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Farmers relish hard work, opportunity

| Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002

While the smokestacks and coal mines came and went, a few farm families managed to prosper amid the Iron City's sprawl, rising property taxes and slumping population.

Officially, about 400 farms remain in Allegheny County, gushing $20 million in the local economy. But in reality, only a few remain full-time tillers of the county's 30,000 crop acres. And they plan on sticking around.

Green grow, the rushes grow

In his left fist, Chris Wahlberg holds a mound of wet mung beans. In his right, snaking white and green up his forearm, he palms what the beans will be three days later — sprouts, ready for market.

"This is life," says Wahlberg, a former literature major who has been raising alfalfa, garlic and broccoli sprouts inside the South Side's old Duquesne Brewhouse since 1983. "That's really great, you know• Every morning, I get here and, in the quiet of the morning, I can actually hear it all growing. That's life, man. You can actually hear life."

And, increasingly, the ring of cash registers. Wahlberg's Mung Dynasty sells sprouts and "microgreens" — the green stuff before it becomes a plant — to Strip District Asian grocers, Downtown restaurants and a growing number of supermarkets. Because sprouts don't need soil to grow, he has a dirt-free farm.

"Trying to become profitable is the hard part," says the man who describes himself as a former "guerrilla sprout grower." "You can get to be really good at growing something, but if no one wants it, you wasted your time. I introduced edible flowers to the Pittsburgh market in the middle '70s and I lost my shirt on it. Pittsburgh just wasn't ready for it. Now it's getting big everywhere.

"Like I say, God bless Pittsburgh. If I'd been in California, I'd have made a million dollars just selling alfalfa sprouts. In New York, I would've done the same with bean sprouts. But here, I grow dozens and dozens of sprouts and microgreens. Everyone benefits from that."

Shipping two tons of sprouts daily, Wahlberg has become one of the county's biggest farmers. He continues to fight a running battle with bacteria, sloshing the floors constantly with bleach, and he frets about the rising energy prices that have doomed many greenhouses. Not to mention a tight labor market.

But he's making it on the only Pennsylvania farm run under the smiling gaze of a clay Buddha and a plastic purple Godzilla — his ceiling spirits.

"It's not the money. It's the commitment, the desire to do better. I don't ever want to rest. In our business, it's always a challenge to just do as good a job as you did yesterday. You never rest."

King, and queen, of the hills

Instead of bacteria, Art King's eternal enemy is the groundhog. Over the summer, brown broccoli assassins took out three green rows stretched across his 125-acre Harvest Valley Farm, and he's not happy about it.

"The dog has become pretty good at chasing them, but the damage was done," said King, whose son, Dave, will join him down on the farm after graduating from Penn State.

That makes three generations on the Valencia vegetable patch, and the Kings have no plans to sell it to developers. The secret, they say, is to find a niche and have the guts to exploit it. They sell premium vegetables to some of the biggest restaurants in Pittsburgh, but they also weren't afraid to open their own farm store this summer. To them, you've got to have the moxie of a marketer and the willingness to work like a serf if you want to succeed in agriculture.

"I had the great privilege of growing up with my father and seeing how he did it. I learned so much from him that I couldn't learn in any school," King said. "It's that attention to detail. What a quality product is supposed to look like, well, I learned that from my father.

"Vegetables are the most labor-intensive form of agriculture. It's hard work. Everything you do is done on your knees or bending over. It's hard, but it's what we do."

That's changing, too. Much of Harvest Valley's revenues no longer flow from direct produce sales. King erects a maize maze every year for his pumpkin patch — still a draw for tots after nearly two decades. He sells pancake mix with his farm's name on it, and the goats that munch the weeds out of the drainage ditches during the summer become the stars of October's petting zoo. That's not traditional farming, but it lures carloads of customers every autumn.

But that doesn't mean he will forget why he's a farmer in the first place.

"When I'm on the tractor in the spring, mowing hay, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, you know?"

Dale Duff knows.

Nationwide, only about 165,000 farms are owned by women, a fraction of the total farm economy. It's a growing population, but still only about one out of every 10 women on the farm is the boss.

Duff's Blackberry Meadows organic farm in Fawn Township stands out because it churns out enough vegetables, herbs and eggs to feed 65 families every year, part of a subscription service that unites consumers with fresh produce.

Her tomatoes show up everywhere else — from Giant Eagle in Ross Township to Slippery Rock University. Next year, she'll slaughter the 20 Barbados black-belly lambs now shepherded around the farm by a 350-pound llama, another hormone- and drug-free product poised to turn a profit.

Despite its rustic roots, the farm has a Web site. Duff refuses to contemplate selling her 85 acres to a developer.

"The thing about farming (that) people don't always understand is that we're entrepreneurs," she said. "We take risks. We read up on things, and then try something new. It's never the same and we're always adapting."

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