South Philadelphia, a dense maze of slender rowhouses and even skinnier streets, isn’t the type of place you’d normally associate with urban farming. After all, there are hardly any trees to speak of — South Philly’s reputation as an urban tundra in the midst of an otherwise leafy city is well deserved — let alone any large swaths of vegetation or available land to accommodate a bustling agricultural operation.
But what food-obsessed South Philly does have, in addition to the oldest outdoor market in the United States, dueling cheesesteak slingers, approximately 1,001 red sauce Italian joints and a detour-worthy Cambodian-run French patisserie, is available warehouse space, aka the perfect blank canvas for a burgeoning indoor farm.
In the shadow of I-95 and a stone’s throw from the original Tony Luke’s (run, don’t walk) in South Philly’s Whitman neighborhood is where you’ll find Metropolis Farms.
Admittedly, Philadelphia’s first commercial vertical farm doesn’t look like much from the outside (or at least from Google Street view): a gritty warehouse in a mixed residential/industrial neighborhood filled with gritty warehouses. But ascend to the second floor (another first, apparently) and you’ll find the city's buzziest purveyor of fresh and hyperlocal herbs, greens, tomatoes and other precision-grown veggies.
What’s more, Metropolis Farms — a hydroponics-based operation that’s proprietary Revolution Vertical Farming Technology uses to 95 to 98 percent less water and 82 percent less energy than traditional farms — is the first farm in North America to be bestowed with vegan-certified status by the American Vegetarian Association.
Wait ... aren’t vegetable farms, vertical or not, inherently vegan?
Eh, not quite.
Keep in mind that manure-rich fertilizers and other animal bi-products play a crucial role in farming, both conventional and organic. While that delicious and peppery organic baby argula you picked up at your local farmers market is obviously/hopefully meat-free, it was likely made possible by chicken feces and cow bones and, therefore, is an animal product.
Aquaponics, hydroponic farming's increasingly popular cousin, would certainly not be considered by most as a vegan endeavor given that those microgreens, for example, are the result of a whole lot of tilapia poop. And chances are you're eating the tilapia, too. (For more on vegan organic agriculture, do check out this piece by Sami for sister site Treehugger.)
And while Metropolis Farms, as a hydroponic operation, relies on liquid nutrients instead of soil, it still eschews animal-derived inputs along with chemical pesticides and herbicides.
In lieu of pesticides, Metropolis Farms, which neatly squeezes sand stacks over an acre’s worth of veg-ready real estate into 36-square-foot growing towers that can accommodate 120,000 plants each, has introduced carnivorous plants to the growing environment. These strategically placed “terminator plants” eliminate any pesky invertebrates that find their way into the farm.
Metropolis Farms was established in January 2015 by ex-Wall Street banker Jack Griffin and erstwhile pot grower Lee Weingrad, serving as president and VP of operations, respectively. Talk about an odd couple. John Paul Ramos rounds out the core team as salesperson and in-house chef.
Despite being 1-year-plus-old, it hasn’t really been until the past several weeks that Philadelphia (or the Philadelphia media, at least) has caught on to the game-changing indoor farm on the second floor of a South Water Street warehouse. The recent deluge of attention is great ... these guys are on to something.
And here’s the thing: While Metropolis Farms very much has its roots in South Philly, this is a startup looking to expand. Not expand in square footage necessarily but to see its “ultra-efficient, environmentally responsible and commercially scalable” Revolution Vertical Farming Technology be embraced and implemented in other space-strapped urban areas; areas where fresh vegetables and herbs are, inevitably, trucked in from hundreds of miles away; areas increasingly facing the very real threat of food scarcity.
In fact, Metropolis Farms largely eschews a bigger-is-better ethos and instead emphasizes staying small and scattered. By spreading out instead of relying on a large centralized hub, produce doesn’t have to travel near and far before winding up in a consumer’s salad bowl. Metropolis Farms itself delivers its fresh-as-it-gets harvest to restaurants and grocers within a one-hours radius.
Reads the Metropolis Farms website:
Instead of focusing on creating the world’s largest vertical farm (hype). Our focus is on creating the world’s most efficient, cost effective and consequently productive local farms. It seems like every few months the media announces yet another proposed 'World’s Largest Vertical Farm.' To date exactly none of these projects have ever fulfilled their promises. Our technology produces the most food, at the lowest cost, of both capital and operational expense, while maintaining the highest taste and nutritional values. Our goal is to grow both farms and farmers nationwide.
An admirable vision to be sure. Also interesting that the current titleholder of “World’s Largest Vertical Farm” is, as far as I know, located less than 90 miles away in Newark, New Jersey.
"Giant vertical farms have the same problems as large agriculture. We want to be largest network of farms,” Griffin explained to Philly.com back in December. “Our vision is to create a local network of farms partnering with people in the community. We want to grow farmers too. We want to bring back artisan farmers.”
And about Metropolis Farm’s unprecedented second floor location, which, as mentioned, is also a first for a commercial vertical farm: "The landlord had faith in us to let us put thousands of pounds of water over his head and prove that it wouldn't leak," Griffin tells Newsworks. "That makes it possible for others to try it. Proving it by showing it is a different thing from just talking about it."
Lots more at Philly.com and over at Technical.ly Philly, which recently published a great profile on this South Philly-borne startup that aims to revolutionize how farm-fresh food is grown and distributed in cities.
On that note, the Metropolis Farms team is looking to open a second Philly location that would be dedicated to growing and harvesting different crops than the ones at its flagship farm in Whitman. Griffin and co. are also working to bring proposals for locations in New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to the proverbial table.