Home grown: Garden Fresh Farms

How fish tanks and creativity make Garden Fresh Farms vastly more efficient than conventional agriculture

By Dan Emerson

Editor's note: This article is part of Home grown, a feature appearing in the July 2013 issue.

"Factory farming" has often been used as a pejorative term by critics of industrial-scale agriculture. But entrepreneur Dave Roeser and his startup Garden Fresh Farms have placed factory farming in a new, eco-friendly context. 

Roeser was looking for ideas to start a business in a vacant vending-machine warehouse he owned in Maplewood. Reading about the innovative practice of aquaponics - raising fish and plants together - sparked the idea for his innovative venture.

After a six-figure investment and two years of collaborating with University of Minnesota students and faculty, Roeser tweaked and combined existing techniques in new ways to create an indoor farm that now produces 40,000 fish and 460,000 plants annually in a dozen 1,500-gallon tanks. He says its "100 times more efficient" than conventional agriculture.

The fish provide carbon dioxide and fertilizer for the plants and swim in water purified by the plants. Fluorescent light takes the place of sunlight; next to labor, energy represents Roeser's biggest variable cost. But, through careful calibration, he has reduced his energy costs to about a nickel per plant (for the plant's lifespan). "Each species has its own ‘sunlight' saturation point; we match that to the plant."

He's growing 1,100 lettuce plants on vertical panels, and he's producing 40 pounds of basil a day, along with oregano, thyme, and watercress, on an "orbital garden" that slowly rotates to expose plants to the optimum amounts of light and water. Roeser plans to add tomatoes to the operation. He's already selling fish, herbs, and vegetables to area restaurants and corporate dining facilities, including companies that have signed sustainability pledges to buy 20 percent of their food locally. He's also working on a second farm.

Roeser says the idea of a closed-loop, no-waste system that bypasses some of the challenges of traditional farming appealed to him. "Those things fit my logical thought-processes," he says. "And this system solves a problem that is here now and will be a bigger problem in the future."

Helene Murray, executive director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, calls Roeser's plant "an amazing operation, and they're doing everything they can to improve it." She's been working with Roeser on grant proposals to improve lighting efficiency and figure out uses for the composting waste that the facility produces. "The vertical-wall panels for growing lettuce and the circular system for herb-growing are unique."

The Maplewood facility's patent-pending system could be replicated anywhere in rural or urban settings, according to Roeser, who has set up an LLC to license investors who will set up additional farms under the Garden Fresh Farms brand. In recent weeks he's spoken to prospective investors from the U.S., Russia, Bangladesh, China, and other countries. "We're looking at expanding fairly quickly," he says.

Garden Fresh Farms

Headquarters: Maplewood
Inception: 2010
Leadership: Dave Roeser, president; D.J. Roeser, CEO; Bryan Roeser, VP of biosystems
Employees: 5
Revenue: Not disclosed
Description: Designs, builds, and manufactures patent-pending indoor agriculture systems used in urban farming