Roger and Ellen Spivac of the Deep Roots Trading Company here grow and sell sprouts for a living -- some of the more expensive alfalfa, mung bean, and lentils around. But the quality is such that they have no shortage of customers. Those restaurants, supermarkets, and natural food stores that know value when they see it buy up everything the couple produce as fast as they can grow it. The Spivacs are by no means wealthy, but they are making a sound living for one very significant reason: where sprouts used to be a novelty, even a luxury food item, in recent years they have steadily become a staple for many Americans. And the market is likely to grow for some time yet because of the national preference for fresh salads and the growing appreciation of stir-fried meals.
Obviously, the Spivacs want to continue selling all the sprouts they can grow, but just as obviously they do not feel threatened by those enthusiasts who like to grow their own. In fact, they encourage home sprout growing. They even see home sprouting becoming a key factor in ending hunger not just in America but in the world at large. To this end Mrs. Spivac has founded a nonprofit organization, ``Johnny Alfalfa Sprout,'' that hopes to get the techniques for growing sprouts out into those corners of th e world where the quick-growing ``vegetables'' are most needed.
Inspired by Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman was his real name), who planted apples wherever he roamed, the year-old organization has already launched sprouting operations in the third world through missionary organizations.
What makes sprouting such a significant tool in ending hunger? The Spivacs make these points:
Sprouts go from seed to harvest in a week or less compared with months for conventional vegetable growing.
A few seeds quickly make a mouthful. For instance, 1 pound of alfalfa seed becomes 8 pounds of sprouts in just 4 days.
Sprouts are nutritious. The seeds dramatically increase in nutritive value soon after they have sprouted, for reasons scientists have not yet uncovered.
Sprouts are easily grown. Water and carbon dioxide from the air are all the nutrients needed. Land is unnecessary and there is no need of sunlight. Significant harvests can be produced on a bookshelf, in a cupboard, or beneath the kitchen sink.
Most seeds that produce an edible crop for man or beast can be sprouted -- from radish to beans -- though some are better than others. No one suggests treating lettuce seed this way, but cabbage seeds produce great-tasting sprouts. Johnny Alfalfa Sprout recommends that as sprouting is introduced in other countries, the grains and seeds common to the region be used.
Sprouts can be used in an infinite variety of ways: fresh in salads or sprinkled as a garnish over other dishes; cooked in soups, stews, and stir-frys; included in cakes, and other baked goods. They can be dried and used as is, or reconstituted and treated like fresh sprouts.
A variety of seed sprouters, ranging from net bags to plastic baskets, are available on the market. A simple sprouter can be made by covering a wide-mouth jar with fine nylon netting held in place with a long ``twistem'' or a rubber band. The netting allows you to pour water into and out of the jar without losing any of the seeds. You can even use a standard cereal bowl for sprouting as long as you take care not to pour away the seeds with the water.
To begin sprouting, soak the chosen seeds in water overnight. Pour off the water to leave the seeds moist but out of standing water. For top-quality sprouts, rinse the seeds several times a day. This rinsing does two things: it keeps the seeds from drying out and prevents the growth of unwanted microorganisms that can spoil the flavor.
Mrs. Spivac's nonprofit organization is still experimenting with ways to spread the art of sprouting. It does hold week-long classes on sprouting for those missionaries stationed in third-world countries and for local groups, particularly the Salvation Army, who run food banks and soup kitchens here in the United States. Any appropriate group or individual may receive this training without charge.
Meanwhile, the Spivacs suggest that sprout growers experiment to find out not only those types they prefer but also at what stage the particular sprout reaches peak flavor or sweetness. In preparing them, says Ellen Sue Spivac, ``the only limiting factor is the cook's imagination.''
Those wishing to help feed the hungry though sprouting can write to Johnny Alfalfa Sprout, PO Box 294, Lewisburg, Pa. 17837.