The land of sky blue waters has become the land of bright green vegetables.
The former Hamm’s brewery in St. Paul, built over artesian wells that led to the company’s iconic motto, has been repurposed as an aquaponic facility that uses the water to grow fish and vegetables. As harvesting ramps up, it’s only the second aquaponic operation in the country to be certified as 100 percent organic.
“This is a new way of farming,” said Dave Haider, one of the founders of Urban Organics. “I’ve become extremely passionate about this — you could even say borderline obsessed.”
The company’s goal is to have its produce in supermarkets, co-ops and restaurants the same day it’s harvested. And because the growing is done inside, the process will continue year-round.
“To have freshly picked produce on the shelves in February is very unusual in Minnesota,” said Fred Haberman, another founder. “We’re introducing a new growing season in Minnesota — winter.
“Even if there are 50 days below zero in a row, we can still provide fresh greens.”
But aspirations for the company go far beyond that. By using a closed-loop water system that was developed by Twin Cities-based Pentair, the process uses only 2 percent of the water needed for conventional agriculture. The company’s partners hope that others will follow their lead and bring organic gardening into areas where it’s overlooked now.
“This is our legacy,” Haberman said. “We want to inspire food systems for people by people. We want people to learn more about where their food comes from and learn more about the food they eat.”
If that makes it seem that the company is putting lot of pressure on itself, Haberman would agree.
“There is a societal element to this,” he said. “This is an experiment. As far as we know, nobody has made money at this. But over time, I believe that we can prove that this model works. This has to work. We’re going to will it to work.”
Aquaponics is the term for combining hydroponic gardening — growing plants in water — with aquaculture — fish farming. Fish are raised in tanks. The wastewater is pumped from the tanks to the growing beds, where the plants absorb the nutrients, cleaning the water so it can be pumped back into the fish tanks. The only water loss comes from evaporation.
The produce is certified as organic. “There is no organic certification for fish in the United States, but I’m on a committee that’s working on it,” Haider said. “Hopefully, we’ll have something in writing by next year.”
There is another aquaponic operation in the Twin Cities, Garden Fresh Farms, but it is not certified organic even though it doesn’t use pesticides.
“There’s a lot more that goes into organic certification than just not using pesticides or GMOs [genetically modified organisms],” Haider said. “It includes what you clean the equipment with, what you clean the floor with, even how you clean the trucks that haul the produce. It’s very complicated.”
Urban Organics owns all six floors in one part of the former brewery on the city’s East Side. Production is in full force on one floor, with the equipment being installed on the second floor. Each floor will produce 5,000 fish (which are not ready yet, but will be harvested every nine months) and 20,000 plants (which can be harvested every 50 days).
“It’s a controlled environment, so we can take all the variables out of the equation,” Haberman said. “We don’t have to worry about the vagaries of the weather, about how wet the spring is or how dry the summer is.”
The company’s first harvest consists of tilapia and five kinds of produce: green kale, red kale, Swiss chard, parsley and cilantro. As the operation expands, so will the variety.
“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.”