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From a tiny sprout, a farming dynasty

Thursday, June 11, 1998

By Kathleen Ganster

It's well-known that the old Duquesne Brewhouse on the South Side is home to several artists. But it may surprise many to know that the building also houses a sprout farm.

Chris Wahlberg, owner of Mung Dynasty, shows off a crop of snow pea sprouts. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Mung Dynasty, owned by Chris Wahlberg, is a 5,000-square-foot farm where such sprouts as alfalfa, bean, garlic, radish, wheat grass, mustard and broccoli grow.Wahlberg, 45, has been in the sprout business for more than 25 years. His small farm has been in the Brewhouse since 1983.

"I started growing sprouts in my basement using a $5,000 grant that I had received from the Department of Energy to study in-home food production. Believe me, I made every mistake in the book," said Wahlberg.

Although he has a B.A. in English from Duquesne University, Wahlberg was more interested in agriculture. His first client was the Samurai Japanese Steak House. Currently, he sells to several restaurants, wholesale grocers and supermarkets all over the Tri-state area, including Super Value, which supplies Shop 'n' Save and Foodland (among others) and Giant Eagle. He also imports and sells specialty foods, such as tofu and other herbs and seeds.

Bean sprouts are grown hydroponically, which means they only need water and air to grow. According to Wahlberg, the old building, which was built around 1910, is perfect for growing sprouts.

"The thick walls keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. This particular room was a beer-filtering area, so the drains in the floor run the whole length. Watering the sprouts is never a problem with all of the drainage. Plus the brick floors and tile walls, coupled with the drains, make it easy to clean."

A tray of wheat berries at Mung Dynasty. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

An intricate watering system comes from the pipes above, misting the sprouts on a regular basis. Since the various growing stages of the beans require different lighting, the plants are kept in different parts of the room. During the initial growing stage, some of the sprouts - bean sprouts, for example - are started in large plastic garbage cans.

Wahlberg and his staff of six put about 15 pounds of seeds at the bottom of the can. Within a week, there are about 200 pounds of sprouts filling the entire garbage can.

Other sprouts grow in large flats under growing lights. Several dozen flats fill up another section of the warehouse farm. The day of our visit sunflower, which tastes like sunflower seeds; alfalfa; snow peas; two types of mustard, one spicy and one almost fiery; radish sprouts, which taste like radishes; broccoli sprouts; and many others. There are typically 17 kinds of sprouts growing at any given time. He also grows wheat grass, which is sold to juice bars.

"The wheat grass is extremely nutritious. The juice bars use it in some of the drinks. The nice thing about these drinks is that unlike coffee with caffeine where you get the high, then drop off, this energy lasts," said Wahlberg.

On this afternoon, Ted Hoffman, the plant manager, and Dan Wilson are harvesting bean sprouts. "This is enjoyable work, although messy," said Hoffman, of the South Side, as he lifted a trash can full of bean sprouts, dumping them into a giant vat of water.

Both he and Wilson wear black rubber boots and large aprons. The sprouts float while most of the hulls from the seeds sink to the bottom. Wilson scoops them out and puts them in a large spinner, which rids sprouts of water.

Several varieties of sprouts thrive at Mung Dynasty's indoor South Side plant. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Said Wahlberg: "Most of our work is done early morning. We make deliveries and have pick-ups in the morning, plus we are doing the other phases of work such as planting, and rotating the crops. It is really a workout."

All employees do the various tasks as needed, Wahlberg included. In a usual week, they grow 10,000 pounds of bean sprouts, 3,000 pounds of alfalfa sprouts and 2,000 pounds of assorted other sprouts.

The shelf life of the sprouts is limited, according to Wahlberg. "I tell people, 'Don't collect them, use them,' " he laughed.

The higher the sprouts' water content, the shorter the shelf life. To keep things going at Mung Dynasty, Wahlberg usually works seven days a week, often accompanied by his 14-year-old son, Chris.

"People remember when I was making deliveries with Chris strapped in his car seat. Now he is nearly as tall as I am and built much bigger," said the 6-foot-2 Wahlberg.

After 25 years in the sprout business, Wahlberg is still excited and enthusiastic about sprouts.

"It's really fun. I still love to do this after 25 years," he said.

Part of his enthusiasm is because of discoveries in the business. Microgreens have become extremely popular. Wahlberg explained that they are the stage between sprouts and full-grown plants. The advantage is that the vitamins and other nutritional values of the plants are much more condensed in the younger plants.

"There are new studies coming out that discuss the benefits of these plants. For example, you can eat 2 ounces of broccoli sprouts and get the same cancer-fighting enzymes that you would get in eating 21/2 pounds of broccoli," he said.

Broccoli sprouts also contain more vitamins, minerals and protein than the full-grown vegetable. Wahlberg cites a study by Johns Hopkins University scientists that identified sulforaphane - found in the broccoli sprouts - as a cancer-fighting resource. "We are starting to grow carrot sprouts and pumpkin seeds because they contain a large concentration of retinic acid - a by-product of vitamin A, again which is shown to help prevent cancer," he said.

Wahlberg said his customers are another reason he stays enthusiastic about his business.

"Super Value comes to me with new ideas and tells me what their customers want and will buy. Some of my restaurant owners ask me to try new things, depending on the trends in that industry," he said.

Tony Pais, owner and chef of Baum Vivant restaurant, is one of Wahlberg's biggest fans. "It is hard to believe that we have such a wonderful resource right here in our city," Pais said. "Many people don't even know that he is here. Taste and appearance are everything in my business - Chris has great products that are fresh and delicious.

"The culinary scene in Pittsburgh is changing. Stores and restaurants are trying new things. I think that Pittsburgh is ripe for new food ideas."

Kathleen Ganster is a Hampton-based free-lance writer.

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