Sunday, June 10, 2018

GreenGo Farms and the tiny moments that add up to a new life

What makes a mechanical engineer with a career in the solar industry and no experience as a farmer, or even a gardener, become a hydroponic farmer of microgreens? 

Greg Ochs, founder of GreenGo Farms in Ajijic, Mexico, says it was a series of synchronicities.

Greg Ochs with customers at Tuesday Market
In the year that I’ve been living in the Lake Chapala area, I’ve been fascinated by the stories I’ve heard about all the things supposedly retired people do when they come to Mexico. Synchronicities always seem to play a part in their stories … they happened to meet someone, or, just by chance they heard a story, learned a new bit of information, or saw something that touched them. Tiny moments that somehow added up to a turning point.

On a warm Friday morning, I met Greg at his farm for what I thought would be a conversation about “sprouts,” but turned into a discussion about life, passion, philosophy and dealing with disasters. When I first met Greg, he was at the Tuesday Market standing by two long tables filled with boxes of a huge variety of sprouts. Buyers swarmed around him, tossing dozens of questions his way as he patiently answered each question while also making change, bagging product, and blessing each person with his charming smile. I took my sprouts and my blessing and went on my way.
Cabbage microgreens ... note the colors!

A few months later, I went back to find more sprouts and almost missed him. He was at one small table with just a few green boxes, still with the same smile though. I assumed the snowbirds had gone home and he didn’t need as much inventory. When I tossed off a casual comment, a story came forth. He’d had a quality problem and had destroyed 90% of his product. Suddenly, I was hooked, more questions tumbled out … what was the problem? Was it water contamination? How did he get into sprout farming? Each of his comments made me want to know more, so I asked for an interview and he agreed to meet.

The first part of our conversation was about the many setbacks he’s faced in the eight years he has been working on this project … including windstorms that destroyed his green house, squirrels that devastated a crop, a hailstorm that blocked the drainage pipes and caused another green house to collapse, a misaligned partnership that resulted in having to start all over again, vendor fraud that drained his cash resources, and excess heat that gave rise to the problem that prompted him to destroy much of his already packaged product rather than sell something he himself would not want to eat. Greg refers to this project as a roller coaster and to himself as "ridiculously tenacious." 

GreenGo rainbow carrots
“This isn’t a hobby,” he states, “It’s my livelihood … or it’s supposed to be. Plus it’s the livelihood of the four families of the people who work for me. And, it’s feeding people, feeding them healthy food, living, beautiful food … and actually fun food. We have 22 flavors of microgreens … wasabi and radish and other flavors with a zing.” He pauses and sighs, “Plus, the colors of the lettuces we grow … you can't buy this stuff in the stores.”

Greg’s life philosophy became apparent as he discusses the disasters he’s faced. “I don’t believe in crying over spilt milk … for more than a moment or two. Plus, it seems like every time there’s a disaster, it’s followed by something positive. Just yesterday, I had a vendor in Guadalajara ask me if I could produce beets and radishes. Of course, I can"

"Stuff happens. Why dwell on it? 

I’ve always liked the thought 

that we define our lives, 

not by what happens to us, 

but by how we handle it.” 

Greg is an engineer and, apparently, each setback triggers a “how do we solve this problem and make it better” reaction. He has invented endless improvements to his greenhouses and processes, including a way to grow sprouts in a material that keeps them living for up to two weeks. As we walked through the carrot greenhouse, he pulled a baby carrot out of it’s tiny, individual growing box. It was so beautifully orange and innocent, I wanted to pet it. Nothing like the carved mini-carrots in the grocery stores. 
A previous GreenGo Farms greenhouse
I kept wondering how he got into this business, and that question prompted a long story of synchronicities, starting with a vanity plate outside the Lake Chapala Society … SOLRNRG. Greg recognized the idea of “solar energy” since his own vanity plate in the US had been SOLAR E. He continued to the Open Circle presentation by Don Aitken and at the end of the lengthy Q&A session, Greg got to ask the last question of the day about whether or not there was a local group that got together to talk about energy, the environment, sustainability and such. There wasn’t, but Aitken invited Greg to start one.

Living  microgreens
For the next few years, Greg managed the Lake Chapala Green Group and somewhere along the line, as they talked about sustainability and food, an idea about raising vegetables hydroponically was born. It seemed like a fit since it involved technology, chemistry, engineering and a problem to be solved. The interest in microgreens came about when he discovered how much nutritional density they delivered. (Here is a great overview article on microgreens, which I will no longer call “sprouts.”)

When I asked Greg if his microgreens were organic, I was given a small lesson in the background of the organic movement. Apparently, one of first motivations of the founders of the movement was to refresh the earth and put back what thousands of years of agriculture had leached from the soils. Therefore, some people believe that hydroponics can’t be “organic,” considering it an unnatural way of growing plants. This article debunks that thinking, using examples such as water hyacinth and watercress. Greg clarified what he claims for his products by stating that his growing process is local, pesticide-free, uses non-GMO seeds, and no harmful chemicals.

Greg is currently talking with grocery store chains and restaurants and we may see far more GreenGo Farms products in the future. I just hope he continues to show up at the Tuesday market … especially now that I know that I’m supposed to cut the sprouts instead of trying to pull them out of their grow pad! 

PS ... Synchronicity in action …

If I hadn’t decided to walk 2.5 miles to the Tuesday Market …
If I hadn’t looked for the “sprout guy” and noticed his diminished inventory …
If I hadn’t made a comment …
If I hadn’t asked for an interview …

But I did.
And, the gift was hearing an inspiring story about passion and determination.

What struck me after thinking about all of this is that it’s always the next step that keeps a project alive. Greg could have dropped this project dozens of times along the way, but he always took the next step, driven by the passion to deliver a healthy, living product and solve all the problems that come his way.

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