Garden Fresh Farms is growing fresh, sustainable food for the foodservice industry. But those aren’t the central products.
“Our goal is to never have a garbage can in the place,” said Dave Roeser, the founder and owner of Garden Fresh Farms.
Not the declaration one expects from a farmer, but it makes sense in this particular case.
Garden Fresh Farms sounds like it’s a place that we’ve seen plastered in foodie magazines for the last decade or so since the locavore craze took hold. And, yes, when you drive to the Maplewood-based business, located off a frontage road just north of Highway 36, there is a terraced garden growing raspberries and mint. But that’s not the destination. Through that garden and up some steps is a non-descript warehouse.
In that building where the sun doesn’t shine is where the real growing takes place: basil and a variety of other herbs, bibb lettuce, watercress, and sprout varieties. “It’s fresh, natural, local—it’s the next best thing to organic,” Roeser said. (Garden Fresh can’t be labeled “organic” because the plants aren’t grown in dirt.)
The lack of that particular label doesn’t stop area restaurants and, through distributors, corporate kitchens like Best Buy, Medtronic and Bon Appétit (for St. Olaf College), from purchasing the products as part of their internal mandates to get more local and sustainable.
Garden Fresh Farms is attempting to become a complete, sustainable farm within its four walls with aquaponics—but utilizing Roeser’s patented equipment designs.
Aquaponics isn’t new, of course; it’s most famously used as a piece of Growing Power in Milwaukee, the urban/community farm system founded by Will Allen. Aquaponics combines hydroponics (growing plants indoors, without soil, using some form of drip irrigation) with the addition of farm-raised fish.
With hydroponics, the water used to feed the plants is enhanced with fertilizers. With aquaponics, the fish produce the fertilizer for the plants via their waste, the plants help filter the water, which is then returned to the fishes’ environment. Plant matter grown in the system can feed the fish, and those fish, once they reach a certain size, are sold for consumption. (Roeser’s system uses mostly tilapia, but also trout. “We have people lining up on the fish,” he said.)
Further, the lighting for the plants is also good for the fish, the fish produce CO2 which is good for the plants, and the only water added to the system is replacing what evaporates or transpires from the plants—amounting to only about 10 percent of total volume, Roeser said. Thus, it is in theory—and steering toward reality—a closed-loop sustainable system.
The difference in Roeser’s designs and industry standards is production density. Most hydroponic and aquaponic systems grow plants on horizontal surfaces. Roeser’s plants hang in sheets floor-to-ceiling and rotate in stacked cylinders. “We’re trying to do it in a small footprint,” he said. For example, the lettuce “module” Roeser designed consists of four rows of 28 polystyrene panels that allow for 1,100 plants per day to be harvested. One of Roeser’s “orbiting gardens,” in which are 20 cylinders growing basil, produces 40 to 50 pounds of that herb per day. All that growth translates into this: to accomplish an acre’s worth with Roeser’s system would require 100 acres of farmland.
But how good is the product? Very. It tastes as fresh food should. Most interesting is the edible volume of the plant itself, particularly noticeable with the oregano, which grows very well in the “lettuce factory.” Traditionally-grown oregano—and even that grown hydroponically—can have a thicker, sometimes woody stalks and smaller leaves. Garden Fresh’s has a string-like stalk, the oregano leaves are large and grow densely. Growing in the vertical environment with the drip irrigation, Roeser explained, the plant doesn’t have to spend much energy growing a large root system or thicker stalks.
With the fish, Garden Fresh grows the tilapia to two pounds and the trout to one and processes them in-house. “We’re able to give a nice size tilapia filet, and the trout, we just gut them, and they’re sold head-on—most (buyers) want them whole,” Roeser said.
They’re working on a host of other value-added products, such as herb blends and basil paste, to utilize unsold product. Helping Roeser with those business developments are industry veterans Alan Weeks, a chef and development consultant; and Andrew Percic, who owned the Nectary restaurant in Minneapolis and continues catering events for corporations. Percic said he was first was interested in the company for the volume of fresh lettuce and basil it could produce for his catering events.
The possibilities for the company, Weeks said, are huge. “The niche is the sustainability of year-round product,” he said. “For (restaurant) chefs it’s been the challenge of planning with farmers. … This isn’t weather dependent.” That flexibility lends itself to the value-added products, he added.
In the pipeline is the basil paste, pestos and herb blends, Roeser said.
The real product
And while it is a farm growing food, and the fish and value-added products are part of the actual business, Garden Fresh Farms is really the development center for an entire business model, right down to the re-use of that old warehouse. Roeser, a serial entrepreneur, owns the building, but it was left unused after he sold the businesses he operated within it. The real “product” from Roeser’s efforts is the equipment, designed to easily retrofit into the many unused inner-city factories or warehouses. His goal is to manufacture and send equipment across the country—or the globe—to operate Garden Fresh Farms branches either via licensing arrangement or wholly-owned.
It’s already happening. He’s working on agreements as close as Minneapolis, outside the state in Chicago and New York, and he was asked by investors in Kuwait to present a business proposal—they are interested in the system’s economical water usage, Roeser said.
Roeser is most interested in helping to rebuild U.S. urban centers, however. “There are 100,000 square-foot buildings out there, the system could produce food for the surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. Depending on the size of the operation, he added, it could also impact a neighborhood with jobs.
“People are really excited about the possibilities, a way to invest money into local, natural foods, sustainability and the environment,” Percic said.
The University of Minnesota took notice, and named Garden Fresh Farms the 2012 Family Farm of the Year. (Yes, it is a family operation. Roeser’s wife, D.J., helps with planting and his son, Bryan, a biologist, works at the company full-time.) The relationship with the U of M continues as Roeser is developing with them comprehensive composting plans.
It’s all about healthy food grown sustainably in urban areas, Roeser said. And part of that is getting rid of that garbage can. “It’s our goal to have no waste,” Roeser said.
Full circle indeed.