An abandoned brewery in a ‘food desert’ in Saint Paul, Minnesota has started its second life as an agricultural business and fish farm. The company, Urban Organics, works with aquaponics– a growing technique that creates a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants where crops are hydroponically grown on top of a fish tank. The farm forms a cycle with hydroculture; the growing of plants in water, instead of in soil. The company is no longer dependent on seasons or the weather and the plants grow under artificial lights. Additionally, the company uses only 2% of the water normally used in traditional agriculture.
By pooping the fish play a crucial role in the closed loop of Urban Organics. The nutritious wastewater from the fishtanks is pumped over to the plants, which they thrive on it. The plants filter this water until it’s clean enough again for the fish to swim in. According to founder of Urban Organics, Fred Haberman, the company is a financial experiment. ‘Companies like this have been started before, but they’ve never managed to become financially independent from subsidies. Whereas I know with certainty that it is possible to create a thriving company with aquaponics.’
And Urban Organics is making good progress. This spring they started cultivating and by April 1st the first vegetables were already in local shops. The facility grows produce year-round, crops they grow include cabbage, chard, parsley and cilantro. Aside from vegetables and herbs, they also raise tilapia. The locally grown food is a huge success in Saint Paul. ‘Demand is enormous, we can’t grow it fast enough! Soon we’ll expand production to the second floor,’ Haberman explains. The factory in which Urban Organics set up shop is an old Hamm’s beer brewery, which stood empty for years. The building has six floors, so Urban Organics has room to grow for some time.
Haberman is thinking about expansion beyond Saint Paul. ‘We’ll have to see how the model develops. I think that after two years we can say for sure if it will become a financial success and can run a profit.’ To accomplish this the energy consumption of Urban Organics needs to become more efficient. Right now the artificial lighting for the plants takes a lot of energy, and money. Haberman is already looking for more sustainable energy forms and looking at how he can reduce those costs.
Haberman is very optimistic about the technique of aquaponics and other innovative ideas, which are currently boosting food production. ‘The new generation has an urgent need of these techniques. Young people want to live in the city, but they also want locally grown and healthy food. With the current agricultural set up that’s not possible. Until recently you could only find imported fast food in this city. Only when more initiatives like this start showing up will we be able to offer alternatives.’
Aside from the advantages to the food industry, Haberman thinks aquaponics can also give a boost to the local economy and job market. ‘It provides a tremendous stimulus to productivity in a city if you make the city dwellers responsible for their own food. As a direct result of us coming to this city four more business have started.’ Despite it being early days, Haberman thinks big. ‘I’m convinced that systems such as aquaponics can be responsible for improving the global food industry.’