weight than their fully grown counterparts.

They are easily added to salads and all sorts of meals to add crunch, flavour and a bit of zing.

So we had to know how James had started off producing and selling this wonderful product.

"So James, everyone has a story, tell us yours. How did all this start off?”

I consider myself an entrepreneur, and for as long as I can remember I have wanted to start my own business, and to have an impact in people’s lives. What I’ve considered to be an ‘impact’ has changed dramatically over the years, from trying to invent shoes with detachable rollerblades (turns out someone else had already thought of this) to Giving Greens.

I wasn’t always so socially aware. Like most, I wanted to start a business, make lots of money and have the kind of lifestyle that goes with it. I had started to read and learn about property investing from my early teens and up until my mid twenties that is how I envisaged making my ‘fortune’. Living in Exeter in England, I was very much focusing on this dream while working in a café. It seemed as if I had found a relatively good break, and had an idea that had the potential to make a lot of money through property. I had an investor who wished to invest so things were looking good. The idea was to buy, or rent, large properties to provide housing for vulnerable youth coming out of foster care. The local council paid quite a lot of money to the owners of such a business for each child. So we saw an opportunity to start a business that could help to purchase more properties and build a bit of an empire, so to speak. Although it seemed like we were well-intentioned, unfortunately, it was the money side of things that appealed to us the most. We had no experience, or training in how to best meet the needs of these youth yet we were willing to make the commitment to helping them. To be honest it was dangerous and I think we could have done more harm than good. Suddenly I had this realisation, the things that people are willing to do for money, being quite willing to give the appearance of doing good but for their own financial gain.

I became a bit disillusioned with it all to be honest. The whole idea fell apart, and I kind of slumped into a bit of a confused and lost daze for quite a while. I’d pretty much go to work then go to the bars and pubs. Then one day, drunkenly on my way home from a bar, I met Liz. Liz was in her 40s, was homeless, and could play guitar and sing like no one else. She was incredible! That night I sat with Liz for about 4 hours. I learnt about her life, her daughters, her drug problems, health problems that weren’t being address because she was homeless, and more importantly I learnt a lot about the ever-present issue of homelessness. I would end up spending a lot of time with Liz, and with some of the others that were homeless in Exeter. In some ways, they seemed more real and honest to me than some of the other people in my life at the time. It felt as if I started to see a whole other side to the wealthy and prosperous modern society we live in. Things that once seemed so clear just started to make less and less sense to me. Money, and it’s control over ones ability to meet their most basic needs, started to really itch at me.

I started to wonder how I could meet my own needs without money, so I started researching how to grow my own food. It was in that research that I came across Permaculture, a design system that aims to meet human needs utilizing a set of principles observed in non-human-made environments. Shortly after that, I quit my job, left the comfort of the house I lived in, and went to volunteer on farms. I spent my last 6-months in England living and volunteering on small farm/campsite in Cornwall, then the next 6-months volunteering in Portugal, Spain, Romania, and Ireland, learning as much as I can about farming, and sustainability.

When I finally came back to Perth, I went to Uni to do a Bachelor of Sustainability, majoring in Sustainable Business Management, which I have now completed. And I was armed with an idea to make an impact in Perth by growing food for those less-able to afford good quality food. Through my travels I realised that lots of people have space, and resources they weren’t fully utilising, and that perhaps I could make use of them. I launched the Perth Urban Farming Project based on the idea of finding and using under utilised urban spaces to grow food for those in need. I advertised on Gumtree for land to use, and eventually was offered a great space up in Mundaring that had everything I needed to get started. I started by growing some veggies, mostly for me, but I would take any surplus to a church-run low-cost grocery store where they would give the produce away to their customers. Initially the whole premise was to do this without money, but it quickly became apparent that if I wanted to make any sort of impact in my lifetime, I will need money. While it could be argued that business as a mechanism has done a lot of harm, it is inarguable that it can have a significant impact. So I thought, what if I could use the power of business to make the kind of change I want? I wasn’t the only one that thought this, there is a whole category of business called Social Enterprise, a business run for a social purpose, or social good. For a couple of years I tried to work out what I could grow and sell to help advance my plans, but with limited space, time whilst studying, and resources to start something on a larger scale, the project was benched for the moment. Until I had the idea to give the microgreens a go, and here we are today

“Had you grown up amongst farming or was it something you stumbled upon?”

Something I stumbled upon. I think the closest I came to farming was when I was about 13-14 and helping my uncle one day rounding up sheep for sheering. After that I do remember telling my family I wanted to be a farmer, probably more so driven by the excitement of 4-wheelers thrashing around paddocks. Pretty sure my family scoffed at the idea.

“What is your take on farming and how do you see us making changes?”

Farming plays a pretty important social role. After all it is how we essentially get the food to meet our nutritional needs. In my opinion, it is the farmers that should be revered the most in our society, not the footballers, millionaires, and actors/actresses. We should be making better use of as much space as possible in and around urban areas to produce a diversity of food to meet the needs of those living there. There is no doubt in my mind that we could feed Perth’s two million, from with the greater Perth region. This would not only improve the health and well-being of those living in urban areas, it would also reduce the strain on the land currently used for large scale agriculture which has environmental and social impacts. I’m weary of trying to over simply complex issues but I certainly believe that a shift towards urban food production would have significant flow on effects.

“So why microgreens?”

Microgreens don’t require a huge amount of space, or resources. Plus, they have a short turn-around time. Unlike growing traditional vegetables grown in the grown that require larger areas of land, and take 3-6 months to produce a saleable product, microgreens can be sown and sold inside of 7-10 days in the summer, and 12-14 days in the winter. Since I also manage a small plant nursery, I could grow them there. I saw all this as an opportunity to begin a business that could quickly become financially sustainable, and allow me to realise my desires to get good quality, organically grown produce to those who need it the most.

“What’s your dream as far as taking this further?”

Giving Greens is part of the larger Perth Urban Farming Project which is about implementing more urban food production, and to make some ground on issues such as urban food security, and homelessness. It is my hope that Giving Greens will continue to grow as a business and in influence, and that it can provide the revenue for more initiatives in and around Perth.

“Please tell us about how you are helping the homeless?”

My research into microgreens just kept revealing how nutrient dense they are, and how good for you they are. Combine this knowledge with the knowing that those experiencing homelessness don’t have the money to buy good food, I just knew that I could do something there. So I launched Giving Greens which, for each quantity of microgreens sold, will donate the same quantity to charity that provides meals to the homeless. I chose Manna Inc to start with, but hope that as Giving Greens continues to grow, we’ll be able to provide microgreens to a variety of charities and organizations that not only help the homeless, but the elderly, and children. Essentially, the business model is to use the people that can afford the microgreens, to fund the giving of microgreens to those that can’t afford them, but need them.

“It’s such an amazing product and adds so much ‘zing’ to everything we eat, but what tips do you have to make meals even more amazing?”

Thank you! To be honest I’m not overly imaginative when it comes to meals. I tend to make a mixed salad of microgreens and then have it with whatever I eat. Smoothies are actually my favorite things to add microgreens to. I’ve also made a pesto with macadamias, which was nice with zucchini noodles.

“And what tips do you have for keeping your ‘greens fresh?”

I always recommend giving your microgreens a dunk in cold water when you get them home, and then spin them dry. If you put them in the fridge with any excess water on them they will go moldy fast. So make sure they are dry. I constantly hear how well my microgreens have been keeping. The fact I harvest them in front of the customer at the markets probably helps also. If you don’t think you can eat all the microgreens before they go bad, try juicing them and freezing them in ice cube trays for smoothies.

“As all our followers know James, we are mad Fremantle Dockers supporters at Paleonutter (we always love the underdog), so, this is a question we ask everyone we interview, Freo or West Coast?”

Neither. I’ve never really been into football. Give me a mountain bike and glorious single track any day.

That's fantastic James. James can be found at www.givinggreens.com.au

and is out there on Facebook at fb.com/sociallyconsciousmicrogreens

You can go chat yourself to James and pick up your own microgreens at Perth City Farm Market on a Saturday from 7.30am to 11.30 and also at Stirling Farm Markets.

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