With the ceremonial snip of ribbon made from kale, the old Hamm’s Brewery building in East Saint Paul kicked off its new life last week as the Twin Cities first large-scale indoor organic aquaponics farm.
By combining fish and vegetables, the Saint Paul-based Urban Organics
hopes to supply a steady stream of hyper-local organic fresh produce to Twin Cities’ consumers year-round.
Urban Organics utilizes an innovative closed-loop water filtration system designed by Minnesota-based Pentair.
Fish raised in large tanks provide nutrients to feed the plants. In turn, the plants’ root systems clean the water before it’s recycled back into the fish tanks.
Urban Organics co-founder Fred Haberman says the system allows the operation to produce crops 40 percent faster using only 2 percent of the water traditional forms of farming require to grow the same volume of veggies. Once all six floors of the building are up and running, Urban Organics expects to produce 720,000 pounds of greens and 150,000 pounds of fish annually.
The endeavor does more than grow fresh organic vegetables that go from harvest to kitchen table in hours. Urban Organics also addresses a confluence of challenges associated with rapid population growth, as it simultaneously confronts modern concerns with the global water supply, disparate food systems, sustainable energy, and urban renewal. That confluence, Haberman says, is “outrageously exciting!”
Haberman is passionate about the economic development component of Urban Organics—one of the major motivators behind the site choice, for which the City of Saint Paul chipped in $150,000 toward the purchase price.
“This was a brewery that employed a ton of Eastsiders for a very long time,” said Saint Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry at the opening event. “When it became vacant [in 1997], it was a huge blow to the neighborhood.”
Haberman and co-founder Dave Haider both draw inspiration, and the occasional consultation, from Will Allen, a former professional basketball player who was given a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his work spurring urban renewal through sustainable agriculture in inner-city Milwaukee, Wis.
“Will Allen really took aquaponics and used it to transform a food desert…into a food oasis,” Haberman said at the event.
It’s not the first time Haberman and Haider have pursued a mutual passion in a big a way. The duo also worked together putting on the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis.
Their new endeavor is not without its challenges.
“No one’s made money at this that we know of,” Haberman said. “We know the demand for local organic produce that is fresh year round is very high. Where the challenge is for us, is being able to create enough production and grow capacity in a very expedited, efficient way so we can get the cash flow positive.”
The farm is currently growing two kinds of kale, Swiss chard, parsley, basil, and cilantro, as well as raising tilapia. Through an exclusive partnership, all of the farm’s production is currently on shelves at select Lunds and Byerly’s stores around the Twin Cities.
Haberman says they plan to continue experimenting with different leafy greens and will likely try raising striped bass as other floors of the building become operational later this year.