Growing greens: Student entrepreneur cultivates food business

An interest in health and nutrition led Trenton Jackson to create Lil’ Sprouts Microgreens. Now his business is providing food access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A student business owner speaks to two customers.
Lil' Sprouts Microgreens founder and VCU student Trenton Jackson demonstrating his product at a past Real Local RVA event. (Photo courtesy of Trenton Jackson)

Trenton Jackson’s business, Lil’ Sprouts Microgreens, was not an impulsive endeavor. He started growing microgreens while a student at Colonial Heights High School. 

“My junior year, when I was playing soccer, I was exploring different avenues of health, nutrition and personal growth. When I improved my eating, I saw my athletic performance improve,” said Jackson, while on a lunch break recently outside the Lil’ Sprouts Microgreens grow facility, a former tobacco warehouse in the Manchester section of Richmond.

“When I played soccer, wheatgrass gave me that extra breath and boost of energy. It is high in chlorophyll. The list of nutritional benefits goes on.”

Jackson is a sophomore pursuing a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree with a focus on environmental entrepreneurship. On the 20-year-old’s Lil’ Sprouts Microgreens website, he defines the vegetables as the little greens that are harvested prematurely during the cotyledon (first set of leaves when greens sprout) or the first true leaf stage (the first pair of true leaves that emerge) of a plant’s life cycle. As seedlings of edible vegetables, the greens are nutritionally dense and commonly used in salads, sandwiches, wraps and other meals. 

“Over the course of two or three months I was trying to figure it out, doing basic research, and my plan of attack through trial and error,” Jackson said of his early efforts to grow the greens. “I bought inexpensive equipment and put it up in my mom’s laundry room and was giving the microgreens to chefs.”

It was this pursuit of agricultural business and food development, as well as a desire to understand the related issues, that led Jackson to Virginia Commonwealth University and an interdisciplinary studies track.

“It’s been amazing at VCU and in the startup community,” he said. “I’ve been able to tailor my schedule and course load to be a toolkit to solve problems. I see everything to be super connected.”

Packages of microgreen products.
Packaged microgreens displaying subscription options. (Photo courtesy of Trenton Jackson)

Through his growing knowledge, Jackson has been able to expand Lil’ Sprouts Microgreens from his apartment to the Manchester growing facility, a 1,000-square-foot space where shelves of flats produce broccoli greens, pea shoots, radish greens, salad mix greens, spicy mustard greens, wheatgrass juice, curled cress microgreens, Hong Vit radish greens, sunflower shoots and raw wheatgrass.

The leafy items are for sale through subscriptions, as well as at grocery stores, the Foodfarm.com mobile farmers market, buying clubs, other food hubs, as well as a few restaurants. Waste or unclaimed inventory led Jackson to push the subscription service to connect with interested customers. This spring he is selling his microgreens as part of Sprout About Mobile Market, a drive-through farmers market that is part of an initiative to provide food access during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jackson also has been closely involved with a VCU greenhouse project with John Jones, Ph.D., who teaches Environments & Policies of Urban Food Systems and is a visiting scholar in the Center for Environmental Studies and a member of the VCU iCubed Sustainable Food Access Core. Jones and a group of students, along with Sara Barton, the learning garden coordinator at the Office of Sustainability, have been growing microgreens in a previously unused bay in the VCU Life Sciences greenhouse. The group donates the harvest to the VCU Ram Pantry to aid students who are food insecure.

Jones described Jackson as a crackerjack student because of his maturity and professionalism, but also for his focus on absorbing lessons in class and developing a product that solves problems. COVID-19 is exacerbating issues of food insecurity in the Richmond area, the country and the world, Jones said. 

“Many people are trying to connect with direct food producers,” Jones said. “We may be seeing a shift. Business is booming because people want to buy directly from [Jackson]. I wonder if as society recovers, this will affect people’s reliance on the industrial food system that brings produce from outside the region to our grocery stores. Will the crisis disrupt that? Will people want to rely more on local producers and farmers?” 

A room with a microgreen growing setup.
Inside the Lil' Sprouts Microgreens growing facility in Manchester. (Photo courtesy of Trenton Jackson)

Jackson said he is prepared to weather the impact of the coronavirus on Lil’ Sprouts Microgreens.

“I am developing sanitation and safety procedures,” Jackson said. “It’s another problem for us to work on to solve.”

It is not the first time Jackson has experienced a business challenge. When he encountered puzzled or disinterested customers at farmers markets, Jackson took that as an opportunity to educate consumers about his microgreens, drawing on what Jones calls “the acorn squash problem” that people tend to have with a food they do not know. Sometimes they simply need more information — and some recipes.

Jackson’s growth at VCU has paralleled the growth of his company. He has taken advantage of resources provided by professors and programs, such as the pre-accelerator program at the VCU da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business and colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship. 

“Trent was one of the top performing students in the program,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center. “It’s a misnomer that what makes a great entrepreneur is that they must have a brilliant idea. His most attractive quality is his coachability. Like an athlete who thinks they are so great that they don’t have to practice, the same goes for an entrepreneur. Trent is highly coachable.”

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