With no natural dirt or sunlight, an abandoned brewery may be the most unlikely spot for a farm producing kale and tilapia. But with a little help from technology, St Paul, Minnesota has turned a shuttered industrial space into a source for fresh produce and seafood.
The food-based urban renewal project is spearheaded by local company Urban Organics, which focuses on using an aquaponics system — where fish and plants help each other grow. The ideas is that aquaculture — like fish or shrimp — uses water from hydroponics, or cultivating plants in water, for mutually beneficial agriculture.
In East St. Paul, the local Hamm’s Brewery has long been a local landmark, once symbolizing the neighborhood’s livelihood before it closed in 1997. The shuttering left many without jobs in an area that was in much need of urban renewal.
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“Hamm’s and 3M provided most of the jobs in East St. Paul, and they shut down within a few years of each other,” said Dave Haider, an Urban Organics cofounder who runs day-to-day operations.

With the help of $300,000 in grants and loans from the city of St. Paul, as well as private backers, Hamm’s is once again giving the community something to boast about.

The aquaponics technology was purchased from Pentair (PAES), a Swiss-based multibillion dollar company that makes industrial fluid-control systems. In three tiers, plants float atop polystrene rafts in plastic troughs while roots drip down into the fishwater — all of this stacked atop 18-foot-high racks illuminated by bright lights.

The leafy greens are electric in color, benefiting from the aquaponics system that uses nutrient-filled wastewater (from four 3,500-gallon tanks stocked with tilapia) to irrigate and fertilize the plants before redirecting it back to the fish as clean water. The closed-loop system may be the largest indoor facility such as this in the country, according to Fast Company.

Without using any soil, the sophisticated system uses about 25 percent of the water needed to grow greens conventionally while using 40 percent less energy than most office buildings. The system can produce about 75 fish a week but the plan is to add more tanks to increase production to 150,000 pounds of fish and 720,000 pounds of greens annually. Produce is available to local consumers within 24 hours of harvest.

The ambitious project took two years to build before its launch this past April. Urban Organics’s first harvest of tilapia was delivered in early April to 20 Lunds & Byerly’s locations, a local grocery store chain.

The high-tech farm is a test case for this new type of urban farming, with hopes that it will serve as a model for other places around the country. Pentair already serves customers in North and South America, Scandinavia, Asia and Saudi Arabia. Randy Hogan, Pentair’s chairman and CEO, said they are now working with entrepreneurs in Kansas City and Chicago.

Though Urban Organics employs only a handful of people, the group is collaborating with a local restaurant, craft brewer, and a distiller to grown some of their botanicals. Urban Organics co-founder Fred Haberman said expectations are high, but the local reaction to seeing a “symbol of decay turned into an asset” is an empowering reason to continue serving the community.