Stacey Cunningham was working as a guidance counselor in Tempe, Arizona, when her husband fell ill with cancer.
After $12,000 worth of treatment, he was in full recovery — but their finances weren’t.
To “wipe the slate clean of everything [they] owed,” they made the difficult decision to sell their house and move into an apartment.
Soon after, Cunningham toured an urban garden. Although inspired by the project, she left feeling dejected since she no longer had a yard of her own.
But, she couldn’t stop thinking about her experience — and five months later, she invited the gardener to her apartment.
Her question? Whether she could grow anything in her limited space.
Little did she know his response would change her life…
Falling in Love With Microgreens
The only thing Cunningham could grow at a “decent volume” was microgreens, the gardener told her — which she’d never even heard of before.
In case you haven’t either, here’s a primer: Microgreens are “vegetables and herbs grown to just two weeks,” Cunningham says. “They’re four to 40 times as nutrient dense as the mature plants and are incredibly good for you.”
Research seems to support her claims.
Cunningham quickly fell in love with microgreens. She started watching videos, reading books and blogs and eventually growing her own.
She even started selling her produce at a local farmers market. Her earnings covered her expenses, but not much more — and she couldn’t scale without investing a significantly bigger chunk of time and money into the business.
Risking It All on Microgreens
One day at school, she decided to take the leap.
“I was in my office and realized I was kind of a hypocrite because here I am telling [my students] to follow their dreams,” she says, “and I had some dreams I hadn’t followed yet.”
Although the business wasn’t their only reason for moving, she says,“Our priority — even before we unpacked all of our boxes — was to get the grow room built.”
For the next few months, she worked part time on her budding business, and part time in a job for the city.
A Growing Business
It paid off.
She worked about 25 hours per week and grossed $1,400 per month. Her monthly expenses were about $300, which meant she brought home $1,100 per month working part time.
“But that was my choice,” she says. “I could’ve gone out and gotten more business if I wanted it.”
If she’d worked full time, she estimates she could’ve grossed about $2,400 per month.
“Anyone can do it,” she says. It’s a great way to supplement your income while working from home.
But, because it is a lot of work, she says, “You have to really care about the product.”
What You Need to Know About Growing Microgreens
Interested in growing microgreens?
To start a small side business, you’ll need to make a one-time investment in a metal shelf and three shop lights (around $12 each).
As for recurring costs, Cunningham says they amount to approximately $3.08 per tray, including “the cost of the seeds, growing medium and containers to sell them in” — everything but electricity and water, which she estimates costs $20 per month.
With this setup, you could grow eight trays of microgreens per week, and sell them at a local farmers market for $20 per tray. Since this volume wouldn’t take up much room, Cunningham says it’s plausible even in a small apartment.
And microgreens grow quickly: Cunningham says they take “two weeks max” to be ready for harvest.
Here’s how that works out per month:
Gross profit: $640
- Utilities: $20
- Farmers market fee: $80
- 32 trays x $3.08 each: $98.56
Net profit: $442
Now let’s say you spend five hours at the market and an additional two hours planting and caring for your trays each week. That’s 28 hours a month.
You’d be making $15.78 per hour — for something you could do mostly on your own schedule and without much overhead.
And that’s just the bare minimum to get started. If you had more space and capital, you could grow a lot more — without investing much more time.
Here are Cunningham’s best tips for growing microgreens:
- Before getting started, check licensing restrictions in your state.
- When buying supplies, avoid “overpriced” hydroponic stores; try Walmart or online retailers instead.
- Give your plants 16 hours of light per day, which you can automate by putting your shop lights on timers.
- Keep the temperature between 60-80 degrees.
- Water them twice per day: Once in the morning and once in the evening.
- To maximize profits, focus on fast-growing varieties like bok choy, cabbage, arugula and broccoli.
Cunningham firmly believes in the power of microgreens, but eventually stopped scaling her business, preferring to focus on her current customers.
“I’m not a salesperson,” she says. “That’s why I stopped going out there and getting business. I didn’t enjoy it.”
However, Cunningham is “an educator at heart.” So she developed a website and app to teach other people how to grow microgreens.
It hasn’t turned a profit yet, but she hopes it’ll start bringing home the broccoli soon.
Your Turn: Have you tried microgreens? Would you like to grow them?
Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.