Organic Broadcaster

Business is booming for St. Paul-based aquaponics venture

By Jennifer Nelson, MOSES

Where once beer flowed off an assembly line, tilapia and leafy greens grow. Aquaponics facility, Urban Organics (UO) now grows thousands of pounds of fish and certified organic produce in the former Hamm’s brewery near downtown St. Paul. UO opened in 2014 and already has a second site in the works at the former Schmidt brewery on West 7th Street, also in St. Paul, Minn.

Greens irrigated by water from the fish tanks in the foreground grow inside the Urban Organics aquaponics facility in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Urban Organics

Greens irrigated by water from the fish tanks in the foreground grow inside the Urban Organics aquaponics facility in St. Paul, Minn.
Photo by Urban Organics

Dave Haider, UO’s co-founder and manager, took time out of his busy schedule overseeing operations and construction of the new facility to share the business’s founding story. Haider ran a construction business for years, and came home one evening after a long, hot day and told his wife, Kristin Koontz Haider, he wanted to do different work. Watching TV that evening, she saw the charismatic Will Allen of Growing Power talk about the benefits and ease of aquaponics. Koontz Haider encouraged her husband to look into it. Haider did his research, and soon had two friends, Chris Ames, a realtor, and Fred Haberman, a marketer, interested in the project. With these thoughtful, creative minds involved, it wasn’t long before the quartet—Koontz Haider jumped in to help—was in the aquaponics business.

Haider oversees operations while managing the production at the Hamm’s site. His day often begins with maintenance on the recirculating aquaculture system, including feeding and taking care of the fish. Currently they are growing tilapia with a 12-month growth cycle. On the other side of the aquaponics system is the vegetable production, including seeding, transplanting, and harvest. Urban Organics seeds leafy greens of kale and chard, and herbs including basil and cilantro directly into seedling trays, then transplants into the main grow-out area. The vegetables grow in inert neutral growth substrate under 180 fluorescent grow lights for 14 to 16 hours per day. The fish wastewater cycles through the agri-foam, feeding nutrients to the veggies. The veggie-cleaned fresh water filters back into the fish tanks, and so the cycle continues.

Lunds and Byerly’s are loyal buyers of UO fish and vegetables, along with many local restaurants and retailers.

Urban Organics’ co-founders are (left to right) Chris Ames, Dave Haider, Kristen Koontz Haider, and Fred Haberman. Photo by Urban Organics

Urban Organics’ co-founders are (left to right) Chris Ames, Dave Haider, Kristen Koontz Haider, and Fred Haberman.
Photo by Urban Organics

Kristin Koontz Haider facilitated the organic certification process through the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) in 2014. Dave Haider asserts that certification was a must from the start. “It’s how we eat, it’s how we live,” he stated. They had a very positive experience working with MCIA, and Haider feels that the interaction with the organic inspector taught them how to operate more efficiently.

The certification of hydroponics and aquaponics under the USDA Organic label continues to be a polarized issue. In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended with a vote of 12 to 1 that the USDA shouldn’t allow organic crops to be produced using hydroponic and aquaponic methods. They reasoned that organic crops produced in soilless systems don’t align with the organic principle of “feed the soil, not the plant.” However, the USDA defines organic production as “a production system that is managed in accordance with the (Organic Foods Production) Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Soil isn’t present in the language of the definition. However, there are guidelines within the organic regulations that specifically refer to soil fertility building and health maintenance.

For now, aquaponic and hydroponic operations are inspected and certified according to individual certifying agencies, and those standards can vary.

Haider states that aquaponics has the potential of producing more food with less water, fossil fuels and waste than traditional farming. In the “food desert” of East St. Paul, veggies and protein are direly needed. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) at Iowa State University agrees with Haider. According to their online Aquaponics Profile in July 2013, aquaponics uses 10 percent of the land area and 5 percent of the water used to grow conventional vegetables outside of a greenhouse in soil. The grow lights and nutrients added to the growing medium also allow some crops to cut their growing time in half.

Aquaponic growers trade weather challenges for potential indoor air-quality issues. These elements are closely monitored using science-based methods in this highly controlled, closed system. The intended result is a resource-efficient method for growing a lot of
cosmetically attractive food.

How does it fit into the National Organic Program (NOP)? Despite the NOSB’s nearly unanimous vote in 2010, the USDA-NOP did not act on the recommendation. The NOP recently appointed a new Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force to re-examine the methods and make recommendations on organic certification of hydroponic and aquaponic operations. Those are expected in fall 2016.

Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm has grown certified organic tomatoes in Vermont soil since 1984. He built his first glass greenhouses in 1990. He currently sits on the NOP task force, and takes a strong stance against the allowance of hydroponics and aquaponics. A long-time organic farmer, he believes in the basic organic system foundation of stewarding the soil to feed the plant, and is concerned about the unintended consequences of fertilizers used.

“Soil is the basis,” he states simply, “Aquaponics are not organics. I have great friends who are aquaponics and hydroponic growers and appreciate the sophistication of the system. Call it what it is, though, because organic means something else.” He suggests something along the lines of “Aquaponic Unsprayed” as a label.

Dave Haider feels that the task force could be a positive step in further defining the methods within organic certification guidelines, and feels that it is too soon to make a judgment about the outcome given that the task force is scheduled to share their findings a year from now. Right now, he’s very busy opening a new aquaponic facility.

Pentair Aquatic Eco-systems, the largest global source of aquaculture systems and products, announced a formal collaboration with UO in September. Together, they are transforming the former 87,000-square-foot Schmidt Brewery building in St. Paul into one of the largest commercial aquaponics facilities in the world. The new facility will enable UO to go from growing the 24,000 pounds of produce they currently produce to a potential 400,000 pounds. Not to mention the 275,000 pounds total of cold water trout, char and salmon they intend to grow to meet local retail and restaurant demand. Planning is underway with hopes of harvesting the first fish and certified organic produce by summer 2016.

Jennifer Nelson, MOSES organic specialist, and her husband, Mike Leck, own Humble Pie Farm in Plum City, Wis.

From the November | December 2015 Issue

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