Jack Griffin, President of Philadelphia-based vertical farming company Metropolis Farms, is known for his passionate support of the burgeoning indoor agriculture industry, whether that’s founding an industry association or representing the industry in Congress. Attendants will be hearing about his wide-ranging plans at Indoor Ag-Con Philly, and the event organizers caught up with him ahead of that to hear more about his indoor agriculture world view.

1. Metropolis Farms has become a leader in the Philadelphia vertical farming scene. How did the farm come about?
Six years ago, I was working as the president of a merchant bank on Wall Street. Two very prominent Philadelphians came to our firm for a 25 million dollar investment to start an indoor vertical farm. After an enormous amount of due diligence I realized none of the existing farms were actually economically viable. They only thing they could grow was baby lettuce (basically crunchy water). There technical and scientific claims were a joke, and their financial projections had more in common with a game of three card monte then tier one financials. But the idea kept me up at night because economically sustainable indoor farms could not only produce food, medicine and energy, but would also create explosive local economies. If I could help build this new potential industry, cities would generate large amounts of green collar jobs to supply the existing demand while chase out the poverty and crush food deserts as a collateral consequence. It was on my mind constantly until one day I left Wall St to work on this problem myself. I made a giant list of everything that was wrong. I self-funded the research and dove in. It was a lot of work and a lot of what I call failing forward. We started on the “Mark1” about 5 years ago and here we are today with a solid commercial system at “Mark26”.

2. At Metropolis Farms, you take a ‘low tech, low cost’ approach to vertical farming. What’s the thinking behind that?
First off, we are definitely not low tech. Our systems are actually among the most sophisticated in the industry. The difference is that they are designed to go up rapidly, and be operated and maintained simply with minimal training by people with high school educations instead of folks with PhDs and Master Degrees. We removed the over engineered complexity and excessive costs, not the technology. For indoor farming to truly become an industry, we need the technology to be accessible to everyone that wants grow, that means community groups and non-profits, not rich white men and cannabis farmers. We call it democratizing the technology. It has to cost less to build, grow more in less space, and it absolutely has to grow more than just baby lettuce and microgreens… We need to grow substantial nutrient dense foods to be taken seriously. Our mission is to make it possible for everyone that wants to farm to have access. That’s how we build the future.

3. You recently presented to Congress on urban agriculture. What did you learn from that experience?
While it was a positive experience, I learned that we as an emerging industry really need to step up our game. Right now, the organic farming lobby is trying to do everything it can to stop indoor farming from obtain organic status. In addition, the USDA’s current agriculture bill excludes Urban and Indoor farms from getting the same USDA funding that rural communities get. This is clearly a form of discriminatory redlining. Last year I was offered fifty million in USDA B&I funding, but only if I left the city for a rural community, because USDA B&I funding regulations actually excludes cities from funding. So I founded the National Urban Farmers Association and I am fighting to change the next agriculture bill so that city farmers have equal access to money that rural farmers enjoy. We aren’t asking for a handout, just equal access. Today with almost zero funding cities like Philadelphia only have about 8 acres of urban farming. But back in 1944 city farms then called victory gardens produced over 40% of all the fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States. The difference is that back then urban farmers had access to the same funding that rural farms had. Now Urban farmers get nothing. This needs to change, and we as an industry need to stand up and change it.

4. What new tech developments in vertical farming are you most excited about implementing in your farm?
We are in final trials on a new lighting technology that reduces our cost of full spectrum lighting by about 25% (and no it’s not an LED). It also reduces the cost of direct energy use by a little over 30% and indirectly removes about 2,000 BTU’s per light for a massive savings on BTU management. Considering we already use 40% less energy than other vertical farms, this is a huge reduction. This new technology is incredibly disruptive to existing technologies and everyone’s going to want it, except of course the people making the current equipment in China, Taiwan and Japan. We plan on creating even more American green collar jobs by manufacture them at our Philadelphia factory. If all goes well, I’m actually considering showing it at the conference.

5. If you were starting out and had $1,000 to spend on an indoor farm and free space in your Mom’s basement, what farm equipment would you buy?
For either food or Cannabis, I would buy two ceramic lights and mount them in a reflective hood. Then I would add a light mover with a pair of hangers mounted on a 4 ft. piece of super strut to get better coverage and yield. Philips makes a great bulb for about $100.00 per bulb with a hood and digital ballasts that’s around $500.00. A light mover and strut should run less than $200.00. Then I would use “Roots Organic Original Soil” brand and some plane old plastic pots and saucer. Plus a good dry fertilizer for a top feed. I would recommend one of the “Down to Earths” brand dry fertilizer…they are excellent. Then get to work. This rig will grow flowing plants year round, but would be quite effective on leafy greens as well. Don’t let the low wattage fool you, these lights are powerful and full spectrum so don’t go super close to the canopy or you are going to burn your plants.

Source: Indoor Ag-Con