Growing gains in Whitman collect momentum

FOCUS Foods is trying to fund and convert a 110,000-square foot space atop a grocery store in Cheltenham into an aquaponic farm raising fish and greens with a system that cycles nutrients. In Harleysville, Brian Haentze is converting an old chicken house into a 4,000-square foot aquaponic greenhouse that will feed the Desmond Hotel in Malvern. At Cheyney University, Herban Farms is experimenting with hydroponics and sourcing 7,000 basil plants a week to Acme, Giant and Wegmans. And in Yardley, New York-based BrightFarms opened its first hydropnic greenhouse in 2013 and sells 800,000 containers of greens to 70 regional supermarkets.

But on the 2400 block of South Water Street in Whitman, Jack Griffin and Lee Weingrad of Metropolis Farms seem to be on to something that’s even better than all the competitors – an indoor model of stacked, compact growing with oxygenated and nutrient-rich hydroponic methods that require very little space or resources. PCP pipe, robotically-timed heat lamps, store-bought fans and plastic receptacles on stacked growing structures facilitate lively beds of tomato plants, basil and microgreens.

They’ve just earned, ostensibly, a rare distinction: Vegan-official growers as ordained by the American Vegetation Assocation, and it’s way more difficult than just run-of-the-mill “organic.” There is zero use of pesticides and fertilizers on Griffin or Weingrad’s watch, and they’re proud of the distinction – it’s healthier on many levels.

They’re growing produce and vegetables in a second-floor grow room above Philly Case Company, Vinny Barbati’s company that builds shipping cases and has for 75 years in South Philly. Griffin found the space on Craigslist a little over a year ago and says Barbati’s been an invaluable resource.

“My phone’s been ringing all day,” Griffin, a former Wall Street guy, whose work with a talented grower, Weingrad, has started to get some deserved attention, said.

A lead international economist had just shared news of their process. Technically Philly and the Inquirer had just visited their beds last week.

“The City of Philadelphia’s Director of Finance and the City Controller’s office have been emailing me – this is how my day’s been going,” Griffin said with pride.

He’s a Packer Park resident, and his motivations may surprise some. It’s not necessarily an environmental or dietary drive (they’re omnivores) – it’s decidedly more Catholic and practical.

“St. Francis, his ethic was very simple,” Griffin began. “Try to make the world a better place and try not to mess things up. Someday the human race is going to outgrow its food sources. Every generation until now has kicked that can down the line. We can’t create more land, we have to discover better ways to feed ourselves. There is not enough food for nine billion people on this planet unless we find more innovative ways of thinking about it.”

The two have certainly seen more complex, bigger, fancier systems, and they can always find a flaw. The next step is patenting their system so that they can share it with the world, and interested investors are moving that process along. They’re entertaining folks like electronic music artist Chris Lake and Russians, who ask if it’s possible to grow iceberg lettuce at Metropolis.

“Some say this is not a small idea, it’s a big idea,” Griffin remarked. “For us, it’s both.”

Walk through Barbati’s Case Company and up the stairs, and you’ll be struck by a wave of warmth and smells. Griffin points at what he calls cheap, metallic wrapping that covers the ceilings to retain heat and keep conditions for their crops that are ideal.

“Sixty-eight degrees is where you get maximum plant growth and maximum oxygen retention,” he explained. “The temperature, the oxygen and nutrient content, we’re trying to optimize the light and nutrients so that the plants are constantly getting the perfect day.”

As in nature, they rest at night. But there appear to be very few duds – every plant in each bay is healthier than most outdoor gardens.

Griffin said they want to “optimize the system against economic costs to keep the price down and grow the maximum amount of food. The goal is to keep it where a middle-class familiy” can afford to install one in their garage or basement, he explained. Griffin and Weingrad see their model as hugely beneficial to areas of the city that are in the middle of food “deserts” – sections of Philadelphia that are miles away from fresh produce or healthy supermarkets.

“Too much food? How is that a problem in a place like Africa?” Weingrad, one-half of the DJ duo Taurus & Vaggeli, asked.

He’s actually cross-bred plants so that they have organic, natural pest control – “they’re carnivorous year round.”

“We call them terminators,” Griffin joked.

“What we really want to go after is the restaurants – they’re the slow adapters,” Griffin added. They have one client right now with Nomad Pizza, for whom they provide basil, often by way of their third teammate, John Paul Ramos, a chef himself with great connections in the culinary community.

“I would love to work with a Michael Solomonov [chef at Old City’s Zahav] or a Stephen Starr. You tell me what you want, and I’ll plant it and time it so you always have” what chefs need for their menu, Griffin fantasized. “I want to supply [East] Passyunk Avenue. Whole Foods is almost ready [as a client] – we should have our labels done by next week.”

Griffin’s actually sourced biodegradable and reusable to-go containers that can be packed with coconut shell pulp functioning as basil planters that customers can buy at, say, Whole Foods, and it will sustain and grow for weeks (as opposed to wilt and die immediately inside one’s fridge).

Easily, one of the most exciting aspects of Metropolis is that Griffin and his team seem to believe in the power of what they’re doing and how it can affect communities in unimaginable ways.

“The direction we’re going in is not just to create farms for supermarkets; it’s to help people create artisinal farms,” Griffin said. “We have to grow farmers, we have to teach urban vertical farming, we can break down all the variables. I would like to have thousands of kids working on this in their garages. The goal here is to get it out.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.