A Brief History of Sproutpeople
Why you care we can't imagine, but here it is....
Last Updated August, 2010
Sproutpeople was started by Gil + Lori in 1993. Our children were born after that. There have always been dogs and cats - and usually fish - in our family as well.
Gil and Lori met in San Francisco, married six weeks after falling in love at a Grateful Dead show, in 1986. Gil managed a comedy club, then drove a limo, then a cab. Lori finished her MFA (Gil got his in '83) while answering phones at the San Francisco Art Institute, then managed a commercial real estate office. We started a family - we rescued 2 dogs and 2 cats. We left our beloved San Francisco (we felt we could never afford to live here) - moving to Seattle in 1989, where we soon bought our first house and put in our first garden. It was that garden and our first dog - Jupiter, and her love of nature that led us to quit our pathetic jobs and sell our home - in 1991 - and move - sight unseen - to deep Southern Illinois in pursuit of self-sufficiency. We packed the cats into the VW Bus in-tow, and the now three dogs (we adopted a stray fox terrier while in Seattle) into the front of the seventeen foot moving van along with us. We arrived in Carbondale, Illinois six days later, found a rental and started looking for our homestead. A month later we had spent all of our money on a beautiful post-glaciated forty acres with a shabby little old house. We put in two gardens totaling about one-half acre, collected a couple goats and a dozen chickens and began living. We realized too late that we were very alone out there and not financially prepared to be self-sufficient (none of the books we had read had mentioned money), and there wasn't a job anywhere. We sold our farm in 1992, at quite a loss and moved to un-glaciated Southwest Wisconsin in pursuit of community and another farm.
We found Gays Mills quite by accident, got jobs picking apples, rented a house and began looking for our next farm. this time there was a plan - to grow heirloom vegetables and sell them at The Dane County Farmer's Market in Madison, Wisconsin. We bought our farm in the Spring of 1993 shortly after beginning our life as farmers market venders. We sold heirloom plant starts at first, but it was a very wet year (the Mississippi River was flooding the lowlands that year) and we couldn't get our garden spot tilled. We ran out of things to sell about six weeks into the market, Lori suggested that we try to come up with something until our garden started producing. She said "Let's grow sprouts." I (Gil) said "I hate sprouts." So, Lori grew sprouts. She went into town (Gays Mills had a population of 500 - but it had an excellent food co-op) and came back with 10 different seeds to sprout. That's Lori. She made Sproutpeople that day. She not only brought home Alfalfa and Mung Beans, but also seeds that no one thought of when they thought of sprouts. She brought Adzuki Beans, Green Lentils, Green Peas, Garbanzos, Wheat, and more. We had over fifty quart jars full of sprouts a few days later and had something to take to market.
Though I was a sprout hater when Lori went to the co-op, I was a seed zealot. I have always been one of those people who would buy 5 seasons worth of garden seed, every year. I never met a seed I didn't like. That's how I got into sprouts. Lori grew them for the first 2 weeks, but I got my head on straight then. I learned about growing sprouts in trays and soon took over the growing duties, when we moved to our log cabin, a few miles away.
A few months later we had developed a regular clientele who begged us to keep sprouting - there was at that time no market vender who sold sprouts year round. I had found that I actually liked sprouts and realized that growing them was, in some ways at least as enjoyable as gardening. No weeds! To get over my dislike of eating sprouts, we came up with seeds that had flavor, and mixed them with other seeds until we figured out how to make them grow just right. The quest for tasty and uncommon seeds, eventually led us to find farmers and seed suppliers (not an easy task in the pre-internet days), many of whom we continue to work with in the present. We found additional joy in mixing things up for aesthetic reasons too. We had fallen head first into a new world. A world of sprouts.
Early in July - after one particularly horrible market we decided to take our unsold sprouts to a local co-op. The produce manager at Mifflin Street Community Co-op, Kirsten, said "Sure, I'll buy 'em" and our lives took another life-defining turn.
Every week thereafter, we would take what sprouts we didn't sell at market, over to Mifflin St. Co-op (where we bought our seeds in that first year - buying in bulk, sprouting them over the course of the week, selling the sprouts at market, and then repeating that pattern - every week saving a little bit more money).
July of 1993 was a big month for us. Near the end of the month - Lori was very pregnant and we were still tending our garden (we sold vegetables that first year, as well as sprouts) and we packaged our sprouts the night before market. I would go to cheese makers in the area and get huge styrofoam boxes and dry ice from them. We bagged our sprouts in semi-opaque plastic bags and packed them into these coolers. At market, we would display the bags on a table, in cool looking old wooden produce boxes - but looking back - we know that a lot of market customers didn't even know what we were selling. They saw our sign (which read Jupiter's Farm at that time) and a table full of plastic bags. One Friday night there just wasn't time to pack the sprouts, and Lori wasn't up to coming to market the next day. I was horrified. How could I do this alone, and package the sprouts at market? Well - as is so often the case - it was a good thing in disguise. All of a sudden market patrons could see what we were selling. Not only that, but the trays full of sprouts - different sizes, shapes and colors - made a gorgeous patchwork display. Our business more than doubled, and we didn't have to get supplies from the cheese makers or pack our sprouts on Friday. A very good turn after all.
A good friend of ours - Dave Zilavy built us an amazingly ingenious market table - for $30 - which he painted "market green". Made from an old hollow door, he added hinged and angled (so the trays would tip towards the customers) supports for shelves. He also made shelves that slid into brackets under the table, to hold the sprouts we had in reserve. The table was so cool, it changed the way venders displayed their goods for years to come - and it folded up so we could stow it in our van. He also built us racks to hold trays of sprouts in our van. Thanks Dave!
Our son came that August. He went to market every Saturday (April-November) from the time he was a month old until we stopped going - in 2003. We roamed the State Capitol - exploring every nook and cranny - he loved to sit on the badger statue outside of the Governor's office - and he grew to be a great city kid - riding his plastic big-wheelish tricycle like an X-Gamer through the throngs of people, on our way to the main library where we would check out dozens of books weekly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
As that first market season approached its end and a long cold Wisconsin winter stretched out before us (the first we'd spend in our log cabin), we determined that we needed some way to keep making money. We took samples of our sprouts to other stores in Madison. We were selling all our sprouts in bulk at that point, so we also showed the stores bulk containers and signage (home made of course), and a brochure full of nutritional information and recipes, which our friend Lillian Sizemore made for us (Thanks Lil!). We landed a few stores in Madison (including Willy St. Co-op, Magic Mill Natural Foods and another tiny co-op who's name eludes me as I write), and entered into the wholesale sprout business. We started growing sprouts to order, for the stores (no more market leftovers) and would deliver them before market. When we sold only at market I would get up at 3AM on Saturday, get everything ready, and we would be off at 4 to get to Madison by 6. With the wholesale addition, we had to get going an hour earlier (it became a 1AM departure in another year, as business grew) - so we could deliver the sprouts to the stores before heading to market. We would leave trays of sprouts on their loading docks in the middle of the night. Imagine that! Life sure was simple back then. Sleep deprived, but simple.
The last market took place, as always, on the first Saturday in November. Our friend Dave built us another sprout rack - this time for the back of our 4WD Dodge Colt Vista (we needed 4 wheel drive to get up our steep snowy driveway in winter). That became our delivery vehicle. Lori and I would take turns. One of us going on deliveries while the other stayed home, growing next weeks sprouts and taking care of Sam. Our cabin was off-the-grid. It had 2 solar panels which allowed us to use 150 watts of electricity at any given time (if there was juice in the batteries), was heated by a wood stove, and had no running water. We had an outhouse. Our well was a hundred feet down hill. We had been growing our sprouts outside all spring and summer, but that was no longer a possibility when the frost hit. I would fill 5 gallon containers with water and carry them up to the cabin, where I'd pour water into a watering can and then rinse the sprouts in an old claw-foot bath tub (which drained out under the cabin). This cabin was 600 square feet. The sprouts became a part of our family. To get the Alfalfa sprouts green we would move the trays around the cabin so they could get sunlight when it came through the few windows. It was absolutely absurd! We were growing sprouts - a water demanding crop - in a log cabin which didn't have space for all of us (3 humans, 3 dogs, 2 cats, and now sprouts) let alone what was needed to grow sprouts. But, we did it.
During the next market season we got our name. A joyous man came upon our stand by chance, and exclaimed: Ah! Sproutpeople! We changed our sign to read The Sproutpeople at Jupiter's Farm. We came up with more mixes and further honed our display. We added Kat Grass and Greens, and more wholesale accounts. By the end of that season we had established a slew of wholesale accounts in the Twin Cities - which were 250 miles away from our cabin. To get those accounts we had hauled trays of growing sprouts up to Minneapolis, and had continued growing them in our hotel room (rinsing and draining in a hotel sink is no easy feat). We made lovely displays of our sprouts and met produce buyers from over a dozen co-ops, carrying Sam with us every step of the way. The way I saw it, they had to buy our sprouts. We were the only organic grower around, and we already had a great line-up of unusual mixes. They sold wonderfully! All the buyers were impressed and happy to get on board. That many sprouts almost completely took over our cabin (Dave built us more growing racks), and the amount of time it took to grow them was ridiculous - especially given our water system. But, we did it.
The next year we built an addition to our cabin. We moved in at Thanksgiving. The bottom floor was our sprout room, and the top floor was our bedroom. We had also upgraded our well during the summer. Gone were the days of frozen dogs (the arms that ran the pump jack). The improved well was powered by a generator. The water flowed instead of chugging up. We also added 6 more solar panels and 10 more batteries. Life was good. Busy and hard, but good.
Ironically - just a couple months after we moved into our addition, it became obvious that bulk sprouts were becoming a thing of the past. Our favorite produce person - Big Sam at Mifflin St. Co-op told us that people were shopping less and less in bulk, instead buying pre-packaged and even pre-made food. She told us we needed to seriously consider packaging our sprouts.
As Whole Foods was finally going to open in Madison (it was their 47th store and they'd owned the building for more than 2 years already), we decided by spring of 1996 that we had to go to packaging our sprouts. We bought an old post-office building on Main St. in Gays Mills, fixed the leaky roof, had wooden racks built with lights under the shelves, bought a 14 foot restaurant sink, put in a shower (Finally some running water in our lives!), and a walk in cooler. We designed labels, found packaging supplies and bought a small refrigerated truck. This was the only time we ever borrowed money for Sproutpeople. Prior to this, and since - we have grown the business organically - that is - we added what we could when there was cash to do it. We took a $40,000 line-of-credit to do all this. All we owned was our cabin on 40 acres, so the bank put a lean on that as colateral. It was very scary to us. The post office had been the town's meeting place. At that point there were no restaurants or cafe's in town, so we decided, since we felt an obligation to the community, to use the front of the building to house a cafe. We spent $5,000 fixing it up. We added a deck out front with tables that we had chess/checker boards painted on, bought a bunch of board games, an espresso machine, had a counter built, painted the room beautifully (thanks to John Tully who was a set designer with a great eye -- he also painted the outside of the building marvelously) and called it The Upfront Cafe. It was, we believe, rural America's first internet cafe. We had 2 old Macs that offered free internet access. We were a huge hit with the local kids. We had found a source for a line of very unique sodas we had seen while in Northern California on vacation. Skeleteens sodas included Brainwash, Love Potion 69, and quite a few others. They were completely original, and offered a sort of glimpse of the world outside this tiny town. The kids loved them. The goal we had was for the cafe to make enough money to pay someone to sit at the counter. If we could make $7 an hour in profit we would be set. We never intended for it to actually make money. Some business people, eh?
Well - by the time we had the building done and the sprouts growing in our 400 square foot farm in back, Whole Foods had opened. They were a tough sell, but I landed the account. They became our biggest Wisconsin store. We had lost our Twin Cities accounts due to our delivery man quitting (Charlie owned his van but realized he was making only $5/hr, so he shut down. Funny thing is - he inspired us to figure out how much we made an hour. We calculated that it was less than a dollar, but that didn't stop us. Some business people, eh?), so we really needed them. We had our 2nd employee by then too - to help package sprouts once a week. We were employers! I spent a lot of time rinsing and draining sprouts. Every time someone came into the cafe I had to stop and go serve them. Life was hard. Money was tight and I was away from Lori and Sam, and our beloved dogs way too much. One evening I was driving off for home. I rounded the corner - where the cafe's deck was. Our loyal teenage clientele (the older locals, save one, would have nothing to do with us - we were outsiders) were all sitting there on this gorgeous late July evening. One of them - Dierdre, who we had known since we moved to town, shouted out - "We love you Gil!" It brings tears to my eyes still. That was one of the most wonderful moments!
But love wasn't enough in this case. We'd been open 3 weeks. During that time we were making only 25¢ an hour in profit, and the kids were already bankrupt. I was away from home too much and Sproutpeople was in serious need of more attention. Once we started packaging our sprouts our profit margin fell by 50%. Packaging costs a fortune, and we needed to make 2 trips to Madison every week now. I delivered the sprouts to stores on Thursday and we were going to market on Saturday. It's not like I never saw Lori and Sam - they were there too. Lori was in charge of packaging and helped grow sprouts, and she always did the office work. Sam climbed on our palettes of seed (we could hold about 3 tons in our seed room - though we didn't have that many yet, we did have mountains of bags which Sam loved to climb), and came with me on deliveries, but it was just too much. Life was too strained. Working 80 hours a week - each - and having a 3 year old - something just had to give. We painted over the Upfront Cafe sign on the front of our building and posted a sign offering our apologies.
3 weeks doesn't seem like a lot of time, and looking back I can say that it is not, but there was all sorts of stress at that time. We'd started delivering packaged sprouts before the building was done. We had to package in the cabin and rush the sprouts several miles to town - to the walk-in cooler in a hurry, and it was summer by now. We had spent more money, worked longer hours, slept less....
It's just life. You do what you can. Sometimes you have to focus on what must be done. We did so, but we wish that the cafe had worked. Anyway - we took one of the old Macs and put it in the production area. I studied about making web sites and on July 28, 1996 I registered our domain; sproutpeople.com. I wanted sprouts.com, but it - and sprout.com were taken - so I took our name. It was our business name after all. It was painted on the outside of our building. The thing is - had I been sharper, I would have registered some other domains. Back then there were a lot still available. In the dot com boom that shortly followed, those domain names sold for huge amounts of money. I could have made us rich that day. But, I have zero regrets about that. I bet Lori would have been OK with it, but I'd have died from over indulgence if I were rich. We're just regular working people. We're lucky I didn't strike it rich. I missed another golden opportunity a few years later too - but that story is in the future at this point in our narrative.
So, it's August 1996. I somehow found time to make web pages, and we put a web site up. We hosted it right there on that old Mac SE/30 (one of the Upfront Cafe computers) which had a modem attached to it. When someone would visit sproutpeople.com a doorbell would sound. We'd rush to the computer. It was SO EXCITING! It didn't happen that often, but we were so proud that people were coming to us to learn about sprouts.
Interruption: I spent a little time looking over our old web pages, and I see that my memory is a bit off. The domain registration is correct, but the cafe actually opened on August 9, 1996. The first site didn't go online until September 1. I'd go back and change the dates, but I have to get moving. Life is still too busy to allow me as much time as I'm taking to write this history. I promise - we'll get it straight if we ever write a book @;-)
Back to our story - as I recall it.....
That winter (96-97) was so snowy that we couldn't get up the driveway to the cabin. Even the plow guy couldn't save us. We somehow got our bed and a few other items out, and moved our family (dogs and cats included) into the old cafe up front. We had also put an office in that room by now. We saw a lot of each other that winter, and it was fun to be in town - with all the conveniences offered by a town this size - a grocery store and the food co-op, a bakery which was open sometimes, and a great little library (run by our good friend, mother of Dierdre; Maura Otis). Jupiter almost drowned in the Kickapoo River and I had to go out on thin ice to recue her, but besides that life was pretty great. We were always together. That was the best thing. It was during our stay at the Sprout Factory as we called it, that we were found by the health inspector. We hadn't been hiding from her, but we'd never gone about getting officially licensed. When she walked in the dogs barked at her first thing. That we were living there - and had animals living amidst the growing sprouts was not to her liking, but she was used to the sometimes odd ways of folks in the Kickapoo Valley, so she let us go. We promised we would all be back in our cabin soon, and she made us official.
We kept on growing. In September 1997 our daughter was born. Late in September news came out of Johns Hopkins University about the amazing antioxidant content in Broccoli Sprouts. As it happened, we had decided to try to reclaim the Minneapolis-St. Paul accounts we had so poorly treated when we dropped them unceremoniously the year before. I had been on the phone for a couple weeks, telling all the stores about our now packaged sprouts and promising we would do it right this time as we'd be delivering ourselves. When the Broccoli news came out they all wanted to know if we would have Broccoli Sprouts. If there is one thing you can say about me it is that I am persistent. Maybe determined would be a better word - or stubborn. Whatever it is, I am a talker and I form relationships easily. I made dozens of calls and found seed. Broccoli seed was in such enormous demand it is impossible to convey the absolute lack of seed. Seed farmers had been growing only as much as was used by the garden seed industry at that point. Sprout growers demands far exceeded the supply. FAR! The good fortune for all was that this was the time of year seed farmers planted broccoli, so some wise farmers and seed dealers jumped on it and expanded crops for next year's harvest. The good fortune for us is that I found a garden seed company which was signing up farmers to do this - offering them up to 1,000 pounds of seed. Our good friends, Mark and Ila were in on this, but their Nebraska climate wouldn't work for broccoli seed production, so they told the seed supplier to send their seed to us. That seed supplier did so because we had such a fine relationship. It changed our lives. We were featured on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal (above the fold even), and an article came out in Health Magazine that talked not only about the Johns Hopkins report - it mentioned us as having seed. ABC TV in Madison came out to do a story on us which was subsequently picked up by networks across the country. We had begun offering our unique seeds for folks to grow their own sprouts just months before. We had a few dozen seed customers, and all of a sudden we were the cat's pajamas. People came to us - Sproutpeople - in our tiny little building in this tiny little village - to our tiny little web site - they came to us looking for seeds. It was amazing! But I digress, yet again....
That we would have Broccoli Sprouts to sell was all the folks in the Twin Cities needed to hear. They all signed up for our full product line. I don't mean to give the wrong impression - we're still talking small business here - our biggest account, The Wedge was worth $300 a week in sales, but several of the accounts were under $50. I delivered the first couple weeks, but we started sending one of our employees (Carl Schlecht was with us for years and was one with the sprouts. He grew them as well as I did, and he was an all around wonderful human being. He didn't leave us until the bottom fell out, at the end of 1999 - but we'll get to that in due time.). We were reaching our peak. By mid-1998 we had nine employees. We delivered sprouts to several stores in Milwaukee (we had a hell of a hard time getting into that market as a local woman had started selling our mixes to those stores - she met us at market, got our seed suppliers from our organic certification agency - under false pretenses - and went into business, but she didn't last long - not everyone has what it takes to be a professional sprout grower =;-) where The Outpost became one of our biggest accounts, in addition to Madison and several small towns across the state. On the way to the Twin Cities we stopped in La Crosse, Wisconsin to supply the fantastic People's Food Co-op, and we had an independent produce trucker who took our sprouts to stores in Iowa and for a short time, northern Illinois (where I am originally from). We were growing as much as 1,500 pounds of sprouts weekly, as well as dozens of trays of Greens, Micro-Greens, and Wheat Grass - not to mention hundreds of pints of Kat Grass. We had our sprouts in co-ops, natural food stores, upscale restaurants, juice bars, main stream grocery stores, and we had Kat Grass in pet food stores. On top of that our seed business was growing, albeit slowly - and we were doing better than ever at the farmers market. We drew up a business plan (we hired a professional to do this) to expand. We made rough plans for a building in Viroqua where we picked out a lot in the industrial park. We were going to employ dozens of people, sell seeds, and supply far more sprouts to a much wider region. Price tag $400,000. We skipped it. A very wise decision.
Rewinding a bit - we had moved from our cabin in early January of 1998. We had purchased a big old farm house on the edge of the town of Viroqua, Wisconsin - 22 miles north of Gays Mills. It was a joy to have running water and electricity with the flip of a switch, right there in our house. Jupiter had died tragically on Christmas Eve - just a week before we moved. I was devastated. She was the dog love of my life. But let's not get morbid. She was definitely on the decline, and she had been - though originally a city (San Francisco) dog - a country dog for most of her life. She was too dingy for life in town, my poor dear. But Clementine took care of me. She had always been Lori's dog. Being part Pit Bull she was inclined to be loyal to one person - though she was very loving - taking especially to Sam who she loved enormously. Clem would pull a sled with Sam in it, she slept with him and basically what was amazing was that she just accepted him as more important in our pack. Jupiter resented the attention Sam got - she never hurt him, but she loved me above all creatures, and anyone (except Lori) who took my attention was not her good friend. So, after Jupiter died Clem - though still taking care of Sam, took care of me. She saw my suffering and she did everything she could to help me. She was a great - and exceptionally smart dog. OK - I'm off subject. I'm trying to stick with Sproutpeople history. That we see Sproutpeople as one of our children explains why I keep entangling our family in its history, but unless you are as crazy about dogs as we are, you must think me way off.
We had all sorts of joys, trials and the things that make life up. Alice was an amazing infant (she remains amazing to this day). Sam was now a big brother, and we were living in a big house in a town of 4,000. Sproutpeople had reached its peak - as far as the fresh sprout part of our history goes. Things were very good. As we all tend to learn - just when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.....
1999 was a roller coaster. In the Twin Cities there was pressure from Whole Foods. They had opened - or were planning to open (memory fails me) their 2nd and 3rd stores - and worse, a regional distribution center - which put them into direct competition with the wholesale distributor Roots & Fruits. Roots & Fruits had grown up with the co-ops in the area. They were part of the movement that had made the Twin Cities home to (in 1977 when I was in my first year of college - at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) 37 food co-ops. Ponder that. 37! How many are in your city or town? How many were there before? Hell, I shopped at a co-op in '77-78 that was the size of a small corner store. This was an amazing area for food co-ops. So the pressure Whole Foods created - - Whole Foods had a long history of moving into towns and putting their stores very close to a co-op or natural foods store. They would try to steal that store's customer base (putting them out of business) and grow from there. We saw them do it in Madison - where it took longer than usual to close Magic Mill (our 2nd wholesale account) - several years, and we saw them do it in Minneapolis - - anyway - the pressure they created caused chaos in the produce scene. Without going into detail - we lost all of our Twin Cities accounts largely due to their fear and infighting - which was a direct result of Whole Foods expansion. It was devastating to us. At the same time there was pressure from the FDA. They had - in January (one of our 2 busiest months, every year) finally come out with their final report on an outbreak (from the mid-90s) of salmonella they had blamed on sprouts. That had hurt us enormously, but then losing the Twin Cities - it was beyond huge. In July the FDA issued another warning against sprouts. Business was way down, and the stress was horrible.
Our seed business did well due to Y2K fears. People were buying hundreds of pounds of seed - to stock up before the end of the world. We did not - and we would not - be part of the epidemic of fear, but we did sell seeds to those who wanted them. As it turned out - that is what kept Sproutpeople from disappearing altogether - as things only got worse as the year moved on. On October 6 the Wisconsin State Journal ran an article entitled "Throw Out Your Sprouts!". This was the 2nd time sprouts had made the front page (once again, above the fold), this time was a horror. The article appeared as a result of a press release issued the day before, by the Wisconsin Department of Health. Our sprouts - along with all other growers sprouts - were removed from store shelves and restaurants, and sales were stopped, with no time frame given for their resumption. The whole story is here, but the shorter version is this - Our sales were virtually nil for the whole month. We fought desperately to get the media to state our innocence (we were the one Wisconsin sprout farm that was fully exonerated) as boldly as they had presumed our (and the other growers) guilt. We laid off all but one of our employees (not that we could even afford her) - in the end losing our most valued - Carl - who could take the angst no longer. Sproutpeople was on the brink. Had it not been for a Y2K seed order that came in that month - for over $2,000 - we may not have survived.
Once again we were taught that good things often come from bad. Though the FDA didn't change their ways - despite our helping generate thousands of signatures and letters demanding they do so (This was a seminal case after all. At this time the FDA had all non-organic commercial sprout growers soaking their seeds in bleach to kill pathogenic bacteria - whether it was present or not. This outbreak had proven that bleaching didn't work. The 2 growers who were responsible were bleaching. Sproutpeople was not. Our seed was organic. Their seed was not. Our sprouts and facility tested clean. Theirs did not. This proved that sprout growers should use safe seed, and that's what they heard from thousands of people, as well as from the chief medical officer of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, who told them: "The best starting point for sprout safety is certified organic seed". None of this mattered to the FDA. They made it even harder for growers by adding other procedures (and therefore costs) to the bleaching. They added lab testing of water (after rinsing the sprouts) and of the finished sprout crops. There was no way we - or any small grower could afford this - and organic growers could have nothing to do with their bleach protocol and remain organic. This is still the policy, well over a decade later. Pathetic!), it set us on our path towards the future. As a result of this horrid year we put in place our "no assholes" policy, which is still in place today - and will remain as long as we are Sproutpeople. Whole Foods had been a problem all year. Besides treating us with zero respect, they allowed a Madison TV news crew to shoot a story about the dangers of sprouts, and they used our sprouts as the background for their representative, who told the media "organic sprouts may be more dangerous than non-organic sprouts". Whole Foods said that! The nation's largest retailer of organic food. This was the perfect - I MEAN PERFECT opportunity for them to show that organic was safer, and what did they do? OMG! Here's more on that. But, it led us to see the light - money can not compensate for bad behavior. It never has and it never will. The events of the year also led us to focus more on our seed sales. I started what turned out to be a 2 year project, writing everything I knew about growing sprouts into a web site I designed. We ended up selling the wholesale sprout portion of Sproutpeople - as of 1/1/00 to our one remaining production employee, who was a damned fine sprout grower herself. We din't get much money, and it took years to get what we did, but Sproutpeople kept supplying local stores for years to come (though the name eventually changed). Thanks Kathy!
Well, as you may have guessed - the world did not end on January 1, 2000. We moved our seed business from Gays Mills to Viroqua. The one employee we had kept for the seed business had quit under extremely strange personal circumstances, and then spent the next 2 years trying to extort money from us by lying to the Wisconsin Department of Work Force Development. That experience cost us stress so great that even I, as taken to words as I am, can not begin to express it. In the end we were declared innocent of all her claims. It cost us thousands of dollars and hundreds upon hundreds of hours to defend ourselves against her frivolous allegations. We wouldn't hire another employee for years to come, she had so damaged us emotionally.
I worked every night - often until 2AM - on our web site. We set up palettes with legs in our backyard, and got back to growing sprouts for market - outside. The Wisconsin weather is challenging, but there is no better way to grow sprouts for market. We had 6 palettes, which could hold 8 trays each, plus another that was for buckets - which is what we used to grow Bean, Nut, and Grain sprouts.
Lori and I worked alone for the next 4 years. We did hire a teenager to work part-time in the summer of 2003, but we moved to San Francisco at the end of that year. We had stopped going to The Dane County Farmer's Market that summer . We were too tired from work, and just could not get up at 3AM anymore. It had been 10 years. Since 2000 we had been growing sprouts in our backyard - like we'd grown them down at our well when we lived in the log cabin. We loved growing that way, and we loved the market. It was an absolutely phenomenal experience and it shaped our lives profoundly, but it was time to move on. Our son, Sam was 10 and we could not see raising him in this little town. As great as southwestern Wisconsin is, as many counter-culture people as there are, as many organic farmers as there are, it lacks ethnic diversity and culture, and as we were not natives, we would always be outsiders to many of the locals. We had met, fell in love and married in San Francisco. We loved San Francisco, and as we'd not spent money on employees for years, we could now afford to move back. That we tried to sell Sproutpeople - and that it spent 17 months under someone else's stewardship (though I still ran the web site and Lori still did the bookkeeping) in Washington State, is not a story I wish to delve into. It was a mistake. We ended up taking the business back in May of 2005 under very unusual circumstances. Sproutpeople had almost been killed by the person who was running it. We packed it into a moving truck and got it set up in a warehouse in San Francisco in about a week. We spent months trying to repair the damage it had sustained. We talked with hundreds of customers weekly and apologized profusely. Lori and I, with huge help from my sister and an amazing young woman (Danielle, we will always love you!) we hired got things back on track - in time.
Since Sproutpeople has been in San Francisco (June 1, 2005) we have employed people regularly (tops among them; Danielle, who moved to Kansas to farm for awhile, got us The Amazing Molly - a professional clown, in the European style - who was with us for 5 years - our longest tenured employee by a wide margin - and Sarah who was a marvel in her time and went on to pursue filmmaking.. We lucked into Shana, an rock-n-roll singer who was also marvelous, though she and the band moved to Portland. My sister helped us land Tracey a great photographer who moved home to St. Louis to continue her education). We keep it small, choosing to stick with retail sales only. We learned, as sprout growers, that owning and running a business takes an incredible amount of time. Family is more important. There is only so much time for everything in life, and one has to choose their priorities carefully. We will never get rich doing what we do, but we get by, and at this point we have an amazing full-time manager - Kate (who has been with us since spring of 2009) - who many of you feel is part of our family, as we do. Though I still run the web site, test seeds and haul our tonnage around when deliveries come in, and Lori still helps fill your orders and answer emails (Kate and I do that too), we now have more time to be with our family. Our kids are teens. They are wonderful kids who attend public schools in these financially trying times for our state and country. They love being San Franciscans. Our current dogs are Dobie (who we rescued in Viroqua) and Chester (a Mexican beach stray rescued by a friend). Our cats are Neville (from Viroqua) and Felix (rescued from the SFSPCA). They all have great stories, but it's time to move into the future - I've spent too much time in the past....
We have too often let Sproutpeople (our oldest child) run things in our lives, but we have managed to find a balance. Lori and I have worked closer than many couples can imagine, but we love being together. That our future will hopefully allow us more time to be so, in non-sprout situations, is our hope. We cannot leave Sproutpeople, it is part of us. We are the people who have grown the hundreds of tons of sprouts - by hand. No one else can answer questions we can, so we expect to be doing this for a long time to come. We do hope this newly rebuilt site will make it easier for you to find the answers you need, but we'll be here when you can't, and so will Kate.
I ventured into the present at the end of our history, and the present is so fleeting that I'd have to write every day to keep this current - or every hour - or constantly... we're trying to live in our present - so please forgive us if we don't write it down.
What the future holds we can not say.
As Janis Joplin so eloquently said "as we find out on the train (she meant "while living life", I believe), tomorrow never comes. It's all the same day", so get it while you can!
Here and Now!