Oct. 31 2013 12:00 AM

Longstanding greenhouse expands reach with organic produce


From the road, Lansing’s Smith Floral and Greenhouses, 1124 E. Mt. Hope Ave., appears quaint and unassuming. Even a quick stop in can be deceiving if you stick to the front of the store. It’s not until you take a stroll through the back — and they’re happy to give curiosity-seekers a tour — that you realize how vast the space actually is and how creatively it’s being used.

Smith Floral, founded in 1903, has about one acre “under glass” and a couple more that have seen different uses over time. For the last eight years, though, a large chunk of that space sat unused and out of sight.

“We were just paying taxes on it,” said Karen Smith, co-owner of the store with her husband, Charlie Smith. Then, she said, about two years ago, they started talking about how they could use the space to diversify their offerings. Last March, they hired Philip Goumas to serve as manager and to try his hand at cultivating the unused space.

Goumas, an artist, gardener and farmer who studied organic agriculture at Michigan State University, is driven by an appreciation for nature and a passion for food. He said he jumped at the chance to get creative with the space.

“Here I had the opportunity to build something and to see it grow,” he said. His aspiration: feeding people. With help from the Smiths, a part-time employee and a few volunteers, Goumas put in raised beds, cultivated an outdoor field and established a strawberry house and a passive solar greenhouse.

Since early summer he’s grown produce such as broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant and carrots. He works with specialty crops and heirloom varieties, and everything is grown using strictly organic practices.

“Our main focus is to be able to provide quality food to people who may not have that access,” Goumas said. “If you look around, the closest place to buy food is Meijer, and when it comes to fresh produce there’s no comparison in quality.”

Toward this end, they’ve established a weekly produce market called the Harvest Basket, which debuted mid-August and is open Thursday afternoons from 3 to 7:30. The market offers an abundance of freshly picked fruits and vegetables — and they do mean fresh.

“Philip will not pick a strawberry that’s not ripe,” Karen Smith said. “Trust me, we’ve gone over this before, he just won’t do it.”

“It’s quality food,” Goumas said. “The cherry tomatoes are like marmalade, the greens are crispy and nice, not soggy and tasteless. They have flavor.” And as far as knowing where your food comes from, you can’t get much closer; everything is grown steps from the checkout counter, and customers have an open invitation to take a tour of the growing facilities.

Customers have started coming from near and far as word has spread, and Charlie Smith said it’s brought the neighborhood together.

“It’s interesting the people you haven’t seen for awhile,” he said. “They come to the market and they’re like old friends again.

“Or new friends,” he added. “Community building is one of the most important parts of organic farming,” Goumas said. “That’s our first hurdle, building a bridge and making relationships with people and providing for them.”

Ellen Lurie and Ginger Martz live in the neighborhood and have shopped at Smith Floral for years.

They said they’re thrilled about the Harvest Basket, which they walk to most Thursdays.

“This is social hour,” Lurie said as she and Martz finalized their produce selections for the week: Leeks, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce and basil. Lurie said she’s never been a big vegetable eater, but that the Harvest Basket is helping to change that.

Each week, Karen Smith prepares a variety of different dishes for customers to sample, based on what they harvested that week. “The samples are trying to get people to try something they might not otherwise try,” she said.

On the day I visited, Smith had samples of carrot cake, boursin cheese, apple tart, carrot leek soup, braised collards, basil lemonade and hot mulled cider. Between 30 and 40 recipes are available inside, printed on brightly colored squares of paper. They were simple yet creative: Green tomato cake, chocolate zucchini bread, kale chips, tomatillo salsa and rosemary flatbread “The assortment of recipes is unbelievable,” Lurie said. “The taste testing is great, and it surprises the heck out of me on some of the stuff.”

If that’s not enticing enough, the Harvest Basket also features food from Crossroads Bar and Grill and Slice of Life Catering. While their restaurant is in Leslie, the Sinicropi brothers grew up near Smith Floral and have been longtime family friends.

Each week they have different offerings incorporating the available produce, from pork tacos to open-faced BLTs.

As the growing season is winding down, the Harvest Basket will taper off sometime in November, but the Smiths have big plans for coming years. In addition to reopening the market next spring, they’re planning a strawberry U-pick, contemplating a neighborhood CSA (community supported agriculture) and developing relationships with local restaurants, retirement homes and food banks.

“We’ve got a lot of ideas, and we’re taking it one step at a time,” Goumas said. “We’re still small, and we’re eager to grow and expand into our shoes because we do have a lot of potential. We’re hoping this project continues and that we can make it into a permanent entity in the community.”

Turning unused space into something vibrant and unique has been exciting, Smith added. “We’ve been thinking and talking about this for a couple of years, and to actually have it happen is pretty cool.

“You don’t get that opportunity very often, to do something totally different than what you’ve been doing.”

Smith’s Harvest Basket Produce

1124 E. Mt. Hope Ave., Lansing 3-7:30 p.m. Thursdays (517) 484-5327 smithfloral.com