Garden Fresh Farms uses Indoor Aquaponic System to Sustainably Farm in Minnesota all Year Long

Maplewood-based Garden Fresh Farms provides a disruptive solution to conventional farming.  Their unique system allows for sustainable, year-long, indoor farming, providing 24-hour fresh food to consumers regardless of location.

I had to opportunity to learn about Garden Fresh Farms and spin off company MNPHARM from Founder Dave Roeser at the Worthington Bio Science Conference a few weeks ago.  Garden Fresh Farms uses a novel, aquaponic system to grow produce.  In this system, both plants and fish are grown in a symbiotic water system.  The fish naturally create waste products, or fertilizer, which is pumped through the Garden Fresh closed system to the plants.  The plants use the fertilizer to grow and in turn also purify the water.  The cleaned water is then pumped back to the fish holding tanks, completing the loop.

Garden Fresh Farms uses aquaponics to grow produce through two different systems.  The first is a vertical system, where plants are grown on densely packed shelving straight up into the air.  These indoor farmers also grow plants in orbiting gardens- large eight by four foot rotating drums.  Currently, Garden Fresh Farms grows lettuce and herbs using these systems but is looking to expand in the near future.

The Garden Fresh farming methods use far less resources than traditional outdoor methods.  The plants are grown at much higher density than is possible with normal agriculture.  The vertical growth shelving units are packed tightly together, allowing four shelves to obtain light from one fixture.  The orbiting gardens can also be stacked nine feet high.  These features allow plants to be grown at very high density; Garden Fresh Farms can grow an equivalent one hundred acres of crop in a one square acre building.

Garden Fresh Farm’s disruptive growing structure minimizes the amount of resources needed for plant growth.  Their system uses 90% less water and 50% less energy than traditional outdoor farming methods.

It’s no secret.  Winter is a rough time in Minnesota to find good, fresh produce.  The food is often overripe and looks like it’s been there all week.  However, if you stumble upon Garden Fresh Farms produce in your local Lunds & Byerlys or Kowalski’s, the produce will be extremely fresh, even in January.  Twenty-four hours fresh to be exact.

Often the problem with produce distribution is getting the food that very last mile to the consumer.  Farms are often in rural areas, far from dense concentrations of people.  With the Garden Fresh Farms system, produce can be grown anywhere.  Right now, the company grows food in a warehouse in Saint Paul.  They can harvest their product in the morning, send it off to a distribution center by noon, and have the food on the shelves the very next day.  This whole process reduces food spoilage and waste and increases the nutritional value of the food.

The indoor growth system also means that all Garden Fresh Farms products are pesticide-free, a huge bonus for many consumers.

Garden Fresh Farms not only provides local, fresh food.  The company also has a deep-rooted social component. 

Garden Fresh Farms provides year-long farming jobs.  A total of twenty-five jobs would be created by converting one pole barn into a Garden Fresh Farms indoor growth facility.  The company has their very first public-private partnership in the works to begin in June 2016 in New England.  Garden Fresh Farms will convert an old, unused building into a farming factory, providing the over 30M people within a 100-mile radius of that site with local, fresh produce.  And jobs.

Garden Fresh Farms is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.  Consumers can buy produce directly from the company to support local farmers.  In Garden Fresh Farm’s program, consumers sign up for 12-week increments and receive weekly bags of fresh produce plus recipe ideas.  The bags can be dropped off at several locations around the Twin Cities area. 

The benefits of the Garden Fresh Farms system don’t stop there.  The company’s unique produce growing process could actually help fight climate change.

Plants need carbon dioxide to grow.  Plants use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis- the process by which green plants convert sunlight into chemical energy which is used to power cellular functions.  Plants store the chemical energy generated during this process as the carbohydrate glucose, which later can be converted into the essential cellular fuel ATP.

Plants love carbon dioxide.  But we humans usually think of the substance in a negative manner.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and makes up the largest percentage of all greenhouse gas emissions.  Excessive carbon dioxide production alters Earth’s normal carbon cycle and adds the heat trapping gas to the atmosphere, contributing to the gradually warming planet.

During photosynthesis, green plants use light and water to make their own food from carbon dioxide.  Plants use up the carbon and release oxygen at the end of the process, sequestering something that we don’t want and transforming it into something useful.

Farms are usually in rural areas, often very close to ethanol plants which produce carbon dioxide byproducts, something the Earth definitely does not want.  However, with the Garden Fresh Farms system, this carbon dioxide byproduct could be pumped to the indoor farms and sequestered by the growing produce through photosynthesis.  The plants could actually be used to “recycle” these carbon dioxide byproducts and convert it to something more useful for us all- food.

Garden Fresh Farm’s disruptive technology has earned them several awards and national recognition.  The group won the 2013 MN Cup Clean Tech and Energy Division and also won the Midwest Regional Clean Tech Open Competition and National Clean Tech Open Global Forum that same year.  In 2014, the company earned a Progress Minnesota Award, Eureka! Award, Green Products award from Saint Paul, and Sustainability Award from the City of Maplewood.

Two years ago, Garden Fresh Farms developed and launched a company called MNPHARM using the same aquaponics technology.  Check back later when we talk about MNPHARM and the potential to use tobacco plants as individualized medicine platforms.