MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Just across the Monongahela River from Morgantown sits a small greenhouse with a picturesque view of Woodburn Hall. During the winter months, you might notice its soft pinkish purple glow, but if you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably never notice the unassuming structure.
The real surprise though is not that the greenhouse simply exists, but rather that it houses an innovative horticulture operation called Micro Genesis.
Inside, Jordon Masters, founder of Micro Genesis, has spent the last two-and-a-half years prototyping equipment, developing a custom network of sensor technology and building his own software tools, all to help him – and eventually other small producers – quickly and consistently grow a variety of unique, petite leafy crops year-round, including microgreens, baby greens, herbs and newly added, romaine lettuce.
Despite this Greenbrier County native’s history, growing up around agriculture and showing livestock as a West Virginia 4-H’er, Masters has always been more interested in plants than animals. But, he wasn’t sure horticulture was “a profitable game.” That was, until he spoke with his then, and now-retired, county West Virginia University Extension Service agent, John McCutcheon.
“He told me that if every producer he had in Greenbrier County grew nothing but heads of lettuce for the school systems, they would never even get close to the market – and that struck a chord with me,” said Masters, who has since earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
Since that realization, Masters has been focused on streamlining and growing this business. But, his efforts are not just for the sake of his own profits. He has a much larger vision for his business model – one that helps West Virginia’s small growers and makes the most out of the resources our state has to offer.
“There’s not really a whole lot of flat land in West Virginia, but what we do have is a lot of fresh water and a lot of great small farmers. We just need a way to help those small farmers grow consistently, so they can be profitable,” Masters said.
That’s where his innovative spirit comes in. Everything he and his small team of business partners and employees have developed up to this point was created to help them grow more consistently and more affordably, allowing other growers to replicate this model more easily.
But, innovation is nothing new for Masters. As a student, he won the West Virginia Collegiate Business Plan Competition, which is hosted by the WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics Brickstreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Masters also worked with the WVU LaunchLab to help him make the right connections to get his business plan off the ground.
While studying at WVU, he even struck a deal with the University to develop a public-private partnership with Micro Genesis, which secured him the land to build the greenhouse he works out of today.
What Masters’ operation has evolved into over the last few years is unlike anything Micro Genesis employee Joshua Mapel has ever experienced before. His own curiosity, coupled with the challenge of learning something new, is what drew the Davis College student and veteran to Micro Genesis when he was searching for a part-time job.
“I’ve never seen anything grow this fast or in this manner before. It’s really neat and really challenging,” Mapel said. “You’re basically growing a crop in a week, so that in itself is challenging, trying to meet the demands of the customer as well as meet the demands of the greenhouse.”
To help them meet those demands, the team has created a number of cost-effective items, including a network of sensors that monitor and control water, temperature and light levels in the greenhouse; a patent-pending table-top harvester; and a vertically integrated system of business tools that simplifies the less desirable side of running a profitable agricultural operation, such as accounting, sales assistance, and growth charts and schedules.
“That’s what I’ve been focusing on here – how we can make something that’s scalable in West Virginia. And, take a product like lettuce that has almost no profitability and make it profitable for small growers,” Masters added.
From concept to reality, WVU Extension Service has served as a resource for Masters and his growing business, especially when it came to educating him about produce safety requirements and helping him incorporate an integrated pest management plan into his operation.
Ronnie Helmondollar, program director for the WVU Extension Service agriculture and natural resources unit, believes farmers like Masters are the secret to a sustainable future for agriculture in West Virginia.
“WVU Extension Service has a long history of piquing curiosity and sparking innovation among our state’s farmers, and Jordon is a great example of that,” Helmondollar said. “Smart, resourceful growers like Jordon are what prop up West Virginia’s food system, and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a new producer and knowing our people helped move their operation forward.”
Masters’ venture is one example of moving West Virginia forward. The more West Virginia can support a robust statewide startup culture and provide the tools and resources to help startups grow and develop successful businesses, the more prosperous West Virginia will be.
WV Forward is a statewide collaboration led by West Virginia University, the state Department of Commerce and Marshall University to help grow the economy by adding jobs, investing in education and improving health and wellness to create the most prosperous West Virginia possible.