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Taking Root

After a quarter-century in the South Side, tiny plants are still reaping big rewards.

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Chris Wahlberg, amid his microgreen bounty
  • Chris Wahlberg, amid his microgreen bounty
In a disused factory, down a narrow brick-lined alley pressed hard against the railroad tracks, lies Western Pennsylvania's most productive farm.

At the former Duquesne Brewery on the South Side, water and grain used to be transformed into beer. Biological wonders still occur there, but now water and seeds are transforming into teeny, tasty plants. Since 1982, the old brewery has been the home of Mung Dynasty, an oasis of fresh produce devoted to the smallest of edible plants.

Just as a toy dog is perfect for an apartment, growing sprouts and microgreens is ideal for the confines of a city. Mung Dynasty's sprout empire comprises just 5,000 square feet, in less than half-a-dozen small tiled rooms. Yet this indoor farm, operating year-round, produces more food per square inch than any other fruit or vegetable farm you're likely to find.

Mung Dynasty's proprietor, Chris Wahlberg, has been growing sprouts for 32 of his 54 years. It's impossible to count how many sprouts have come up under his tender oversight; he estimates 15 millions pounds' worth. But after 20 years of growing in bulk for supermarkets, Wahlberg shifted his focus, diversifying his products and supplying new consumers. Today, Mung Dynasty grows about 60 varieties of sprouts, microgreens and a few baby greens for local restaurants and various farmers' markets. Wahlberg also sells directly to the walk-in customer.

Most of us have little exposure to sprouts beyond the salad-bar fixture of mung bean sprouts and Chia Pets (which are themselves tiny novelty sprout farms). But walking among the dozens of growing trays nestled together here, one feels like the Jolly Green Giant towering over the tiniest green shoots. Upon closer inspection, each sprout has its own distinct character, varying in color, height, thickness of stem and shape of leaf.

"Feel free to nibble," Walhberg offers. The variety and intensity of taste among tiny threads of plant is remarkable: pea (like the sweetest fresh pea); corn (little tubes of sugar water); soy (nutty); garlic (whoa! hot and spicy). Super-crisp alfalfa sprouts are proffered as a palate cleanser.

Each sprout has its own environmental demands -- some like the dark, for example -- and life cycle. There's an optimum harvest point, so to ensure freshness, Wahlberg and his staff of six maintain a mini-biosphere continually cycling from seed to sprout. "The product never stops growing," he says cheerfully.

The sprouts are grown simply in water, nudged along by overhead lights and an automated set-up of misters and fans. Wahlberg explains: "Everything that the seed needs is contained within -- it's a compact package of nutrients for a couple days' growth."

Sprouts look cute, and offer a fresh variety of tastes and textures, but Wahlberg avers that their greatest benefit is often overlooked. "Sprouts are nutrient-dense -- for instance, three ounces of broccoli sprouts is the equivalent of two-and-a-half pounds of the parent plant."

Once in dirt, the sprout graduates to microgreen. (If left unharvested, it becomes a baby green.) In the microgreen room, a carrot is simply a few inches of feathery leaf. But just as sprouts are nutrient-dense, microgreens offer intensity of flavor. Thus, they are often used as garnish or to accentuate a salad.

These days, "organic" and "sustainable" are buzzwords, but Walhberg has been a proponent for decades. In the 1970s, he began raising bean sprouts in an Oakland basement; helped start the Homewood Cemetery community garden; and had a vermiculture (worm composting) project at the Semple Street co-op.

While the increased interest in healthier and more exotic foodstuffs helps support his business, he's just as enthused by the cultural shift. "What I see happening now is very similar to what I saw in the early '70s. ... I see this generation that really wants to participate in their nutrition. There's such a big disconnect between people and their source of food."

Wahlberg also uses Mung Dynasty as an educational tool -- leading tours (nibbling encouraged), exposing local chefs to new foods, and even counseling at-home sprouters.

Among his plans is adding a small onsite café where patrons could munch on Mung Dynasty salads and wraps prepared "down on the farm." That way, explains Wahlberg, customers could "see us in motion -- planting, harvesting, packaging. I want people to really see how food is produced here."

Mung Dynasty

21st and Mary streets (in rear), South Side

412-381-1350 (call before noon)

7 a.m.-noon, Mon.-Sat.

Tours on Saturdays, or by appointment

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