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Garden Fresh Farms

Posted on 10 April 2015 by Calvin

Garden Fresh FarmsSomething fishy is happening on Pierce Butler Rd.

Reporting and photo by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

A few years ago, Dave Roesser and his wife DJ had a problem: what to do with a warehouse they owned in Maplewood that was sitting idle? The business they’d run there had been sold and, in Roesser’s words, “We were looking at a clean slate.”

As a former executive in finance and accounting for Hewlett-Packard, Roesser considers any business challenge from a dollars and cents standpoint. “First I evaluate all the parameters and then I ask myself, will this make financial sense?” he asked.

These veteran entrepreneurs (the Roessers have built and sold three successful businesses) had a vision that their next venture should follow current social trends. In the brainstorming period, they kept coming back to the same four words—green, fresh, local and natural.

According to their website, “In 2010, we embarked on a mission to change urban agriculture,” which is no small undertaking. The vehicle they chose as their agent of change was aquaponics: the combination of aquaculture, or fish farming, and hydroponics, the growing of plants in water instead of soil. They named their new venture Garden Fresh Farms (GFF), and went on to create a business model that would soon win major sustainability awards in Minnesota and beyond.
Though Roesser doesn’t care to fish or garden, he “just got hooked on aquaponics.”

“I figured we could buy the right equipment, install it in our Maplewood warehouse and be up and running—but it wasn’t quite that easy. The available equipment was expensive and inefficient; in other words, it didn’t make financial sense,” he said.

Believing that problems are opportunities for learning, Roesser, along with son Bryan (now Chief Science Officer at GFF) set out to build their own aquaponics equipment. “We wanted,” Roesser said, “to increase production per square foot while using substantially less energy and water.”

They found innovative ways to farm fish and plants together in a symbiotic system, where each is helping the other. Simply put, waste water and organic matter from the fish break down to create nutrients the plants need, and the plants act as a filtering system to keep the water clean and the fish healthy.

GFF has outgrown their original Maplewood facility and built a second indoor farm in Hamline-Midway at 875 Pierce Butler Rte. The space measures 45,000 square feet, or slightly more than one acre. Roesser explained, “We divide our farm into 5,000 square foot sections, employing 2.5 full-time employees per section. We’re re-vitalizing an old industrial building, paying taxes, feeding people and creating jobs in the neighborhood.”

Roesser and his team believe that the future of farming lies in changing the food supply chain—growing affordable, organic produce right in the heart of the city. They harvest about 2,000 plants per day, five days/week, and work with distributors and sellers within just a few miles’ radius. The morning harvest is brought to the distributors early in the afternoon, and sitting on grocery shelves within 24 hours after being picked. Nutritional value is high, because the produce is fresh. Prices are competitive, as no long-haul trucking is involved.

Look for GFF products at Mississippi Markets, Nature Valley and Whole Foods stores.
GFF also has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) option, with a pick-up site next door at Sunrise Market, 865 Pierce Butler Rte. Other pick-up sites stretch across Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Theirs is the only CSA in the Twin Cities that offers fresh food from the farm year-round, and memberships are available in 12 week increments. Because GFF’s selection of micro greens, herbs and lettuce is consistent throughout the year, they augment their CSA shares with products from other farmer/growers. Examples are Sunrise Market’s organic, gluten free pastas, fresh honey from Bare Honey, and an assortment of vegetables grown by nearby farmers.

Also, watch for a sign outside the Sunrise Market announcing the next Community Fish Day. The tanks at GFF optimally hold about 1,000 two lb. tilapia. Just like with any other kind of farming, when the “herd” get too numerous or too large, it needs to be culled.

Anyone who has ever visited a farm knows the joy of looking out over an expanse of productive land. The experience at GFF is different because you’re looking up at the rolling, green fields. “With our one acre farm,” Roesser said, “we’ll eventually be able to produce as much as we could on a 100 acre farm. We grow on the vertical plane as well as the horizontal. It’s a floor to ceiling operation with tall growing racks for seedlings, giant orbiting gardens and vertical sliding panels for established plants. The system is designed to optimize energy by placing plants very close to their LED light source. Energy efficiency will be optimized further with the future installation of roof-top solar panels.

Water consumption for GFF is a fraction of what conventional farming methods take. Roesser estimated that five gallons of water are required to grow one head of lettuce in California’s heavily irrigated Central Valley, and as little as one pint is used for the same at GFF.

All of these factors combine to make GFF’s business model highly sustainable. Roesser commented, “I like to say that the first environmentalists were probably accountants.” By his own admission, this man who still wears button-down collars seems to have found a current social trend he not only can follow, but even stay ahead of.