Maplewood warehouse turns into a growhouse

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2012 - 8:36 PM

Garden Fresh Farms raises fish, grows lettuce and basil - indoors.

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Co-owner Dave Roeser checked polystyrene panels holding lettuce plants in their early stages at Garden Fresh Farms in Maplewood.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Lettuce grows on walls and basil sprouts inside large rotating cylinders at Garden Fresh Farms in Maplewood, where sun and soil are forsaken for 21st-century technology.

The aquaponics farm is housed in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse. Automated lighting and watering systems nourish plants that are plugged into panels made of polystyrene, foam boards that look like doubles for attic insulation.

"There's no pesticide, there's no weeding to do," said co-owner Dave Roeser as he examined several walls of lettuce that can be pulled along a track like sliding glass doors.

About 800 basil plants and 1,000 heads of lettuce are harvested each day at Garden Fresh Farms, recently named Ramsey County's Family Farm of the Year.

"We're proving that urban farming can happen in a warehouse," Roeser said.

Aquaponics is an ancient farming practice that has been modernized for its sustainability. It relies on raising fish, piping water rich with nutrients from fish waste to the plants, which purify it, and returning clean water to the fish. (Hydroponics is the fish-free cousin of aquaponics.)

Aquaponics also gives farmers greater control over growing conditions and allows year-round farming.

Roeser and his wife, D.J., started Garden Fresh Farms in 2010 when he grew bored of retirement. The first real harvest was this year, following two years of research and experimentation. It's a commercial-sized operation, which is uncommon, with about 16,000 basil plants and 28,000 heads of lettuce and upland watercress growing at any given time.

Production could easily grow, Roeser said.

"The way it works together is amazing," said Diana McKeown, metro Clean Energy Resource Teams director. "I think it's a really cool way to think about urban farming."

The couple owned a small business for years before getting into aquaponics. They also owned the warehouse, which was vacant.

"We wanted to do something different that we would be proud to own," Roeser said.

D.J. plays a key role in experimenting with crops, and hand-plants seedlings grown in peat into holes punched in the polystyrene panels. Their son, Bryan, works on the farm as a biologist.

They raise thousands of rainbow trout and tilapia that they plan to sell to area restaurants. The produce is sold to restaurants and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements. They also donate produce to a local food shelf.

But Roeser, a Lino Lakes City Council member, has his sights set high. In addition to expanding crop production and CSA sales, his goals include marketing their custom-made "orbiting gardens" and other original equipment to farmers nationwide. He expects to send out the first shipment in June.

It's hard to believe the Roesers had little experience in agriculture before starting Garden Fresh Farms.

"I'm not much of a gardener, and I'm not much of a fisherman, either," Dave Roeser said with a smirk.

"We're farmers," said D.J. Roeser. "Look at my hands: No fingernails and dirt."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

  • related content

  • Garden Fresh Farms was started in 2010 by Dave and D.J. Roe¬≠ser. Their son Bryan, center, works for the operation as a biologist.

  • Tyler Dennie, left, and Jenn Rykowski worked on basil cylinders that rotate once every 45 minutes to keep the roots watered and fertilized.

  • Light tubes provide the artificial sunlight that thousands of basil plants soak up at Garden Fresh Farms.

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