Urban farm germinates into a big business
By Larry Ciptak
Most people are still sleeping when this Pittsburgh produce grower has put in several hours of work. To get his crop to market, he starts at 4 a.m. or earlier, and is usually done by 9 a.m. And, the harvest never ends; it goes on seven days a week, 365 days a year.
In the South Side of Pittsburgh?
Mung Dynasty in the former Duquesne Brewery, sets the standard for "urban farming" as it brings fresh bean and alfalfa sprouts and other specialty produce to a growing segment of health-conscious consumers.
Although Pittsburghers may not be ready to drop pirogie and Primanti cheese steaks, they are venturing toward a healthier regimen.
"Within our generation, there's a tendency not only to eat out, but eat out in a healthful way, as well as a leaning toward eating healthy foods at home," said Chris Wahlberg, 35, owner of Mung Dynasty, "Variety is becoming more and more of an issue."
Mung Dynasty grew only bean sprouts when it started in an Oakland basement 13 years ago. As business grew, so did the need for space. Mung Dynasty moved to its current location on Mary Street in 1983 and employs four workers in a 24-hour operation.
Wahlberg's company boasts an annual 40 percent growth rate. In addition to increasing the quantity of produce harvested, it has also diversified the product line. Added have been Asian foods, such as tofu and fortune cookies, and such specialty produce as alfalfa sprouts and 110 fresh herbs and edible flowers.
"Edible flowers are a real hot item in California," said Wahlberg, who watches West Coast trends carefully, but admitted conditions aren't yet ripe for the product to catch on. "I think edible flowers are real ahead of their time. It's so new an idea, and people haven't seen enough of it. They haven't seen it in the media yet," he said. The flowers are used for garnish, baking, sautéing or sprinkling on salads. Most popular are the nasturtiums, peppery and good for spicing, and the lavenders, Wahlberg's favorites. "The eye and smell appeal is just amazing."
Other new specialty produce items include sunflower and buckwheat greens and wheat grass. They can be used in salads, as garnish, or can be juiced.
"I've been told that I'm ahead of my time, even in the sprouting business," said Wahlberg.
Around 4,000 pounds of seed sit on the floor, awaiting the process that will eventually bring them to market. The drought drove the prices of seed up and the quality down, so Wahlberg is looking to Peruvian, Chinese and Thailand mung bean seed to make up for the poor domestic market. The drought will affect the price of his product, said Wahlberg, but forecasts only a nominal increase.
The alfalfa seeds are started in cans, where they are soaked and disinfected in warm water for 12 hours. They are then spread out in trays to germinate and grow, which takes three days, one day of that spent under regular fluorescent lighting. Once reaching maturity, the product is pre-chilled with water, put in a food dryer, then into a cooler for an hour. The alfalfa is then removed, packaged and placed back in the cooler to await delivery.
The mung bean and soy sprouts go through the same cleaning and soaking process, but are placed in 44-gallon tubs, where they will take 3Vi days to grow in the aquaponic system. Aquaponics is a soilless process, differing from hydroponics in that no chemical nutrients are added.
"You pour 20 pounds of beans in, add a lot of water, and a lot of love," said Wahlberg, an on-and-off vegetarian, "They just green naturally."
A computerized sprinkler system waters the sprouts, and the air and water temperatures are maintained at a steady 68 degrees.
During the summer's stretch of 90-plus degree days, however, the cold water left the tap at 82 degrees, making growing efforts more difficult. Because warmer temperatures lead to the growth of bacteria, extra attention was paid to cleanliness, Wahlberg. said, and mentioned summer as the most: difficult time to grow sprouts.
"In Pittsburgh, we really have some humidity problems," said David Maniet, general manager of Maniet Produce Co. "He's [Wahlberg] has taken the time to learn and has overcome a lot of problems that have put companies who have bought [Maniet] bean and alfalfa sprouts — in a big way, I might add — under.
"He has equipment which dries out the bean sprouts, which gives them shelf life [of three to four days]," said Maniet, "where in general, bean sprouts don't have a shelf life. Before he used to worry about whether they'd make the ride to the store."
Mung Dynasty has doubled sales to Maniet in the past year, because "he doesn't sit on my product, he moves it," said Wahlberg, "I would die for these people."
Bean sprouts tend to be the most perishable produce, said Wahlberg, because of their 90 percent water content. He said sprouts have to be maintained under 38 degrees to have any kind of shelf life.
"That's what brings in the hustle of produce," said Wahlberg, "You have to work for a 24-hour day. You have to make sure everything's turning over and getting out the door."
Mung Dynasty has been harvesting between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds of sprouts a week, said Wahlberg, who expects the number to be near their 7,000-pound capacity this season.
Wahlberg has expanded his operation by buying other sprouting businesses in the Tri-State. He presently ships produce to New York and Cleveland, and is working on entering the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., markets.
"Now there are pieces of equipment available that I could only dream about years ago," said Wahlberg, attributing much of his success to keeping up with the latest technology and trends in the produce industry. "You've got to move forward all the time," he said. "And that's what gets me up in the morning.
"It [produce] has become a lot more challenge to me," said Wahlberg, "I get kind of bored doing the same thing. I suppose I could get bored easily if it weren't for the idea that I'm trying to build this business beyond its image of being a bean sprout grower.
"It has to be a love of what you do. I love working with water."
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