Co-owner Dave Roeser at three-year-old Garden Fresh Farms has harvested accolades this year and grown expansion capital.
The company won entrepreneur awards from the Minnesota Cup and Midwest Region Clean Tech Open. Add the national Clean Tech Open Sustainability Award in California in November.
Roeser, 57, a building owner who started the company with his wife partly because he had a vacant warehouse to fill, has raised $300,000 from individual investors and is starting the first of several “farms” inside an abandoned building the company is acquiring near St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. It’s twice the size of the Maplewood flagship.
Garden Fresh, which supplies thousands of heads of lettuce and other vegetables to Whole Foods and other stores, is demonstrating, through year-round vegetable harvests, the commercial practice of aquaponics, a modernized version of an ancient system of raising fish, piping water that’s rich with nutrients from fish waste to fertilize the plants. The process cleans the water before it is returned to the fish tanks.
“Our ‘farms’ are modular, and we’re starting in St. Paul with about 5,000 square feet at first,” Roeser said. “That 45,000-square-foot warehouse eventually will produce about as much crop as you can get from 100 acres of tillable farmland. About one acre of building equals 100 acres of farmland. And we can get a lot more, because we’re tightly spaced rows and we go vertically, and we harvest five days a week.’’
He said the first harvest from the St. Paul building will be in about four weeks. The crops will include lettuce, watercress, oregano and thyme.
“Think of it almost as an assembly line,’’ Roeser said. “The plants move four feet a day on the conveyor system. Takes about five weeks to go down the line.”
Roeser is a veteran small-business owner who once produced and distributed confectionery products. His son is a University of Minnesota-trained biologist and the resident aquaponics expert.
“The agricultural professors from the university have said we thought outside the box,” Roeser said. “Well, I was raised in the city. I didn’t know what the farm box looked like. I’ve taken a manufacturing approach to sustainable farming. And we distribute close to where we grow, including the cafeteria at Best Buy and St. Olaf and Carleton colleges and nearby co-ops.”
Roeser, whose family has capitalized the business until recently, said an initial group of outside investors put up $300,000 for the inaugural five-acre “farm” in the St. Paul warehouse. Each 5,000-square-foot modular system should produce about $350,000 worth of wholesale vegetables, he said. The next 5,000-square-foot farm will launch in the same building in 2014. Each farm requires about three employees.
Roesser said he’s in discussions to expand the concept to other urban communities in the next couple of years.
NO 2014 RATE INCREASE AT Great River
After seven consecutive annual rate increases, Minnesota’s second-largest power company has decided against another one in 2014.
The board of Great River Energy, a power supplier owned by 28 Minnesota electric cooperatives serving 639,000 customers, voted last month to keep wholesale rates flat by scaling back capital spending, taking advantage of low-interest, short-term financing and reducing operating and maintenance expenses, the utility said.
Great River CEO David Saggau had promised at the co-op’s annual meeting in June not to raise rates next year. The company this year faced criticism from two industrial customers who told regulators that the utility’s investments, including a still-unused new power plant, drove up rates.
Ad biz heats up