Seeds of Change

What if I told you that, on an idyllic hilltop in Rochester, there is a converted dairy barn where something magical happens? In that barn, a local company grows nutrient-packed vegetables that are delicious both raw and cooked, and even crunch and pop when you eat them. These veggies are a bit of a chameleon: adding a spicy bite to a dish, or providing a mellow base on which to nestle something succulent like scallops. This sounds like a fable, doesn’t it? But it gets even better. To the delight of anyone trying to eat more locally-produced food, these veggies grow year-round, even in the dead of winter, and their growing time averages a mere seven days.

The company working this magic is Jonathan’s Sprouts—and the super-food they grow? You guessed it …sprouts. Americans became familiar with sprouts in the 1970s, and today most everyone routinely encounters at least two types: mung bean, which first came to us through Asian cooking, and alfalfa, which are often served atop sandwiches and salads.

Sprouts can be grown from the seed of almost any vegetable, grain, bean, or nut. In addition to mung and alfalfa, Jonathan’s also grows radish, broccoli, clover, and sunflower sprouts, as well as pea shoots and wheatgrass. Barbara Sanderson, who owns the company along with her husband Bob, says, “When a seed sprouts, it is like a miracle happens.”

Sprouts have long held a reputation as health food. There are writings dating back 5,000 years indicating that Chinese physicians prescribed the consumption of sprouts for curing a multitude of ailments. Research shows that sprouts’ healthy reputation is well deserved. They are a wonderful source of protein. Although the protein content varies with the type of seed being sprouted, it can be as high as 28% for soybean sprouts and 26% for those from lentils and peas.

When a seed sprouts, its nutritional value is magnified. For example, one cup of raw mung bean sprouts contains 23% of the Daily Value (DV) of Vitamin C, and the same amount of raw radish sprouts has 18% of the DV of this important nutrient. Sprouts are also a great source of vitamins A and K and some of the B vitamins. Depending on the type of seed, they are also rich in a variety of antioxidants and phytochemicals. This strong nutritional profile also makes them an ideal choice for raw food enthusiasts, who use sprouted beans and seeds to add both protein and a wide spectrum of vitamins to many dishes, as well as sprouted grains to make bread.

When you visit Jonathan’s Sprouts, it doesn’t look like any farm you have ever seen. But, this is the nature of sprouts. They are not grown in the ground. Instead, these tiny vegetables are grown in stainless steel trays or tubes, depending on how much light they need to grow. And you won’t see a farmer in jeans and a sun hat: the workers at Jonathan’s wear lab coats, waterproof boots, and hairnets. It is a bit “back to the future,” but given the company’s strict focus on safety and quality assurance, it is necessary. While most of its product is grown in the barn, Jonathan’s also grows wheatgrass and pea shoots in greenhouses located in both Rochester and Freetown. The amount of seeds sprouted by Jonathan’s boggles the mind. According to Bob Sanderson, “It would take a forty acre farm to grow the alfalfa seed we sprout in only one year.”

Like many small farms, Jonathan’s takes extra steps to ensure the quality of its produce, often at the expense of the profit margin. For example, Jonathan’s harvests its bean sprouts when they yield six pounds of sprouts per pound of seed—compared to the industry standard of ten to twelve pounds of sprouts per pound of seed. Although Jonathan’s could boost its margin by following its peers’ growing practices, the younger sprouts have a sweeter taste and a longer shelf life. And, as Barb Sanderson notes, Jonathan’s customers appreciate the extra effort and expense taken to grow a quality product. She says, “We keep getting love letters.”

The warm, moist surroundings necessary to grow sprouts can, unfortunately, provide an environment conducive to the growth of bacteria. In December 2010, at least 94 people in the Midwest became ill from eating contaminated sprouts, and in January of this year, a smaller outbreak occurred in the Pacific Northwest, affecting seven people. None of these outbreaks involved Jonathan’s Sprouts and, in its 35-year history, the company has never been associated with a case of food-borne illness.

Jonathan’s Sprouts’ stellar safety record is the result of a rigorous testing program. Because contaminated seeds are usually the source of the bacteria found in any sprout-related food-borne illness, Jonathan’s seeds are carefully sourced. Each lot of seed is tested for quality before purchase. The testing continues when the seeds are delivered; every bag of seed is sampled and checked for contamination. And, when available, organic seeds are used. The third step in the testing process is that each and every crop grown by Jonathan’s Sprouts is checked for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 bacteria by an independent lab. Negative results must be received before any crop is shipped. In addition, the facility is scanned weekly for Listeria. Being this meticulous is not cheap. It costs Jonathan’s $150,000 annually to perform these tests, but the program ensures that customers are buying healthy, safe, organically grown, and kosher certified sprouts.

Jonathan’s is one of the country’s leading growers of sprouts. The company started in 1976, when three friends, Barbara Brewster, Bob Sanderson, and Jim Bunker, were fresh out of college and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Another friend, Jonathan Lagreze, had a home-based business that bore his name, growing sprouts and selling them at the Marion General Store. When he decided to return to college, Barb, Bob, and Jim took over the business. Their timing could not have been better. It coincided with America’s growing demand for fresh produce, as well as the nation’s budding interest in health food.

Barb and Bob, who eventually married, continue to run the company; Jim left the business in the early 1980s. Jonathan’s now boasts over $3 million in sales and forty employees. Its products are available in many smaller specialty retailers such as How on Earth in Mattapoisett as well as local grocery chains including Stop & Shop, Hannaford, Shaw’s, Trader Joe’s, and Trucchi’s. Although the majority of the company’s products are sold under its own name, Jonathan’s private labels two products: Nature’s Promise mung bean sprouts for Stop & Shop and Trader Joe’s pea shoots.

“We have been growing food with integrity for a long time,” says Barb Sanderson. And from the continued growth of Jonathan’s Sprouts, it seems the word has gotten out. “There has been a growing awareness of food, where it is grown, and what it is doing to your body. And, all this is helping us,” posits Barb. Sprouts are nutritious, versatile, local, and always in season. Why not try a few of the delicious sprout recipes that accompany this article and let these enchanting little vegetables work their magic on you?

Jonathan’s Sprouts Inc.
384 Vaughan Hill Road
Rochester, MA 02770
(508) 763-5505

Grow Your Own
Sprouts can also be grown at home; the only items you need are a large glass jar and some seeds. After that, it is as easy as just adding water. I purchased a sprouting jar at Good Health in Hanover but you could also use a large glass jar covered with cheesecloth.

Since I love their spicy flavor, I used a pre-packaged mix of organic alfalfa, radish, and broccoli seeds. After a quick rinse, the seeds needed to soak overnight. Then I drained them. They spent the next three days in the sprouting jar in the dark recesses of my kitchen cabinet. The only work required was to continue to rinse and drain them twice a day.

While the sprout seeds were resting, I kept the jar tilted at an angle, so any remaining water could drain out. Each day when I opened the cabinet, I was amazed at how quickly the sprouts were growing. It was like getting a peek under the dirt in my garden. On the fourth day, I moved the jar to the counter so the sprouts could get some light and develop their green color. Finally, after a final rinse, the sprouts made a delicious addition to my salad. Photos by Michael Hart


Photos by Michael Hart