Michael Torbett’s townhouse bursts with vibrant color, light and texture, thanks to thousands of microgreens he’s growing. His operation is called “Terra Vita Farm”; terra vita means life of the land. Farmers’ markets and upscale restaurants are taking advantage of his delicious, nutritious produce to reward Torbett for his excellent horticultural practices, too.
“Microgreens are a high-priced item I can grow a lot of in a small space,” he explains. “I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist when I began my studies at UNCW, but Dr. Darin Penneys and my studies in biology convinced me I was headed for a life of farming the land.”
“Michael is an exceptionally passionate person when it comes to plants, soil and organic food production,” Dr. Penneys observes. “His motivation, ability, and interest in plants and food are inspirational. Hopefully, he will spread his gospel to the Cape Fear region and beyond.”
Torbett believes microgreens are 40 percent more nutritious than their mature plants. So, for the past year, he’s turned his townhouse into a greenhouse to serve his growing needs. In his dining area and spare bedroom are scores of vertically aligned microgreen flats with accompanying LED grow lights (lamps that emit a light spectrum similar to the sun). These flats contain arugula, cress, mustard, radish, beet, sorrel, shiso, basil, pea, sunflower, coriander, cabbage, and pac choi (Chinese cabbage) in microgreen form.
His patio has the most colorful plants, including passion flower, bachelor button, primrose, anise hyssop, lemon balm, ginger, blackberry, Echinacea, hollyhock, patchouli, kiwi, Brahmi, nasturtium, calendula, goji berry, skullcap, wood betony, and gotu kola. Finally, the outdoor microgreens that enjoy the extra UV spectrum are garnet mustard, red pac choi, scarlet frills mustard, britton shiso, and red rubin basil. There also is the most amazingly huge aloe vera plant I’ve ever seen; with flower bells in shades of red and orange, it is simply gorgeous—and the blossoms taste heavenly.
Torbett constructed his patio beds with PVC pipes and a sturdy, nonwoven polypropylene fabric. The organic growing medium in these beds is a blend of Sunshine Mix #4 and Happy Frog potting soils. Red wigglers and native earthworms are used for compost and fertilizer.
Chris and Amber North in Rocky Point allow Torbett to sow an acre of their farm with seasonal produce, such as daikon radishes, red bok choy, spinach, cabbage, kale, mustard greens, and other lettuces. In turn, the Norths grow gourmet mushrooms—oyster, shiitake, and Lion’s Mane (all known for immune system enhancement)—and Torbett sells them for shared profits. He also grows culinary herbs (five basils, lemon balm and chervil) and his favorite medicinal herb, stinging nettles, all of which he sells at local farmers markets.
With a strong belief the produce in grocery stores has lost most of its vitality, Torbett says if it’s not possible to garden at home, farmers markets are the next best solution for getting the most nutrients for your money. He sells his produce at the Wrightsville Beach Farmers’ Market on Mondays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Poplar Grove Farmers Market on Wednesdays, same time.
With great enthusiasm and academic precision, Torbett explains the difference between harvesting microgreens and sprouts, the latter of which he’s not selling currently. “A sprout is usually grown just in water, and once the cotyledons (embryonic leaves) are out, the whole plant is consumed, roots and all,” he details. “Since no substrate (soil medium) is needed to grow sprouts, consuming the entire plant is easy and also nutritional.”
According to the farmer, the sunflower sprout has 20 essential amino acids. Microgreen seeds are germinated in soil and grown a little longer than sprouts. “Typically, I wait till the first set of ‘true leaves’ are showing along with the cotyledons,” he details, “and cut the plant just above the substrate, leaving the roots behind. I believe in giving my plants the whole periodic table to grow to their fullest potential.”
Part of the periodic table is derived from aquarium waste produced by a beautiful Oscar fish, which also resides in Torbett’s dining room. Aquaponic fertilizer is not used on legumes because they do not need the extra nitrogen.
Torbett’s attention to detailed horticultural practices dates back to his experiences with his grandparents’ and parents’ backyard gardens. It’s where he picked up all the tricks of the trade.
“I learned the lessons of growing nutritious food, the rewarding feeling from a full day of work, and the importance of being somewhat independent from the government systems so many of us rely on,” he tells. “I found a spirituality with growing plants in accordance with the natural rhythms of nature. . . . The symbiosis of plants and micro-organisms, and their ebb and flow from the rhizosphere (fertile soil)—it’s really all just so magical.”
While studying at UNCW, Torbett worked at the former Progressive Gardens, a hydroponic gardening operation that wanted to grow nutritious food for the Wilmington community. While there he expanded the microgreen operation and decided farming was the best way for him to contribute to society.
“I’m setting up an acre permaculture market garden (sustainable ecosystems) in Rocky Point, doing everything with a spade fork and rake,” he says. “So it’s a slow process, but it’s coming together nicely. I believe the use of any biocide will have a trickle-down effect on our ecosystem. I always have pests on some plants, but I also have natural predators for those pests. There are pollinators galore—bees, butterflies and moths of every variety. The best part of being in the garden is definitely observing all the wonderful insects and animals in abundance all working right beside me.”
Torbett feels he has reached his capacity at the townhouse and is looking for 10 acres of land in the greater Wilmington area. “I will be creating my own permaculture heaven with the property, fruit and nut trees, perennial fruit-bearing shrubs and ornamentals, seasonal annual produce, and medicinal and culinary herbs,” Torbett explains. “Everything will be done primarily with hand tools, utilizing green manures, fermentation, and compost to make it as closed loop as possible.”
He believes in better ways to farm outside of conventional agriculture. More so, he is relieved to see so many people returning to an understanding of healthier practices.
In the meantime, Wilmingtonians who want to try Torbett’s vibrant microgreens right now, can find them incorporated in the recipes of such fine dining restaurants as Ceviche’s, Circa 1922, Manna and the Surf House. Their chefs all use microgreens to add pizzazz and bursts of flavorful nutrition to their food and drinks.
“At Circa, we serve salmon rillettes with micro chives,” says Chef Tripp Engel. “Grilled asparagus with slow poached egg and cured yolk is topped with pea tendrils; tuna tart with lemongrass, fava puree and shiitakes; Thai chili with micro shiso or perilla; NC cocktail shrimp, smoked oysters, and lobster with micro cilantro; and a mix of micro basil, apples, lemon, beets, matcha, sesame, and horseradish topped with organic salmon.”
For more information about Michael Torbett and Terra Vita Farm, visit Terra Vita Microgreens on Facebook, or call (724) 968-6759 before 8 p.m.
Dedication note: This story is written in honor of Michael Torbett’s mom, Kay Sees, his lifelong advocate and heroine.