Philly City Council cultivating interest in vertical farming

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Farmers Leon Weingrad and Jack Griffin stand next to a sample of their vertical crops. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Farmers Leon Weingrad and Jack Griffin stand next to a sample of their vertical crops. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

There’s a growing interest in urban or vertical farming, and Philadelphia’s City Council is planning a hearing to learn more.  The mini-farms could mean more than fruits and vegetables, according to those who are keeping tabs on the trend. 

And they may even serve as the medium for Pennsyvania’s newest cash crop — medical marijuana.

Vertical farming involves stacking plants in tiers or shelving in available buildings. They’re grown hydroponically — that is, they’re cultivated in liquid nutrient solutions rather than soil. 

Jack Griffin, who operates such a farm in a South Philly building, said advancements in the hydroponic method could mean a wealth of jobs in addition to farm-fresh produce in the heart of the city.

“Imagine all the people employed who aren’t employed now in Philadelphia,” he said Tuesday during a presentation for City Council. “Imagine disabled veterans and ex-offenders who now can find jobs because there are jobs available, because we are not getting our food from thousands of miles away.”

Griffin said he can grow virtually anything except trees in his hydroponic environment.  His associate Leon Winegrad said those plants include medical cannabis, which was just legalized in Pennsylvania.

“The thing is, if you can grow tomatoes effectively — which we have proven we have, we can — we could switch right over,” Winegrad said. “Tomatoes are bio-identical to marijuana — they need the same nutrient, the same light the same everything. So, if you if you could successfully grow tomatoes, you can grow marijuana.”

Such a switchover would take about a month, he said.

Councilman Al Taubenberger, who called for the hearings, said vertical farming is a concept whose time has come.

“The goal of these hearings is to establish the city of Philadelphia as one of the world’s most prominent training centers for this type of farming,” he said. “The second call is for the expansion of urban farming in the city … it’s very important for families, for nonprofits, producing fresh vegetables right here in the city of Philadelphia.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding visited the city to endorse urban agriculture.

“A half million people are employed in the food and agricultural system, so we see opportunity both in terms in growth of ag and those jobs,” Redding said.

 

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