PITTSBURGH – Maximizing the potential of microgrowing makes harvest a daily event at Mung Dynasty farm on Pittsburgh’s south side.
And it makes owner Chris Wahlberg one busy urban farmer, producing on average 8,000 pounds of sprouts and microgreens weekly inside the Brewhouse, the century-old former Duquesne Brewery building.
After 30 years of marketing to restaurants and grocers, he remains passionate about his work.
A former teacher, he’s still educating people by talking about his “living foods” at workshops and farmers’ markets.
Johns Hopkins University medical researchers have learned that a few broccoli sprouts contain 30 to 50 times more sulforaphane, an enzyme that helps protect cells and prevent cancer, than a full-grown broccoli head, Wahlberg said.
Scooping up a handful of sprouts, he explained how quickly they begin to spring from seeds.
A sprout can grow to maturity in three to five days. Planted in soil, a three-day-old sprout grows leaves and becomes a microgreen.
A week or two later, it’s ready to harvest.
“Every day it’s just the wonder of growth,” he said.
The value of these young greens, he explained, is that they pack more nutritional punch and flavor in their tiny sprouts and leaves than mature vegetables; they’re loaded with vitamins, minerals, proteins and enzymes that promote health and prevent disease, and compared to most meats, they cost less and have less fat and fewer calories.
Right now, these “functional foods” are hot commodities in many restaurants.
To meet the demand, Wahlberg has expanded his inventory from an initial offering of mung beans, after which he named his company, to more than 60 varieties.
They range from the familiar alfalfa sprouts to trendy bull’s blood beet microgreens.
While traditional farmers deal with the weather, Wahlberg plants and grows year-round in his climate-controlled environment. He has no worries about soil rotation, heavy equipment maintenance and chemical additives, which he doesn’t use.
But the perishable produce ripening daily has to be rushed to market.
Keeping pace with his fast-growing greens has the 53-year-old Wahlberg hustling around his 5,000-square-foot spread.
“I work every day, 365 days a year, but I love it. We never stop; these guys,” he said, indicating the plants, “never stop.”
Brewery to beanery
With a current staff of six, a number that fluctuates with the seasons, Mung Dynasty pulses with life.
Brown alfalfa seeds rest in trays under florescent lights near tiny black leek seeds just starting to sprout. An overhead system periodically showers them with water that flows into large floor drains originally designed for disposal of brewing byproducts.
Suspended Styrofoam panels concentrate light and heat onto the sprout nursery, which is insulated by a wall of silver foil.
Broccoli sprouts are stirring in the cool darkness of the room next door.
While all the sprouts thrive without soil, in another room, three dozen kinds of mini vegetables rooted in potting soil are bursting into leaf under radiant lamps.
Touring his colorful tabletop field, Wahlberg inspects patches of basil, chervil, sorrel, mache, buckwheat, wheatgrass, fennel, sunflower, garbanzo bean, lentil, mustard, spinach, radish and garlic.
He harvests by cutting stems just above the root line.
He mixes various greens in packaged salads, and also sells herbs, edible flowers and tofu.
As a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Mung Dynasty markets under the “Buy Fresh Buy Local” logo.
Carving a niche
Wahlberg says he has long been inspired by this quote from Clive Owen of McGill University in Toronto: “Wanted alive: a vegetable that will grow in any climate, rival meat in nutritional value, mature in three to five days, may be planted any day of the year, requires neither soil or sunshine, rivals tomatoes in vitamin C, has no waste, can be eaten raw.”
But in a meat-and-potatoes place like 1970s Pittsburgh, it took awhile for Wahlberg to find a niche. For example, his introduction of edible flowers wasn’t met with wild enthusiasm.
At first, he sold mung beans to one Japanese restaurant.
“We started out pretty much with a product nobody ever heard of and a market that wasn’t there, so we started with one restaurant and in time one restaurant became literally hundreds of restaurants,” Wahlberg said.
He experimented with many other types of seeds, buying from several countries in different seasons, but has found that climatic changes narrowed those sources. Today, he buys most of his seed from a company in Louisville, Ky.
After Duquesne Brewing closed in 1972, the Brewhouse Association acquired the big brick building and began renting space for housing, artisans and galleries.
Wahlberg had his eye on the thick-walled beer filtering room lined with ceramic tile and fitted with deep drains, and has found it perfect for water-based sprouting.
Wahlberg earned an English degree from Duquesne University and tried teaching, but found the classroom too restrictive.
A vegetarian at the time, he was interested in growing his own food and was sprouting beans at home – without much success, he admits.
He worked as a seasonal produce picker in several states and saw mung beans being grown commercially in California.
He said his farming career was launched when he received a research grant from the Department of Energy through the Office of Appropriate Technology in 1975.
“They gave me $2,000 to write up ‘how to grow sprouts in a basement.’ That became the seed money for this operation,” he said. “I have produced 15 million pounds since then.”
From his experience, he counsels others considering an agricultural venture: “My advice is diversify, educate and use everything – don’t waste anything.”
Fulfilling that philosophy, he has adapted an old building space to the needs of his warehouse farm.
And he’s constantly learning about new products through his membership in the International Sprout Growers Association.
Spreading the word about sprouting comes easily for Wahlberg who says, “It’s my job to educate. That’s my passion and concern. Every vegetable has a story and it’s my task to tell this story.”