Every year for nearly two decades, Florida farmers have gathered at the Suwannee Valley Twilight Field Day to hone their craft, often learning how to grow more luscious and larger fruits and vegetables. This year, however, there was a new lesson being offered: how to grow small.

Dubbed one of 2008’s culinary buzzwords by National Public Radio, microgreens — vegetables harvested soon after sprouting — are expected to be one of this summer’s hottest food trends, as well as a boon to many small specialty farms that provide them to restaurants and farmers’ markets.

Experts at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are helping farmers take advantage of the phenomenon.

“This interest in microgreens is a tremendous opportunity for a lot of the small farmers in Florida,” said Robert Hochmuth, an Extension agent at IFAS’ North Florida Research and Education Center in Suwannee Valley who led the microgreen session at the recent field day. “But it’s not the same as growing regular crops. There’s a learning curve involved.”

Microgreens aren’t the same as “sprouts” or regular young vegetables. Only certain vegetables can be grown as microgreens, such as arugula, radishes and kale.

They are grown under carefully controlled greenhouse conditions on specially textured fabric mats or other growing medium. Irrigation has to be meticulously measured, and harvesting perfectly timed.

The result is a tender, colorful vegetable packed with flavor as well as nutrients. In the restaurant world, those qualities make them ideal ingredients for “designer salads” that give diners a unique culinary experience — especially during the summer months when salads typically become more popular.

“It’s so easy for salad to be boring,” said Anthony Sicignano, the executive chef of The Breakers Palm Beach. “There are the typical vegetable ingredients that form the base. People try to dress those up with toppings like cheese or meats or dressings — things that often aren’t what a person looks for in a salad.

“If you can add vegetables that add zest of flavor and texture, though, you can create a salad that tastes different and wonderful, but without violating the salad’s basic identity,” he added.

While it’s possible to grow microgreens in small, personal batches, like many home chefs do with herbs, restaurant chefs like Sicignano depend on small farmers for large quantities and variety.

“It can be a tricky business,” said Denise Francis, who runs the Twinn Bridges Farm in Macclenny, Fla., with her husband, Scott. The couple has been working with IFAS’ Hochmuth for the last three years to develop a microgreen growing program.

“The timing is everything,” she said. “Parsley is usually perfect at 25 days, while radishes usually only take five. Meanwhile, you have to plan everything out so the chefs get the mixes of microgreens they like.”

After much refinement, however, she said her business of supplying microgreens to the Jacksonville area is booming.

“This is a perfect example of how small farms can offer a real benefit to the local community with quality, locally grown food,” Hochmuth said. “Not only is it healthier for us and the environment, but it also makes our taste buds happy at the same time.“