The land of sky blue waters – what beer, urban development and aquaponics have in common
I date myself by admitting that I reflexively think of beer when I hear the expression, “the land of sky blue waters.” Originally translated from a traditional Omaha tribe love song, the phrase became the title of a popular song in 1909 and later adapted as the Hamm’s Brewery sales jingle in the 1960s.
For decades Hamm’s beer was made at a brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Sky blue water” is a rough translation of the word “Minnesota” and harkens back to the good old days when Hamm’s was purportedly brewed with water from a Minnesotan artesian well.
Long since swallowed up by the Miller Brewing Co., Hamm’s left St. Paul and for 15 years the iconic brewery lay abandoned and in disrepair — one of many crumbled, discarded buildings symbolizing the decline of the Rust Belt in America, as the once proud and powerful industrial base of the region faded, moved offshore or disappeared entirely.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that what was once a battered, graffiti-ridden building in the center of a decaying “food desert ” — where local communities have little access to affordable, nutritious food — is now home to Urban Organics, an aquaponics startup that is a model for both global sustainable agriculture and the post-industrial revitalization of urban America.
Good food and urban renewal
For more than 20 years Urban Organics founder Fred Haberman’s passion has centered around supporting the good food movement — a passion pursued in large measure through his agency; a mission, as described on the company website, of “telling the stories of pioneers making a difference in the world.” As it turns out, Haberman is one of the those pioneers, along with his small team of three employees (as of this writing):
“For many of those years it was really about advocating for organic food … as I learned more and more about food you begin to also understand that there’s a huge food access issue, in the world and in the United States.”
The USDA identifies 6000 locations in the U.S. as food deserts, which Haberman points out are also business and job deserts:
“After looking a this food desert phenomena, I realized – and I’m not the first one to realize this – that if you locate food production facilities in areas that need urban renewal a number of really good things begin to happen,” says Haberman. “Economic value and economic development begins to occur.”
The city of St. Paul was a key partner in the beginning, helping to identify the old Hamm’s building as a launching pad for Urban Organics and providing a STAR economic development grant. With that and some angel investors, Haberman and his team acquired the building about two years ago, with plans to initially build out one floor of the building as a commercial aquaponics facility providing fresh, local produce to the surrounding community.
Unlike the poorly-planned urban renewal started in post-war America that too often tore neighborhoods apart, Urban Organics is the keystone to urban transformation, revitalization and sustainable economic development. The implications are at once local and global.
“It’s really exciting to take this iconic location in the Twin Cities with a lot of history and be able to take a vacant, almost dilapidated building, and begin the process of transforming it into an asset,” says Haberman.
Since Urban Organics moved in, a brewery (not Hamm’s) has set up shop in the building next door, a distillery and a restaurant have located in the neighborhood, with another restaurant about to open its doors. “Already we’re beginning to see a nice turnaround of that neighborhood,” Haberman says.
Aquaponics, organic, business: Tying it all together
It’s one thing to set up an aquaponics farm. Hobbyists all over the world enjoy the fun of watching plants grow in water and growing some fresh produce for their dinner salad. It’s another to build a thriving business growing organic food for a hungry (literally and figuratively) local market.
Like any aquaponics operation, Urban Organics grows produce using water with, as the Urban Organics website says it, “one special ingredient” — fish. It’s a symbiotic relationship where fish waste fertilizes the plants and the plants help keep the water clean for the fish.
The technological implementation of aquaponics isn’t Haberman’s core strength, but it is for Urban Organics partner Dave Haider, whose combined experience with fishing and construction helped bring Haberman’s vision to reality and keeps Urban Organics up and running. Haider has close ties to the old Hamm’s brewery: His great-grandfather worked at the brewery for more than 40 years. It is this thread of connection to the community that informs a guiding principle for Urban Organics.
Haberman and Haider worked closely with Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems to design the aquaponics farm. “We looked at a lot of systems and Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems helped us design the system,” Haberman says, “and that was a big learning experience.”
The only “drawback” to the current design, says Haberman, “is the electricity bill. The need for cheaper, better, more efficient lighting systems for the plants.”
“We haven’t found one yet. But the good news is that [the lighting] helps heat the building, so we have a lower heating bill.”
Haberman hopes that one day Urban Organics can convert to LED lighting, but at the moment depends on fluorescent lights for growing plants.
“The promise of LED lighting has still not been fulfilled,” says Haberman. “But it’s getting there – when it is there I’m sure we’ll move over to it.”
But perhaps the biggest and in some measure the most important challenge was getting certified as organic. “Of course we wanted to be USDA organic,” says Haberman, “which we are.”
Any so-called “downside” for Haberman, such as the lighting issue, is “far outweighed by the positives” of the overall concept. More than just an aquaponics farm, Urban Organics is a leader in a growing movement.
Sustainable agriculture for the 21st century
“We use 2 percent of the water versus conventional agriculture to grow this food,” says Haberman. Instead of shipping water-intensive produce from drought-ravaged California, Arizona or Mexico, Urban Organics can provide fresh, organic produce and fish locally. In a contained aquaponics environment, growing food isn’t constrained by the vagaries of climate and the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events.
The first crops to come from Urban Orgnics are Italian parsley, green kale, red kale, green Swiss chard, red Swiss chard, cilantro and lacinato kale. Currently Urban Organics uses the common tilapia for its fish stock, which is also available in the local retail market. “We might go to striped bass on the next floor,” Haberman says. “We hope to be operational on the second floor, hopefully by the end of the summer.”
In the first few months of operation, Haberman is encouraged by the enthusiasm expressed by local retailers for his product. “There’s a huge demand for it,” he says. “People are really excited for the product because it’s so much fresher, it’s local.”
Act locally, think globally
Perhaps what excites Haberman most about Urban Organics goes back to his initial interest in the good food movement all those years ago. His hope is that Urban Organics can be a model for alleviating food deserts and urban blight all over the world, leveraging the synergy between local food production, urban revitalization and sustainable development.
Contemplating how a dilapidated relic of a building in a once almost abandoned industrial neighborhood in now transforming into an oasis of greenery and food production, Haberman told me that, “It feels like it’s from the future, but the future is here.”
“All these sites around the country and globe – you can imagine what you can do globally with this. If you take a hunger hotspot put a well in and you build a multi-hundred-thousand square foot facility and have your protein and nutrition right there for a village. The replication possibilities here are huge.”
As with any good big idea such as a transformational solution to hunger and global access to nutritious, sustainably-grown food, the real test comes with scale.
“It’s still very, very early in this industry, in the category. It’s a cottage industry still. This is really one of the first – not the only one, but among the first – to see if you can commercially make this work.”
Haberman is the first to admit that maybe it won’t work. But that’s hardly a reason not to try, given the potential benefits it could have for communities across the globe, from inner city, post-industrial America to tiny villages in the developing world.
A triple bottom line, one local, organic aquaponics farm at a time.
Images courtesy of Urban Organics