Maybe it's winter in Alaska outside, but inside a beat-up warehouse on Spenard Road, spring lasts forever. The air feels gentle and thousands of tiny pairs of new green leaves strain to catch light.
I'm inside Alaska Sprouts, Anchorage's only micro-farm. S J. Klein, micro farmer, calls it "sproutville." The crops might be mini, but his vision is large.
The fresh fruit and vegetable scene in Anchorage this time of year isn't stunning. Grocery store produce travels in from thousands of miles away. Winter farmers' markets rely on cellared root vegetables.
But if you dine at almost any of the city's 100 or so Asian restaurants, pay attention to your bowl of pho or plate of pad thai or spicy tuna roll. The sprouts or micro greens you find may be the freshest thing you can eat in Anchorage in January. Chances are good they were grown by Klein in Spenard.
Asian restaurants have been Klein's main customer base since he started selling sprouts four years ago. He estimates they make up at least a quarter of the city's 400-plus eateries. He also supplies sprouts and greens to nine or so local markets, including Red Apple, Natural Pantry and New Sagaya. He has his eye on Carrs-Safeway and Fred Meyer, too. That would give him total sprout domination.
"It's mostly just paperwork," standing between himself and the bigger stores, he said. "We can meet the demand; that's not a problem."
I knocked on the worn blue door of the warehouse Thursday morning. He welcomed me in to a room stacked high with bags of seed. Klein, 42, wore a long sleeve T-shirt, pants and a pair of Xtratufs. We went through a couple doors into a room with fluorescent green walls and a concrete floor. "Sprout master" Justin Kruger, dressed in rain bibs like a fisherman, was spraying down large plastic containers. I smelled chlorine and soil.
Klein brushed aside a plastic curtain to show giant clear barrels full of sprouted clover seeds hung so they could be rotated slowly under panels of grow lights. The seeds were early in the sprouting process. The husks had split, showing the beginnings of roots.
Sprouted seed contains all fuel needed to sustain a baby plant, making it densely nutritious, Klein said. People make a lot of claims about its health-giving qualities, he said. Only some of it can be proved.
"I just think they just taste good," he said.
Behind another set of curtains sat large tubs covered with black tarps, home to mung bean sprouts. Mung beans are half of Klein's business. He couldn't open the tarps, he said.
Unlike the sprouted clover, which greens up under the grow light, bean sprouts need darkness, warmth and a constant water supply, he said. If the growing conditions aren't right, they can go all "Jack and the Beanstalk," he said.
"Beans just don't want to be these short delicious crunchy things; you have to treat them right or they bolt," he said.
One of the most important things about growing sprouts is making sure the seeds are clean, he said. Seeds, like any produce, come from agricultural fields that can be tainted with bacteria from manure and other sources.
"When you grow sprouts, you're growing whatever is on your seed," he said.
Klein buys seeds from a supplier that tests for pathogens and washes them down with a chlorine solution. He also tests each crop before it gets delivered around Anchorage, using a small lab he's set up in a corner of the warehouse.
"We're kind of obsessive," he said.
So far, he's never turned up any bacteria, he said.
Klein, who grew up in Anchorage, was a "chemistry nerd" in high school, he said. After that he went to Harvard. And then he went to beer brewing school. For a while, he ran The Borealis Brewery.
Klein bought the sprouting equipment four years ago from Bernie Souphanavong, of Bernie's Bungalow, he said. Souphanavong had a sprout business that went dormant. Klein had been selling Souphanavong beer. Beer and sprout-growing seemed like they had a lot of parallels, he said. Klein now rents the microfarm space from Souphanavong. As the story goes, the building was purchased at a police auction. Windowless, well-supplied with electrical hook-ups and water, the building was perfect for growing plants of the illegal variety.
Bean sprouts are fragile, and that's what gives Klein an edge. They're only good for about a week and so the time it takes for competitors to get them to get to Anchorage from Outside takes a toll on freshness. On the other hand, Outside the heat and the sun are free. In Anchorage, they cost money. It's a balancing act.
"It's very hard to be price competitive," he said. "It's easier to be competitive on quality."
Another driver for the sprout market is the growth in the Asian population. Concentrated in Anchorage, the state's Asian population grew 62 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Just about 1 in 10 people in Anchorage are of Asian descent. More people, both Asian and non-Asian, are now cooking and eating Asian food. Klein's restaurant base is "a very discerning, very loyal community," he said.
"They don't care that it's local, they care that it's good quality and a decent price," he said.
Now Klein is cultivating another niche: foodies. Those customer care about the local-grown label and are looking for the exotic, like feathery celery micro greens, onion sprouts or hydroponic romaine.
Klein showed me to his hydroponic "fields," long trays of baby greens. Water trickled continuously around their roots. He plucked a tiny mustard green and handed it to me. I bit it. Fresh and peppery. He handed me a pink beet green. Sweet and earthy. He was experimenting with basil and lettuce to sell at the Wednesday farmer's market at the Sears Mall, he said. He's also begun making tofu. The main market for that is also restaurants, though you can sometimes find it in local groceries.
Each of the years he's owned Alaska Sprouts, sales have grown. Klein now has four employees and produces about 20 to 30 tons of sprouts a year. The business takes constant attention because the growing cycles are so short, he said, but he gets a thrill watching the seeds go from tiny round pebbles to tiny plants.
"I'm making something out of nothing," he said. "All I need to do is make sure all my seeds are happy. As long as they are happy, everything works."