Craft Culture: Farmers of the future at Urban Organics

The interior fish incubation room of Urban Organics // Photo by Tj Turner

The interior fish incubation room of Urban Organics // Photo by Tj Turner

An inconspicuous white tube travels along the length of the ceiling, connecting two very different rooms. The first room is a cool 60 degrees and smells slightly fishy. Gray concrete floors and colorless walls make the space appear colder than it is. The neighboring room couldn’t be more different. The air smells sweet and vaguely earthy. When you open the door, it feels like stepping into the glow of a warm spring day.

This is a farm of the future.

In the middle of St. Paul, tucked inside a brewery that sat empty for years, life is thriving in the dead of winter. No soil. No natural light. Just a white pipe that carries the lifeblood of the entire operation from room to room: water. Kale, red romaine, and other leafy greens grow on racks stacked five planters high. In an adjacent room, tens of thousands of Arctic char swim in 26,000-gallon tanks. Thanks to the fish, the plants at Urban Organics grow all year long.

With a new 87,000-square-foot space at the Schmidt Brewery complex, Urban Organics is one of the largest commercial aquaponics facilities in the world. The company converts waste produced by fish to fertilize thousands of pounds of produce a month. The farm, which is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is 10 times larger than Urban Organics’ first facility at the historic Hamm’s Brewery complex in St. Paul.

An Arctic Char pool, racks of leafy greens and an Arctic Char // Photos by Tj Turner

“When we would tell people our plan, we still joke about the number of people who thought we were nuts. They would say, ‘Don’t quit your day job,’” says Dave Haider, who did just that when he closed down his construction business to launch the original Hamm’s site with three other partners in 2012.

Since then, the team has built a worldwide reputation as a pioneer in year-round urban organic farming. In 2014, the Guardian dubbed Urban Organics one of the 10 most innovative farms in the world. The company sets itself apart with a state-of-the-art design, courtesy of an ongoing partnership with Pentair, a global leader in water technology. At a time when the agriculture industry faces increasing environmental challenges like climate change and water shortages, Urban Organics is out to prove there is a more sustainable way to produce fresh food—one that uses less water, and stays close to home.

“People want to know where their food is coming from and that it is being farmed in this safe, sustainable manner,” says Dave, who has seen aquaponics transition from a largely unknown concept to more of a mainstream idea in recent years. “We’re still trying to prove to people that we’re not nuts, but it’s not as many as it was.”

A game-changing partnership

Fred Haberman examines rows of Romaine Lettuce // Photo by Tj Turner

Dave Haider, co-founder of Urban Organics, examines rows of romaine lettuce // Photo by Tj Turner

Limp. Tasteless. Old. Too many stores in the Twin Cities stocked bad lettuce, and Fred Haberman was fed up. The problem was shipping. By the time his salad greens arrived from California and hit local shelves, they were already days old. That’s when Fred remembered Will Allen, a former professional basketball player who started an urban farm in Milwaukee. That’s what the Twin Cities needs, Haberman thought—food grown where it’s consumed. Coincidentally, Dave had the same idea, too.

With two other partners, they formed Urban Organics. At the time, there were only a handful of companies testing hydroponic growing methods in urban areas, and even fewer trying aquaponics. A partnership with Pentair helped the company break into the fledgling industry.

“When they reached out to us it seemed too good to be true,” says Dave of the water tech company. “They saw it as a way to address some of these food concerns we’re facing now. This was their way of not only supporting a local company like ours, but catalyzing an industry as well.”

Pentair supplied all of the pumps, filters, and aerators needed to get the state-of-the-art aquaponics facility up and running. The system converts wastewater from the fish tanks into plant food. First, solid waste is filtered out. Then, bacteria convert the remaining ammonia into nitrates. This nitrate-rich water is what nourishes the 12 varieties of leafy greens Urban Organics grows.

Not only is the company’s organic produce free of pesticides and chemicals, but it also uses significantly less water than traditional soil-based farming practices. Nitrate-rich water is pumped underneath plant beds to minimize evaporation and deliver nutrients straight to the plant’s roots. All the water—except what evaporates on the plant side—is continually recycled and reused through the facility’s closed-loop system, too.

Last April, Co-op Partners Warehouse started selling the St. Paul-grown greens to stores and restaurants across the Midwest, including Wedge Commuity Co-op, Mississippi Market, and Seward Co-op. For a company that often buys and transports large volumes of California-grown salad mixes throughout the Midwest, Co-op Partners Warehouse was happy to finally have a local option.

“Urban Organics is using a sustainable system for production. Our customers want to support this type of innovation in the food industry,” says Lori Zuidema, the sales manager at Co-op Partners. “It reduces the need to transport food across the country [and] our year-round reliance on California produce.”

Packaged greens at Urban Organics ready to be shipped to stores // Photo by Tj Turner

Packaged greens at Urban Organics ready to be shipped to stores // Photo by Tj Turner

By the time California lettuce makes it to stores, Lori says it’s already often six days away from expiring. Thanks to Urban Organics’ proximity, its products last seven to 10 days longer on the shelf. Plus, the St. Paul company offers unique salad mixes—like the rosé blend, a mix of red lettuces—that she can’t find anywhere else.

Right now Urban Organics harvests up to 15,000 pounds of produce a month. That’s enough to fill 45,000 pre-packed salad containers for stores like Lunds & Byerlys. Annually, the St. Paul farm will also harvest 275,000 pounds of fish—either Atlantic salmon or Arctic char—for restaurants like Birchwood Cafe that want a local and sustainable protein option. Beyond food, Urban Organics is an investment in a neighborhood. By rehabbing spaces at two defunct breweries, the St. Paul business leveraged urban farming to create jobs and spur economic development.

“We don’t want to replace traditional farming. It should be complementary,” says Dave, who sees smaller, local farms like Urban Organics as an opportunity to conserve water, save on distribution costs, and expand traditional growing areas. “I think we can do a lot better.”

High-tech food, designed by data

An Urban Organics seed planting machine // Photo Tj Turner

An Urban Organics seed planting machine // Photo Tj Turner

Aside from leafy greens and fish, Urban Organics is a data farm. Hidden throughout Urban Organics’ facility are more than 100 probes and sensors programmed to measure the slightest shifts in water temperature, pH levels, and dissolved oxygen. From seed to shelf, Urban Organics can track a single plant throughout its 35-day life cycle. Harvest logs allow the team to monitor growing trends and see how the fish influence the plants and vice versa. Every day, each probe in the facility shoots off a report to the company’s central computer. Those small slices of information help Dave and his team understand how to improve the farm’s design to raise fish and grow produce in the most sustainable and efficient way possible.

“We’re still in some ways pioneering an industry. There is no playbook for this. We learn something on a daily basis,” says Dave. “Everything we’re doing here is being recorded, which is going to help us design the next better facility.”

That’s in part what made the first site at Hamm’s Brewery so valuable. After farming that location for more than two years, Urban Organics knew how to upgrade the blueprint of the Schmidt Brewery site. First, Urban Organics scaled up in size—from 8,000 square feet to 87,000 square feet. Then, it switched out its grow lights from compact fluorescents to LEDs. That change alone helped the company cut down on its biggest cost, electricity, by 40 percent. Last, Urban Organics got smarter about its water. At the Hamm’s site, water flowed from the fish tanks, to the sump, to the plants, and then back to the fish again. But Dave found that wasn’t ideal. If the pH in the water from the fish tanks spiked, it could cause the plants’ leaves to yellow. So Urban Organics devised a solution that allowed him to separate the system into two continuously looping water cycles. Dave can pump nutrient-rich water from the fish to the plants as they need it, giving him greater control to create the best water conditions for both sides.

“This is a world that requires a lot of iteration because it’s new,” says Fred, who credits the engineering strength and aquaponics experts at Pentair for putting Urban Organics in a league of its own. “Even though this idea of leveraging the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants has been around for millennia, the idea of using technology to do it is new.”

Urban Organic's seedlings // Photo by Tj Turner

Urban Organic’s seedlings // Photo by Tj Turner

By early 2018, Dave plans to have the Urban Organics farm in St. Paul running at its full potential. His team hopes to harvest the first of the Arctic char this spring, and more than triple the amount of greens it cranks out each month. But that’s just the beginning. Dave and Fred are already plotting the next city they want to expand to and brainstorming the next iteration of Urban Organics: a facility powered entirely by solar energy.

“I don’t think we can stay the course with traditional farming as our population grows in hopes that we’re going to have healthy food 50 years from now,” says Dave. “I’m not saying we’ve cracked the code and others haven’t. We’re just doing our part to come up with a perfect solution.”