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Growing Up: Metropolis Farms

two men posing for the camera

how to do you fit a 13 acre farm in the middle of South Philadelphia? Look to the abandoned warehouses. Metropolis Farms is looking to take the farming world be storm by growing up (literally). They are first U.S. vegan certified farm, are exceeding sustainable social and environmental practices + have a no assholes rule. Read more to learn from founders Jack Griffin + Lee Weingard as they share their insights on the urban-vertical farming scene and the future of food. 

hg:  tell us a little bit about you + your background: 

jack:  for most of my career I’ve been in the finance world. Of late I was the President of a Merchant Bank on Wall Street. I’ve worked in Silicon Valley and prior to that I was in the sciences. My educational background is in economics and physics.

I found this project because a prominent family from Philadelphia brought it to me and they wanted to invest 25 million dollars in it. Frankly, it wasn’t ready yet. That was years ago. The project needed the right people doing it. It needed problems fixed before going out there + making these huge announcements that we’re building the world’s largest this and that. How about you start with making sure that you can grow the vegetables.

Lee and I met about two years ago…I was building this stuff, he was walking by and started talking to me. I thought he was nuts and he thought I was nuts because I was swinging from racks. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.

We collaborate on this stuff now, he [Lee] has a background in indoor agriculture that goes back 15 or 20 years, and I understand the science very well. I’ve been working with it for a while. Collectively, we came up with the process called ‘failing forward,’ which means we made a lot of mistakes figuring out what works + what doesn’t work.

We reached a point where we started having successes instead of failures. We made a huge list of everything wrong with vertical farming and said ‘let’s start at the top and let’s answer every one of these questions to the best of our abilities.’ If we don’t have an answer, we’re going to be honest and say ‘we don’t have the answer.’

We didn’t want to fake it. I wanted to make sure that it was credible. If we are going to make this thing work, it has to be credible.

"When we say we’re going to do something, it has to happen."

hg:  what set off your career change from finance to agriculture?

jack:  it started out as a hobby. I looked at it and thought it won’t work now, but it can work and that bugged me. Then it became an obsession + now it’s become a full-time job. I think that Lee went the same way. Lee won’t tell you this, but he has had songs in the top ten worldwide; he’s well-known and writes for a lot of the big names.

We’re trying to do it in an environment where it’s a little bit different than other environments that we’ve seen. We have set rules, and I don’t mind saying it. We have, for example, a “no asshole rule” that we decided early on that we are not working with assholes.

"If you’re an asshole, I will not work with you."

I know that it might sound like that’s not a big deal, but anybody that has worked with an asshole, you know you might not be able to define what an asshole is, but when you see one you know it and you don’t want to work with them. So we decided that if we were going to do this we were going to operate around people we really liked, really enjoyed hanging out with and working with. So far it’s been fantastic. We’ve manifested the right group of people around us.

a group of green plants on a shelf  a bunch of green plants  a sign on a post  a hand holding a green plant

hg:  for those that are not familiar, what is vertical farming?

jack:  vertical farming is growing plants indoors in a racking system where you utilize the space. Instead of planting outwards, like you do in a traditional farm or greenhouse, everything is on one plane, you’re better utilizing the space by going up and up and up. For example, we have 13 acres growing in a very small space, relatively speaking. Thirty-six square feet is the equivalent of one acres’ worth of production.

Right now the global population is increasing by three Wilmington Delaware’s a day. I don’t think we are producing farmland at three Wilmington Delaware’s a day. The theory is that when we reach 9 billion people, we will need the surface area of Brazil to grow food. Well, if you use our technology you only need the surface area of Connecticut. It’s much easier to farm Connecticut than to farm Brazil.

There’s going to be a smart kid that’s going to take that [the technology] + condense it further and make it better.

"Our job is to give that kid his start. Our job is to make it so that someday, that kid saves the world. Not us—them. That’s the point."

hg:  what has been the most demanding produce (or fruit) to grow hydroponically?

lee:  I’d say tomatoes or spinach for different reasons. Spinach because of the germination but I think I have that figured out. Tomatoes because of the height. They grew well, but we needed to go up another foot. We had to cut a lot down to keep them below the lights.

jack:  also we grew tomatoes in 17 days. On the seventeenth day, the leaves closed up and we were like ‘holy smokes, what is that?’ cause it’s usually a calcium or magnesium deficiency. It wasn’t!

I had to go pages and pages deep into Google scholar and apparently, when the plant grows at an optimum speed and the roots are not growing as fast as the vegetative growth, the leaves have something in them that forces them to close, it’s a rare phenomenon. We actually hit the wall of the biological limit of the plant. Somebody else would have pushed past that and messed with the plants’ biology to get it.

Those are the only two. Everything else that we have grown has done well.

hg:  how do you think being the first “Vegan Certified” vertical farm has affected your placement in the vertical farm world?

jack:  first off, the guy that we got our certification from was tough, it was not easy. We went to three different groups and came up with the concept that we wanted to do this. We wanted to have some type of certification that made sense and frankly I went to three different groups and two of them were the equivalent of license mills. I didn’t want to be a part of that. You basically wrote them a check and an hour and a half later, ‘You’re certified, God Bless.’ I didn’t want that. 

The guy that certifies the American Vegetarian Association also does the Kosher certifications. So he’s tough. He’s actually tough. And I like that.

We had to sign a contract that he had the right to shut us down and remove the certification from us instantly, from our packaging and everything, if he catches us doing anything bad.

To define Vegan Certification, we use ZERO pesticides. When you look at Organics, there’s a list of prescribed available chemicals, we use ZERO. Zero pesticides. Zero herbicides. Zero fumigation agents. These are all petrochemicals. We have none of that.

Most soil based farms, including organic farms, use hoof, bone + blood products. They mix them in the soil. Being able to have (and I have a lot of vegan friends) a product where you are assuring me that you’re not using or supporting any of those things, that’s a good thing.

With an organic certification, they come in twice a year and they tell you in advance when they are going to come. I’m not trying to knock the organic certification I’m just trying to make a distinction between the two. We hope to create an assurance that the food is grown properly.

close up of a green plant  a bunch on green plants on a field  a person working with plants  close up of a plant

hg:  what is the vertical farming scene like in Philly? 

jack:  the vertical farming scene is what we make it. The reality of it is that we’re not trying to be exclusionary.  We’re trying to encourage people to do this with us and we’ll help other people do it if they want to do it.

There’s 6.5 million people to feed in Philadelphia, there’s no shortage of demand. The critical thing that we realized is that we don’t have to replicate an outdoor farm and big agro. We have to reinvent big agro.

Part of this is going to the suppliers of food: governments, institutions, supermarkets + restaurants. They all have one thing in common, well probably more than one thing, but they all buy their food from farms outsides of the city. It would benefit them to buy it from inside the city if it is the same price, better logistics, etc.

"We can leverage our local dollars to improve our local economy and ultimately, improve our nutrition. It’s a win because then our city winds up in a better spot."

hg:  we hear that the city has recently introduced bi-partisan (!!) resolutions to encourage vertical farming in Philadelphia and will hold public hearings this fall—how will this help with your expansion in the Philadelphia/Regional Northeast area?

jack:  two things you never hear, the Eagles have won the Superbowl + City Council is doing a great job. I’m going to say the second one, ‘City Council is actually doing a great job.’ Though I hope the Eagle’s will win the Superbowl.

The reality is I have not had any issues what so ever. I’ve had a phenomenal relationship with the Commerce Department because I’m not doing what everyone else does, I’m not going to them asking them for a bucket of money. I’m saying ‘You know what, I’ll get the money, what can you help with?’ They’re helping by making introductions, they’re helping by saying ‘Hey we are spending this money here, we’d rather spend it with you.’ And that’s more help than handing me a bucket of money. I don’t want their money per se, I want their help to realign the economics of urban farming and it benefits everybody.

I know that everybody else wants to tell you how horrible they are, but they’ve been doing the right thing, especially Jeff Hornstein from the City’s Controller office. He’s been a huge advocate for us. Also, Councilman Al Taubenberger has been instrumental in bringing this to the attention to City Council and working tirelessly to bring vertical farming to Philadelphia. 

hg:  on top of year-round access to fresh produce, minimizing spatial requirements for growing + fewer external inputs, what are other environmental + social benefits you feel highlighted with vertical farming?

jack:  I don’t want to underestimate the value of the jobs created. The Philadelphia region is estimated to spend approximately 50 billion dollars on food. Practically none of it was produced in Philadelphia. It’s at the bottom of a huge chain of events and, for example, us opening in this facility is going to facilitate a school, it’s going to facilitate (because we developed our own lights) a new lighting company, it’s going to facilitate a company that provisions farming equipment that then goes all over the world; we create that job base that can turn Philadelphia into the hub of Vertical Farming for the world.

I’m looking for the DiBrunos of the world, the Whole Foods of the world, the Jeff Browns [President + CEO of ShopRite] of the world, the Shop Rite’s of the world to say to them ‘Guys, if you give me your business, if you will let me earn your business, guess what? I’ll build you a farm.’

I’ll build honeygrow a farm that’s specific for honeygrow. I’ll create a supply chain that is customized for you guys because it makes sense. If I have the demand, I’m going to match that demand with the supply and that makes sense.

hg:  what do you think are some of the motivations for healthy eating + locally sourced + organic movement? How does Metropolis fit in with this increased interest?

jack:  we’re totally aligned with it. The core concept here is the green movement as a whole is based on the wrong drivers. You can’t have the main drivers be crisis and conservation. No one listens to you when you’re preaching about conservation because what we’re doing is sitting in a room and preaching at the choir. When it’s crisis, the crisis ends. Neither one is a natural state for human beings. But consumption and food is.

Think about it like this, when you take all the petrochemical based elements that are in farming right now, take them out of that pocket, which is a monthly pocket that is a consumable cost every month. Let’s take them out of there and let’s go get renewable energy sources instead. Let’s spend this money over here and then you know what? The magic happens, you can reduce the cost of food.

Now we’re not spending on that monthly input, we can direct those dollars in kinetic and renewable energy sources and further reduce the monthly costs. That will ensure the reduction of the costs for food and the people that will lose are the petrochemical companies. Tough.

hg:  what is your favorite / go-to vegetable for at home cooking?

jack:  microgreens. I like having kale, too. The kale you can eat immediately–no washing it or nothing. The kale isn’t tough or bitter. But the microgreens are special.

hg:  what’s your advice for vertical farming hopefuls? 

jack:  don't give up. Honestly, don’t give up but also have an open mind and be willing to adapt to changes and new ideas. Also, don’t let your ego go get in your way. That’s a huge one.

I approach every day like I’m the dumbest person on Earth. I know nothing. That serves us a lot better than coming in like ‘I’ve got this experience’, who cares? What does that have to do with what you’re doing right now? You have to get your own emotion, your own ego, your own stuff out of it.

a green plant  a cluttered room  a bunch of green plants  a shelf filled with plants  

hg:  what is your next move?

jack:  we have a number of farms committed, the next one we are building will include an international vertical farming school. We’re not going to announce it but we are partnering with local Universities and since we are going to West Philadelphia, that should be relatively easy to figure out.

We have people from all over the world that want to learn how to do this and as I’ve said, out biggest concern is the culture. We want to keep the culture.

It’s very easy for someone to take the technology we’ve developed and grow sub-standard food. And that’s my biggest fear. I want the line to be very, very clear.

One of the biggest advantages, if I can digress, we want the food to always be grown locally. We want you to grow the food for your neighbors, your family, and your friends because the likelihood of you growing bad food goes way down. Because I have to face you. I’m growing for my own kids, I’m not just growing for your kids, I’m growing for my kids too so I’m going to make darn sure that food is good for them. And I think having that personal relationship with the people you sell your food to is very important. That’s one of the things we’ve lost in our current farming system.

There’s that connection. There’s a connection with the Earth but that connection is not connected with the people consuming the food. That needs to come back.

"We need to take our food back."

hungry for some microgreens + kale? Visit Metropolis Farms Twitter + Instagram accounts for more information on news, farm updates + where to purchase their produce!