Clay Stem is rarely seen at the Orr Street Farmers and Artisans Market without his metal tongs.
“Would y’all like to try some microgreens?” Stem asks people eyeing his booth one Sunday afternoon this fall.
Fascinated by his offer, market-goers inch up to Stem’s table and hold out their hands. He reaches his tongs into a bowl and hands them a bundle of his locally-grown greens.
After their first taste, eyes widen, heads nod and palms quickly reach for another taste.
“We call them ‘tiny but mighty,’” Stem tells them. “You don’t have to eat a lot of them because they’re so nutritionally dense.”
His enthusiasm and drive to introduce microgreens to the Columbia community have made him a staple of the Orr Street Farmers and Artisans Market after only one season.
But market season is over, and Stem has been finding new ways to educate the community about the nutritional value of his greens.
Since March, he has been growing microgreens on his land, called Stem to Table Farm, which he runs with his family on 10 acres in north Columbia. Stem grows three microgreen varieties: sunflower, pea and radish.
The greens are sold in all three Columbia Hy-Vee stores, Teller’s and Lucky’s Market, and he is pioneering tasting booths at these locations.
Every Sunday from April 30 to Oct. 29, Stem sold microgreens at the Orr Street market, along with cherry tomatoes, seasonal vegetables and eggs laid by his 25 pasture-raised hens.
He contributes to the community by providing healthy produce and using sustainable methods, but Stem said his favorite part of the work is the impact he has made on his family.
“(Nothing beats) doing this with my family, having my kids here at the market, helping in the garden and showing them where food comes from,” Stem said.
Tiny but mighty
Microgreens are harvested after germination but before a plant develops into a seedling, causing them to be far more nutritious than their full-grown equivalent, according to The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
In addition to their nutritional value, Stem was drawn to their ability to be grown year-round indoors. He researched the idea for two years and ultimately began his farm with encouragement from his wife, Jen.
He plants his microgreens in shallow trays filled to the brim with soil on a regular eight- to 10-day cycle, and he delivers the produce to his five vendors every Thursday.
At the Hy-Vee on East Nifong Boulevard, customers have the option to choose Stem’s microgreens at the salad bar. At Lucky’s Market, Chris Rietman, the produce manager, said he was eager to sell the microgreens after Stem approached him with samples in September.
“It was good stuff,” Rietman said. “The sunflower one that he does is really nice because it just adds texture to anything. You just put it in salads, or I use it as a taco topping.”
After noticing the advantage of the face-to-face interactions he has at the market, Stem looked for new ways to continue this social capital during the winter.
“I think people like to put the face to the product,” he said. “You see, oh, it’s locally grown, but who is this?”
On Nov. 8, Stem held a two-hour microgreen tasting session at Lucky’s Market, another Nov. 11 at the Hy-Vee on Conley Road and another on Nov. 12 at the Hy-Vee on East Nifong Boulevard.
At Lucky’s Market, Stem was able to access customers he did not see at the farmers market, Rietman said.
“To be able to provide healthy and nutritious product to people and to my family is definitely powerful,” Stem said.
Stem includes his two sons, Chase, 14, and Grady, 12, in every aspect of running the farm, hoping to teach them valuable skills for the future. Chase said he likes helping with the hens and the produce on the farm, and Grady helps sell the family’s products at the farmers market.
Patience is the greatest lesson Chase said he has learned from his father.
“I like seeing everything grow over time and seeing how it changes,” he said.
Connecting through sustainability
Stem uses sustainable techniques such as composting and reuse of materials to build what he needs for the farm.
He starts his chicks in a rabbit hutch built from materials he discovered while dumpster diving, and the chickens live in a coop made from scavenged 2-by-4s and miscellaneous scraps of plywood.
“It just bothers me to know the amount of perfectly usable products that are going into the ground and filling up a hole,” Stem said.
He learned to scavenge and tinker with materials from his father, remembering that his first bike was built from a collection of parts.
“He was always able to find things and just make things work,” Stem recalled. “My bike maybe didn’t look as nice as the neighbors’, but it was kind of fun because we built it together.”
Tinkering connects Stem to those around him in an age where technology is causing a disconnection, he said. His sons are always baffled when he starts conversations with people he does not know, usually about his latest project.
“I was buying sugar the other day, and there was another guy loading his cart up with sugar,” Stem said.
He asked the man if he had bees, and when the reply was yes, they engaged in a robust conversation about the subject.
“I’d never met this guy in my life,” Stem said. “I enjoy hearing people’s stories and finding out what makes them tick.”
He used those life lessons to team up with his sons and build a hoop house, which is a series of hoops covered in greenhouse plastic that can help extend the growing season for his larger produce.
“It was almost a three-person job to get these hoops into the base,” he said.
As a child, Stem was warned to stay away from a wild horse on his grandfather’s tobacco and cattle farm in Lexington, Kentucky. That only made him want to learn more about animals and nature.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be Jane Goodall and work with chimpanzees and gorillas,” he said. “I was all about Tarzan.”
After spending his early childhood on his grandfather’s farm, Stem’s family moved to Dayton, Ohio. But he went back to work on his grandfather’s Kentucky farm every summer.
At Hocking College in southeastern Ohio, he studied backcountry horsemanship. When he moved to Columbia in 2007, he managed the Stephens College Equestrian Center for five years. Then he worked as a delivery driver for Pepsi until he ruptured his bicep tendon.
His wife suggested that he drive a school bus since he had been a camp counselor for years and enjoyed it. He became a substitute driver, then was given a regular route taking students from his neighborhood to Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School.
Stem was able to park the bus at his house, so he would wake up and immediately begin his route.
“I literally would just hop on the bus and go down the street,” he said. “I was a neighbor (and) I was the treasurer of the PTA at the elementary school so the teachers all knew me.”
He turned to farming at the end of his third year as a bus driver and decided not to remain a bus driver in order to focus on his Stem to Table Farm full-time.
“I found in my life that if I don’t believe in what I’m doing, I have a hard time doing it,” he said.
Future of the farm
Right now, Stem is undertaking trials of three more microgreens — basil, cilantro and broccoli. He and his family are also beekeepers, and he looks forward to being able to provide honey to customers as well.
Stem’s interest in sustainability led him to conduct research on biochar, charcoal made from slowly-burned organic materials with little oxygen.
When used with compost and organic fertilizers, biochar can promote plant growth and the retention of soil nutrients, according to Mother Earth News.
“Biochar becomes this humungous skyscraper apartment for all the microbes,” Stem said. It serves as an ecosystem by allowing microbes to grow and sustain his future planting cycles.
He has also noticed health benefits of running his farm. Growing and cooking his own produce has helped him lose 30 pounds.
“I really kind of let myself go,” Stem said. “I feel good. I feel better than I have in a long time.”
His wife cites his work ethic as the reason for Stem to Table Farm’s success.
“He goes 110 percent,” she said. “He puts his everything in, and he’s passionate about what we are trying to do.”