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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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."
"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."
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.
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."
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."
"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."
A triple bottom line, one local, organic aquaponics farm at a time.
Images courtesy of Urban Organics
Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists