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Malaia’s Microgreens in Irvine takes farming into the future

Jaebin Yoo, left, and Malaia Martinez eat violas at Malaia's Microgreens in Irvine on Nov. 7.
Jaebin Yoo, left, and Malaia Martinez eat violas at Malaia’s Microgreens in Irvine on Nov. 7.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Malaia Martinez plucked a tiny yellow bud from a small flat planter and held it up to the grow lights that imitate direct and indirect sunlight at her hydroponic farm.

“This is toothache button,” said Martinez. “These are really numbing. A lot of restaurants use that as a palate cleanser, in between courses. It’s also used in cocktails.”

Toothache buttons, also known by descriptors like buzz button and electric daisy, are the flower of the Acmella oleracea plant, which grows in the tropics and are used to flavor foods and as a medicine with a numbing effect used for tooth pain (hence the nickname).

The plant is among the microgreen herbs and edible flowers Martinez and partner Jaebin Yoo grow at their newly opened hydroponic farm, Malaia’s Microgreens.

 Toothache button, or Acmella oleracea, grows at Malaia's Microgreens.
Toothache button, or Acmella oleracea, grows at Malaia’s Microgreens in Irvine.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Hydroponic growing methods, which grow plants without soil, have been hailed as a pathway toward a more sustainable food system. Malaia’s Microgreens’ new hydroponic farm is a large-scale version of the hydroponic garden the partners began during the pandemic in a neighbor’s shed. They sold their greens at farmers markets in Santa Monica, Brentwood and Calabasas and earned their Certified Farmers Certificate. The foundation in the shed, which was unstable to begin with, shifted over time, and they moved the operation into Martinez’s garage, before an unhappy landlord forced them to find a new place for the business.

“When we had to figure out what to do with the business, we decided to double down, and it was kind of the push we needed in that moment,” said Yoo. “We never saw ourselves getting a warehouse anytime soon. If the garage went well, we would have stuck in the garage. But because we had that push, we moved into this today.”

The new space is at an industrial complex at Sky Park Circle in Irvine. A welcoming lobby area and office are situated at the front, with growing taking place in the back.

The seed room at Malaia's Microgreens in Irvine.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

In the germination room, seeds are planted in a coco coir solution, a popular medium for hydroponic growing made from coconut husks, before going into a water-based nutrient solution.

“This where just where everything is going to start out. It’s going to go into a blackout period; this can last from three days to a week,” said Martinez, unzipping a cover to reveal tiny seedlings in the dark. “It requires no light, and we make sure it’s getting humid and the seeds get started here.”

The plants then get transferred to a larger area where hydroponic equipment in a water reservoir tests the pH and alkalinity.

Trays of greens grow under the lights at Malaia's Microgreens in Irvine.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“We are making sure that the plants are going to be able to get access to all the nutrients that it needs, especially since they are not in soil.”

Malaia’s Microgreens currently has over 100 different varieties growing in the space.

“And we are constantly expanding,” said Martinez. “We get requests all the time from chefs. We add more varieties every week.”

Private chefs, restaurants and catering companies are their main consumers.

“We currently work with Gabbi’s in Orange, Chaak in Tustin, and we are also working with Solstice in Irvine and Rum Social in Laguna Beach,” said Yoo.

“And Porch & Swing, down the street,” said Martinez.

All of their products are grown fresh to order, giving chefs full control of the appearance and taste of the greens.

A nasturtium leaf for example, which looks like a tiny lily pad and has a peppery, spicy taste, can be grown with different variations.

“If they want something that has stripes, or a particular size, we can control that,” Martinez said, “based on the seed, the lighting and the nutrients they are getting.”

Jaebin Yoo and Malaia Martinez are the owners of Malaia's Microgreens in Irvine.
Jaebin Yoo and Malaia Martinez are the owners of Malaia’s Microgreens in Irvine.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The duo hopes to expand into distribution, eventually at grocery stores and to one day use this farming method to help with food insecurity.

“We are really invested in this farming technology,” said Martinez. “I really do believe this the farming of the future and this is going to lead the next agricultural revolution. I am happy that we get to be a part of it at such a young stage.”

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