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“We’re looking at putting walleye or trout into the second floor,” Haider said. “Then we’d go with crops that can handle the cooler water of the coldwater fish.”
Although Haider and Haberman worked together before in launching the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, their partnership in Urban Organics involved a bit of happenstance. Both men have been interested in organic food for decades and, unbeknownst to each other, they were separately researching the idea of launching aquaponic projects.
“We both conferred with Will Allen, the guru of the good food movement,” Haberman said of the former professional basketball player who lives in Milwaukee and was the recipient of a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for his work in urban farming and sustainable agriculture.
Once they discovered that they were contemplating the same thing, “it was obvious that we should do it together,” Haider added.
Haider sold his construction company and now oversees the day-to-day operations. Haberman, who runs the Haberman public relations firm with his wife, Sarah, takes care of marketing. There are other partners: Kristen Haider, Dave’s wife, handles the organic certification, and real estate agent Chris Ames is in charge of finance. Pentair contributed the enclosed water system (technically called a recycling agriculture system). And the city of St. Paul threw in $150,000 toward the purchase of the brewery site as part of an urban renewal program.
Trying out new gear
For Pentair, which manufactures water-pumping and filtration systems, the allure of the project was the chance to design new equipment.
“We joined the partnership to help get this off the ground,” said Todd Gleason, the company’s senior vice president of growth. “This concept is really new. We’ve been learning something every day.”
Because of its Twin Cities roots, Pentair also fit nicely with Urban Organic’s business plan to keep everything local, from production to consumption.
“Eighty-five percent of the produce that is eaten in the Twin Cities comes from hundreds — if not thousands — of miles away,” Haberman said. “Don’t you just love the stuff that comes from your back-yard garden? That’s because it’s fresh.”
Lunds and Byerly’s stores snapped up the first limited harvest of produce, and their customers snapped it up.
“We love that it’s less than an hour from production facility to store,” said Rick Steigerwald, the stores’ vice president for fresh foods. “And we love that it’s organic and sustainable farming. Our customers have become much more interested in where the food comes from and how it’s grown.”
Haider never envisioned becoming a farmer, but he has discovered that it has benefits he hadn’t expected.
“We pick produce for our salads at lunch,” he said.
Does that mean he’s eating up the company’s profits? “We prefer to call it quality control.”
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392