What’s most striking when you enter the brick bunker formerly known as Stock House No. 3 is the green, says Fred Haberman, a cofounder and partner in Urban Organics, a futuristic farm housed inside a long-vacant structure on the former site of Hamm’s Brewery in East St. Paul. "It’s mind-boggling to come into this old building and see so much greenery," he says. "The colors are almost electric. Looking at this kale planted two weeks ago, you’d be shocked at how quickly it’s grown."
The "secret sauce" for growing that electric-green kale, chard, and leafy herbs is the nutrient-rich wastewater pumped from four 3,500-gallons tanks of tilapia, which flows through a system of pipes and filters to irrigate and fertilize the plants before returning, clean, to the fish. The closed-loop, recirculating aquaponics system may be the largest such indoor facility in the United States, and one of the most technologically sophisticated.
Here, plants float on polystyrene rafts in plastic troughs—roots dangling in fish-water—stacked in three tiers on 18-foot-high racks lit by bright grow lights. The soilless system uses about a quarter of the water needed to produce greens conventionally, and total energy use is 40% less than many office buildings. In an area that has nearly 200 sun-less days annually, the operation will provide fresh fish and certified-organic produce year-round, available to local consumers within 24 hours of harvest.
A collaboration between the city of St. Paul—which ponied up $300,000 in grants and loans—and private backers, Urban Organics is a test case for a new kind of urban agriculture and a food-based approach to urban renewal. The Hamm’s Brewery had been a neighborhood landmark, and a major employer, for more than a century before it was permanently shuttered in 1997.
"Hamm’s and 3M provided most of the jobs in East St. Paul, and they shut down within a few years of each other," says Dave Haider, an Urban Organics cofounder who runs day-to-day operations. That left people with no jobs, in a densely populated area with little access to nutritious food. "All the partners were interested in locating a food production facility in an area that needed urban renewal," says Haberman, who also owns a Minneapolis marketing firm known for its work with food companies and social-justice causes.
It took two years to get the abandoned brewery building operational as an aquaponics farm—a grand opening for the public and local press took place in early April. Despite the many challenges of updating a crumbling industrial structure, the site offered some advantages, too. Thick masonry walls help hold in heat during long winters, and Haider got permission to drill a new well into an underground aquifer that once provided the water that gave Hamm’s suds its local flavor. "The pH level is perfect for commercial aquaculture," says Haider. And unlike tap water, it contains beneficial natural minerals, with no chlorine or other chemical additives that need to be filtered out.
The guts of Urban Organics’ aquaponics system uses technology purchased from Pentair (PAES), a $7.5 billion Swiss-based maker of industrial fluid-control systems with U.S. headquarters in Minneapolis. Randy Hogan, Pentair’s chairman and CEO, was attracted the project personally and professionally. "As a scuba diver, I care about the oceans, and as a carnivore, I like fish," he says. "Farm-raised fish is really the only way to sustainably provide the protein that a growing middle-class wants." However, popular methods of fish farming—raising species like salmon in pens in the wild; and growing shrimp, tilapia, and catfish in manmade ponds—are environmentally problematic. "We believe that recirculating aquaculture systems like this are a technology that will allow us to sustainably feed the world and build a good, and big, business. We want to be the ‘Intel Inside’ that helps the process work."
With customers in North and South America, Scandinavia, Asia, and Saudi Arabia, Pentair already does over $50 million in sales of aquaculture equipment. But, Hogan says, "The urban-organic approach is most exciting here, in this country." Pentair is now working with entrepreneurs into Kansas City and Chicago, to launch similar aquaponics facilities.
Urban Organics’ first harvest of tilapia shipped in early April, to stores in the Twin Cities-based Lunds & Byerly’s 20-store grocery chain. With four tanks on the first floor of Hamm’s Stock House No. 3 up and running, the current system can produce about 75 fish a week. The long-term plan is to get all six floors pumping out fish and greens year-round, adding 25 more tanks and boosting capacity to 150,000 pounds of fish and 720,000 pounds of greens annually—all of which will line the shelves at Lunds & Byerly. "This is a for-profit business," says Haberman. "We want to prove the economic viability of aquaponics in a commercial setting, and that you can do it in an abandoned building."
The initiative has already attracted commercial neighbors, including a restaurant, a craft brewer, and a distiller, who will help bolster a sort of hyper-local virtuous cycle. "We plan on growing some of the botanicals for the distiller," says Haider, "and we are talking with Flat Earth Brewing about using some of their spent grain as worm or fish feed." While Urban Organics currently employs just a handful of workers, neighbors have greeted the project enthusiastically. "People are knocking on the door all the time," says Haberman. "When they come in and see this for the first time—a symbol of decay turned into an asset—they’re blown away. This is an experiment, and expectations are very high. But seeing the outpouring of support, that’s very energizing for us."