SACO — Haley Cornwall isn’t likely to find microgreens perched atop the meals at his favorite restaurants, but his affection for the delicate greens he helps grow was evident as he hovered over them.

He pointed to a tray of radish microgreens, their tiny green and purple leaves shining under the bright glow of a grow lamp.

“I like the green ones and the purple ones,” he said. “They’re nice together.”

Those microgreens – now sprouting in a warm greenhouse in Saco – will be served at high-end Portland restaurants within a week. They are grown and sold as part of the Teenie Greenies business at Cultivation Works Farm, a program of the nonprofit Creative Work Systems that employs adults with disabilities as they gain financial independence and the skills needed to become working farmers.

With the opening of a new greenhouse in Saco and recent high-profile exposure in the Portland food scene, the leaders of Creative Work Systems are hoping the fledgling social enterprise program will take root in the same way as its longer-running Maine WoodWorks Program, which grosses $1.25 million a year in sales from furniture handcrafted in Saco and sold around the country.

“The sense of pride they feel in their work is evident,” Margaret Logan, marketing manager for Creative Work Systems, said of the farm program participants. “It’s an inspiring program.”

Cornwall, 47, of West Buxton, is one of two farmers employed by Teenie Greenies to plant and grow microgreens, The tiny greens, packed with nutrients, are used by chefs to add a visual and flavor component to dishes.

Shown among Christmas trees at Cultivation Works Farm in Saco, Haley Cornwall is one of two farmers employed by Teenie Greenies

Shown among Christmas trees at Cultivation Works Farm in Saco, Haley Cornwall is one of two farmers employed by Teenie Greenies Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Teenie Greenies started nearly two years ago, operating without fanfare in Saco and selling microgreens to Portland-area restaurants, including Sea Glass at Inn by the Sea, Grace and Sonny’s. Trays of microgreens – grown in organic soil with organic seeds – are sold for $20 to $25. The farm grows nearly 20 varieties, including amaranth, tendril pea, spicy serenade and lemon basil.

In November, Teenie Greenies expanded into the retail market and are now available at the Portland Food Co-op. Program leaders are in talks with a distributor about making them more widely available.

Teenie Greenies were featured this year at Harvest on the Harbor, where nearly all the participating chefs incorporated the microgreens into their dishes.

GROWING OPPORTUNITIES

The popularity of Teenie Greenies in the Portland food scene and the recognition that they support a meaningful cause are positive signs that there is still a lot of room for growth, said Heidi Howard, executive director of Creative Work Systems. She wants to “dramatically increase” the number of Teenie Greenies farmers in the next year or two.

The growth in the Teenie Greenies business comes as an increasing number of farmers across the country are using vertical farming to grow crops like microgreens. Vertical farming is a technique where stacked rows of produce are grown in a climate-controlled room, which allows for year-round farming in relatively small spaces. Consumer demand for locally grown food and lower prices for LED lights are pushing more people to jump into vertical farming, particularly in urban areas.

The new Cultivation Works Farm greenhouse, built using a $15,000 grant from the Elmina B. Sewell Foundation, sits in an unlikely place for a farm, tucked beside a busy road and a gas station. But the space it provides will allow Teenie Greenies to diversify its produce and hire the additional farmers.

The greenhouse includes a climate-controlled room – kept between 70 and 75 degrees – lined with rows of shelves for trays of microgreens. Last week, one shelf was lined with trays nearly ready to be sold to restaurants or harvested and packaged for the food co-op. The greenhouse has enough to room to significantly increase the number of trays growing at any given time, as well as space for different types of produce.

Haley Cornwall plants seeds in the greenhouse at Cultivation Works Farm – a Creative Work Systems program for adults with disabilities. Cornwall, who has an intellectual disability, works once a week at the location.

Haley Cornwall plants seeds in the greenhouse at Cultivation Works Farm – a Creative Work Systems program for adults with disabilities. Cornwall, who has an intellectual disability, works once a week at the location. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

With that extra space, the farm is expanding beyond microgreens, starting with Christmas tree and wreath sales this month. In the spring, the farmers may grow unusual varieties of flowers to sell. All revenue goes back into the program.

Right now, Teenie Greenies generates an average revenue of $1,000 per month.

David Glidden, chef and owner of the Chef & the Gardener in Saco, is happy to buy Teenie Greenies for his restaurant, which sits across the parking lot from Cultivation Works Farm. Over the summer, he used bull’s blood beet greens, known for their bright red stems and green leaves. This season, he’s using micro basil to garnish dishes.

Glidden said Teenie Greenies sells him full trays of microgreens at the just the right height to be used. He also supports the mission behind the business and says the business they’ve launched is a “great concept.”

“They’re doing a good job,” he said.

EXPANDING INTO THE COMMUNITY

Howard said Creative Work Systems is expecting to see “tremendous” growth in both Teenie Greenies and Maine WoodWorks, which launched around 2000. The integrated workforce of people with and without disabilities builds furniture that is wholesaled across the United States.

The agency – which will mark its 50th anniversary in 2017 – serves about 400 adults with disabilities from Augusta to Biddeford. Services range from residential living to case management to job training and placement. In 2015, the nonprofit reported $12.1 million in revenue and $11.9 million in expenses.

Within three years, Creative Work Systems plans to construct a building next to the Saco greenhouse that will become a place to showcase the plants, produce, art and furniture grown and made in its programs. It will also include a cafe staffed by program participants.

“We see this as a lovely draw for the community,” Howard said.

Pam Hargest, who runs the greenhouse and works with the farmers, says this is an exciting time for Teenie Greenies. She talks frequently to chefs about what type of microgreens they like to use and adjusts what the farmers are growing to accommodate the chefs’ needs. Cornwall and his co-worker are enthusiastic about nurturing the plants and growing (and tasting) different types of microgreens.

“Being able to see a product from the very beginning and selling it can give someone a lot of meaning and excitement,” Hargest said.

Cultivation Works Farm is open for tree and wreath sales from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through December. It is located at 339 North St. (Route 112) in Saco.


Correction: This story was revised at 1:06 p.m., Dec. 5, 2016, to correct the spelling of Heidi Howard’s name. Also, the $1.25 million figure cited for Maine WoodWorks Program is gross sales.