Juneau entrepreneurs bring basil to the masses
It’s prime time for gardens in Alaska and there are plenty of plants and vegetables that thrive here. Basil, though, is not one of them. It needs more heat and sun – two things that are especially hard to find in the Southeast rainforest of Juneau.
But two local guys have figured out a unique way to bring basil to the masses. They’re responsible for the living basil found at Foodland IGA, Rainbow Foods and Superbear.
Over the gurgling sounds of compost tea brewing, Trevor Kirchhoff, 30, explains how it works.
“The microbes and the compost will kind of wake up when you put them in the oxygenated water with the food sources,” says Kirchhoff, owner of Juneau’s indoor garden and hydroponics store, Get Growing. “And then they breed and so you can get just insane microorganism populations, thousands of species, like billions of individuals in a teaspoon of liquid.”
Besides compost tea, which he says will make any plant go berserk (in a good way), Get Growing sells anything you might need for an indoor garden.
But Kirchhoff’s true passion isn’t selling things; it’s growing things, especially in water.
After he opened the store in February 2013, he set up demonstration gardens and experimented with hydroponic and aquaponic systems, “and they just got bigger and took up too much of the store,” Kirchhoff says.
Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. Fish kept in a tank produce waste, which supplies nutrients for plants grown in a hydroponics system. In turn, the plants help break down the waste and purify the water, which goes back into the fish tank.
As Kirchhoff’s demo gardens took on lives of their own, his friend took notice.
“My friend, Greg, was basically saying, ‘You know you can really sell these plants. What are you going to do with all these?’ And I said, ‘I just want to grow the plants, you can sell the plants and see how that goes,’” Kirchhoff says.
That was the beginning of Evergreens Herbs & Produce, a joint business between Kirchhoff and friend Greg Smith. In March, they sold their first harvest of living basil to a local grocery store. The herbs are sold with the roots still attached and a little water at the bottom of the package. They can last up to two weeks that way.
Earlier this month, Kirchhoff doubled his existing thousand square foot shop space, and built a six-bed indoor aquaponics garden that contains rows and rows of basil.
“Mostly it’s been Genovese basil. Back there there’s a little Thai basil,” Kirchhoff says.
The 4-by-8 foot beds sit on concrete blocks and are connected by an organized system of plastic tubing. The water flows from a 165 gallon tank holding nine tilapia and about a hundred goldfish.
Despite how organized the warehouse looks, Kirchhoff claims they have no idea what they’re doing. Smith says it’s been a huge learning curve.
“We know we’re probably not going to get rich, but it’s fun. We’ll make a little money and it’s neat to be able to have a local product in town,” Smith says.
The duo started off selling about 75 plants a week. Now, with more space and the new system, they hope to deliver at least double that.
Produce manager at Foodland IGA Jonathan Cristobal loves their living basil.
“It’s good. It smells good and it sells good. People like it,” Cristobal says.
Foodland first started selling living basil about two years ago. They got it from a company in the Seattle area.
“They send us by air once a week. We’re having a problem with the quality issues, too. It costs much,” he says.
In May, Cristobal started getting living basil from Kirchhoff and Smith. He says that gives him more control over the freshness.
“Every time I’m out, I text them. They’ll show up,” he says.
Foodland would be very interested if Kirchhoff and Smith ever branch out.
“I tell them the mushrooms are easy to grow, too. Try the mushrooms, fresh mushrooms from Juneau, too. They say, ‘We’re working on it, we’re working on it.’ But their basil is good. They need to expand. We need more in Juneau,” Cristobal says.
Kirchhoff says the six beds is just the beginning and he has no idea where the business will go.
If you mention marijuana to him though, he may get a little sensitive. Since opening the hydroponics store, he says it’s been obnoxious how many people ask him about it. He doesn’t want people to think he’s trying to capitalize on possible legalization.
“This garden here, we’re not growing basil in this system in the hopes that, you know, we can someday grow marijuana in this system, because if we were ever to grow pot we’d have to redo everything,” Kirchhoff says.
But he doesn’t write off the idea either.
“We’re indoor gardeners and we want to grow what’s a. useful, and b. profitable, so we’ll see what happens in the future,” Kirchhoff says.
For the time being, he’s sticking to what’s legal.