February 25, 2020

Man of Micro Greens

A micro-crisis unfolded at the Beverly Hills Farmers Market in late January. It pitted loyal customers of Westside Urban Gardens, a small micro greens farm, against one another. The
losers had to leave the Sunday market without some of their favorite greens, such as the coveted pale yellow leaves of Ethiopian mustard.

Farmer Nate Looney had experienced a significant crop failure a few weeks earlier.

“Because there was a limited amount, people who are regular customers really wanted their micro greens,” he says. “It was a huge balagan.”

The 33-year-old veteran turned to farming after graduating from American Jewish University with a degree in business. A class on the economy and sustainability during his senior year flipped the switch.

Looney has been practicing Judaism since he was 13. A conversation with a classmate sparked his interest. He converted in 2012.

“I’m a fifth-generation farmer,” he said. “My family has a farm in Louisiana that has been in our family since my grandmother’s grandfather started it. This is kind of like returning to my roots.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Looney started Westside Urban Gardens in 2015. He spent the first year learning about the technology behind growing micro greens.

Then he took out a $10,000 Kiva loan, rented greenhouse space and began experimenting. Now he grows 20 kinds of seasonal miniature crops.

The retired U.S. Army sergeant sees many similarities between farming and his old life as a military police officer.

“In the Army, you got to get up in the morning and make the mission happen, and with a business that’s a farm, you got to get up in the morning and make things happen or the crops don’t grow,” he said.

Currently, he grows his micro varieties of arugula, broccoli or radishes hydroponically: The plants grow in nutrient-rich water. Looney does use soil for stability and to display the uniform trays.

Soon he wants to incorporate a tank of tilapia, a fish commonly used in aquaponic farming. The fish excrement would provide nutrition for the plants.

“Tilapia like really warm weather, so if it’s too cold, they don’t eat enough and if they don’t eat enough, they don’t poop enough and you don’t have enough fertilizer,” he said.

If it’s too warm, you run the risk of cooking the fish. Looney’s current greenhouse is not climate controlled and reaches up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

Looney specializes in micro greens for their high value and minimal space usage, but full-size lettuces, tomatoes and broccoli are also grown aquaponically. The technology uses up to 90 percent less water than traditional methods and the plants grow faster.

“My current system is 4 feet by 60 feet and I’m able to produce enough for five farmers markets,” he said. A 1-ounce container sells for $7.

Judaism and Jewish values also influence how Looney runs his growing business.

“The way that I grow indoors and limit my water usage for sure is tikkun olam because I’m doing my part to preserve and save water and provide healthy nutritious food to people,” he said.

Looney has been practicing Judaism since he was 13. A conversation with a classmate sparked his interest. He converted in 2012.

You won’t find Westside Urban Gardens at one of the popular Saturday farmers markets. The business is closed on Shabbat.

“To say, ‘No, on Saturdays we’re shut down’ — it’s a significant sacrifice to do that but it’s very important to me,” he said.

Looney also enjoys the relationship between farming and the Jewish calendar. He predicts that his micro greens might make an appearance on some of his customers’ seder plates.

“The Ethiopian mustard tastes like wasabi and I foresee people using that instead of horseradish,” he said.

For those who can’t wait until Passover at the end of March, Westside Urban Gardens’ micro greens are on the menu at République, a modern French restaurant in Los Angeles.

Jessica Donath is a freelance journalist who lives in Pasadena.