WEST PEORIA — Something is flourishing inside the old Geier Florist building.
Sam Hendricks and Brandon Neuzil are partners in a new business growing microgreens in an urban agriculture environment. Their business is called Central Illinois Fresh.
The 28-year-old Neuzil had been looking for space last year to try out his idea and had been in contact with Geier Florist. When that longtime West Peoria business at 2002 W. Heading Ave. shut down earlier this year, Neuzil bought out the first floor of the building.
In February, he and Hendricks got into contact and their business began to come to fruition in April. The duo have been selling microgreens and leafy greens since the beginning of June, including at the Riverfront Farmers Market in Peoria each Saturday — selling out their stock there during many weeks.
“We wanted to get involved in the food movement in Peoria,” Neuzil said.
It’s a business he’s completely new to, with no experience running a greenhouse or using commercial hydroponics, though Hendricks has farmers market experience.
"Hydroponics we do for all of our lettuce," Neuzil said. "NFT system, which means Nutrient Film Technique, is our process. We get our equipment from a manufacturer in Ohio. We purchase from them and then set it up to fit our greenhouse layout.”
The system works as produce is placed into pipes where their roots interact with a small line of nutrient-mineral water. The process doesn't need potting soil because all of the nutrients needed are mixed into the water system. Neuzil and Hendricks just have to replenish the tank of mineral water every week.
“Hydroponics is still relatively new to agricultural,” Neuzil said. “Currently we are producing 870 heads of lettuce. We have 870 holes to work with."
The method allows for consistent production throughout the year.
“I think a way that will separate ourselves from other farmers is that come wintertime urban agricultural will be able to produce year round,” Hendricks said. “There are a lot of limitations with the seasons and weather. We are trying to produce strong quality products year round.”
Microgreens do not require a lot of time to produce, with an average growth rate of two weeks compared to produce that can take 45 to 90 days, Neuzil said.
The result comes in trays filled with cabbage, radishes and red Russian kale.
“Microgreens can be produced in almost any building as long as it is climate controlled and you have good water. You can do it in your garage or below ground,” Neuzil said. “There is a hydroponics company that produces lettuce hundreds of feet underground in a mine shaft. As long as you have water and power and some air flow you can make your own microgreens.”
The produce has even started to appear on local restaurant plates.
They’re growing a great product,” says Dustin Allen, who operates Edge in Peoria Heights. His usual order is 10 to 12 pounds of leafy greens and several pounds of microgreens.
He and Hugh Higgins at Hearth up the street in the Heights are two restaurant owners using Central Illinois Fresh’s produce.
“For us and our business model, we have no national suppliers at all in our restaurant,” Allen said. “It takes us over 60 family farms to run this restaurant on a yearly basis. To me, they are just another part of that, part of our system.”
The prospect of a year-round supply has made Allen a very happy restaurant owner.
“What we are excited about is that they have the ability to provide yearly to us,” Allen said. “That opens up a segment to our menu that in years past has been very small.”
Neuzil, meanwhile, hopes to educate youth in the area about sustainable farming like microgreens. He sees the idea of urban agriculture as an important one to the next generation.
“You don’t have to use much,” Neuzil said. “You just sprinkle some on your salads and flatbreads and you can also eat it plain on crackers. We have people who come to us and tell us about their microgreen experiments in cooking. We are wanting to get feedback from everyone.”
For now, both men run the business on the side, with Neuzil working for Cazenovia Salt and Hendricks at Kaufman Wellness Center. But they’d like to add in a storefront to allow for more business, and they’re laying plans for an open house and concert at their venue sometime next month.