A vertical hydroponic farm in Irvine is ‘a chef’s playground’ – Orange County Register

Housed in a nondescript office building on Sky Park Circle in Irvine, a vertical hydroponic farm called Malaia’s Microgreens is part of a quiet farming revolution.

Owners Malaia Martinez and Jaebin Yoo, both 22, say their farm produces nearly 400 pounds of organic produce weekly. It is 90% more water efficient than traditional farms and takes up significantly less space. In just two years, the duo have built a group of chefs they hire to offer organic specialties grown to order.

As a region, Irvine has historical roots in agriculture. By World War II, Irvine Ranch alone was one of the largest and most productive farms in California. In a way, Malaias Microgreens functions as this generation’s agricultural company. Yoo and Martinez believe their company is the future of farming.

“We currently have over a hundred different types of microgreens being grown,” says Malaia Martinez. “Because it is a controlled environment, we are not exposed to weather issues. If chefs want a product that can’t be grown in cooler times, we can mimic that climate and make sure it’s grown year-round.”

Malaia Martinez and Jaebin Yoo are shown at the Irvine headquarters of Malaia's Microgreens, which grows nearly 400 pounds of organic produce for local restaurants a week. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)
Malaia Martinez and Jaebin Yoo are shown at the Irvine headquarters of Malaia’s Microgreens, which grows nearly 400 pounds of organic produce for local restaurants a week. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)

Martinez explains that the process begins in a seeding lab, which is more like a lab than a pot room. Jars are neatly labeled with seed varieties such as basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley.

Martinez points out that most of the action takes place in a futuristic-looking white room at the back of the office. This is where the microgreens and edible flowers grow. The space doesn’t look like a traditional farm. It is air-conditioned and illuminated with bright white lights. Neatly lined rows of plants are neatly stacked in planting trays and stored on white shelves. There is not a hint of fertilizer, nor a single bug. Malaia’s microgreens also do without the use of traditional soil.

“We don’t have soil,” says Martinez. “It comes from coconut shells.”

Malaia Martinez inspects some of the plants growing at Malaia's Microgreens. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)
Malaia Martinez inspects some of the plants growing at Malaia’s Microgreens. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)

Everything is stacked vertically to save space. Conservation is a big part of this operation. A water reservoir allows Martinez and Yoo to test the pH of the farm’s water.

“Everything is at the right level to benefit the plants,” she says. Yoo, who installed the filtration system, also does the farm installation and maintenance work.

“Our entire system is very water efficient,” says Yoo. “Every single drop of water that escapes – what is not absorbed by the plant, is absorbed 100 percent into our system. So everything is cleaned, filtered and reused. We save every drop we can. We have no running water.”

Yoo finds ways to make the system more water efficient, and Martinez is responsible for planting.

“She’s always been the green-fingered one,” says Yoo. “Ever since I met her, she has always had a soft spot for plants. She even grew things in her dorm.”

Microgreens and edible flowers are grown at Malaia's Microgreens in Irvine. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)
Microgreens and edible flowers are grown at Malaia’s Microgreens in Irvine. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)

This passion drove Martinez and Yoo to open a small farmers market stall in 2020. They started small, selling certified organic micro vegetables, then leafy greens and edible flowers. At the time, Martinez was a student at Vanguard University. She graduated a year early to focus on the company.

It’s come a long way. Now Malaia’s Microgreens looks like a hi-tech sci-fi lab. But it all started in a used shed in the neighbor’s backyard. Yoo and Martinez grew up in their garage, but that wasn’t sustainable either. So in May, Yoo and Martinez signed the lease for this space in Irvine. After months of construction, they held a grand opening ceremony on November 9th.

“We want to be a playground for chefs,” says Martinez. “We want them to come, and we can really specialize in products for them.” She walks past rows of eye-catching pink amaranth and red sorrel to a row of green plants. Martinez runs his fingers over the tips. “These are our nasturtiums. They look like little lily pads,” she says. “They have a peppery, spicy taste.” Martinez then moves to another tray. “Here we have our Oxalis, which is very popular with chefs.”

Coriander seeded coriander sprouts at Malaias Microgreens in Irvine. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)
Coriander seeded coriander sprouts at Malaias Microgreens in Irvine. (Courtesy of Malaias Microgreens)

A handful of local chefs use Malaias microgreens. In Orange County, the list includes Gabby’s Kitchen in Orange, CHAAK in Tustin, Solstice Restaurant and Porch & Swing in Irvine.

“Everything is grown to order, we don’t grow bulk produce,” says Yoo. Chefs place specific orders and the farm delivers exactly what they want. Each crop meets their customers’ desired specifications for colour, size and flavor. “Cooks will say we want watercress or nasturtium. Or we want the leaves to be this big or small. We have the power to change that. So we grow specifically for our customers.”

When chefs can’t find an ingredient, they ask Malaia’s to grow it just for them.

“For Gabby’s, she wanted a traditional spice that’s grown primarily in the Yucatan, Mexico,” says Martinez. “So she said, ‘Can you get this seed for us and start growing it?’ We’re really trying. That’s what’s cooler and more customizable about the farm. We work with heirloom seed farms and it’s all about the research.”

https://www.ocregister.com/2022/12/02/a-hydroponic-vertical-farm-in-irvine-is-a-playground-for-chefs/ A vertical hydroponic farm in Irvine is ‘a chef’s playground’ – Orange County Register

Adam Bradshaw

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