After the Oceans

Meet the dreamers, scientists, and entrepreneurs who are raising fish (and lettuce, and herbs, and . . .) in a Twin Cities building near you.

After the Oceans


Mistakes were made.


Mostly not by us here in Minnesota, but in the oceans. Oceans such as the Atlantic, where wild salmon have had their population reduced 99 percent, where the cod of the Georges Bank became commercially extinct in the 1990s and show no sign of bouncing back, and where there are about as many wild breeding bluefin tuna remaining as there are wild breeding tigers, but no serious plan to stop commercial fishing. It’s happened before. 

The mastodons of the Great Lakes region were hunted to extinction. When they were gone, presumably the Paleo-Indian Clovis hunters sighed and said: “Darn, we ate them all. I guess it’s buffalo from here out.” The auroch, the giant wild cattle that is the ancestor of all our domestic cattle, went extinct in 1627. Passenger pigeons, for which Minnesota’s Pigeon Bay and Pigeon Falls were named, were once so plentiful in our state that flocks would block the sun. The big 12-inch birds were potted, baked in pies, roasted, and piled on boats to sell in New York. The last known wild egg and bird were taken from a Minneapolis tree in 1895. People likely sighed and started eating chicken for dinner.

Mistakes were made and continue to be made in the oceans. But this time is different. Local visionaries are trying to solve those ocean problems. If you want to know what and how you’ll be eating in 2020, peek behind the closed doors of the dreamers, entrepreneurs, and scientists who are poised to transform fish in our time by bringing them out of the ocean and into places you’d never suspect.

WAREHOUSE | To find Chad Hebert, Warren Burgess, and their 10,000 perch, go to the Cub Foods near the I-35/Hwy. 62 spaghetti junction and drive west past the apartments jangling with banda music until you see a low-slung, forgotten-looking warehouse, the kind of nothing brick building that litters the edge of every American city. Climb the handful of steps and open the steel door to the future, a future that looks like giant dad-built bunk beds.

These beds, made of plain lumber and sturdy bolts, are the core of Hebert and Burgess’s Urban Farm Project. Several hundred plants grow on the top bunks; the bottoms hold 2,000 perch each. Peer into the tank and the feed-trained fish start to roil toward the surface, like silver shards pulled by a magician’s wand. They are yellow perch, a little cousin of Minnesota’s favorite food fish, the walleye. They’re best pan-fried, says chef Lenny Russo of Heartland, who attests to these indoor-farmed fish. “They’re pristine, beautiful. The quality is outstanding. I’d have them on the menu all the time if I could.

Hebert and Burgess have been growing these fish for four years, but they’re still in the business-incubation stage. “The goal here is just to complete the puzzle,” Hebert told me, modestly.

Fish have been grown in captivity since antiquity; the earliest fish farmers were probably the Chinese, raising carp in ponds since 3,500 BC. What’s difficult about raising fish hasn’t changed: To successfully farm them you need to: a) keep them alive and disease-free with proper food and oxygen levels; b) breed them; c) feed them the specialized, often-live diet that they need in their early, invisible-to-the-naked-eye stage; and d) deal with their waste.

In nature, dozens, if not hundreds, of organisms interact to create a self-sustaining system that allows fish to exist. Fish excrete ammonia products, which are converted by beneficial bacteria to nitrite, which is converted by other beneficial bacteria called nitrobacter to nitrates, which plants use to grow. The plants are food to other fish and to bugs, which are food to the fish. The only difference between a pond and a box in a warehouse is everything, or nothing, depending on how you look at it. Hebert and Burgess are puzzling over how to make a box of fish in a warehouse exactly like a self-sustaining healthy lake, with plants cleaning the water of fish waste. Only they want to sell the plants. So the puzzle is actually how to make a box of fish in a warehouse exactly like a self-sustaining healthy lake that produces a sustainable, incessant three-course gourmet protein- and vegetable-rich meal.

On those vast bunk beds, Hebert and Burgess are growing tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. They are also growing flowering impatiens, not to eat, but because they provide a ladybug habitat to control the aphids that eat garden plants. Pesticides, herbicides, other biocides, and synthetic fertilizers are banned here because they kill fish. Hebert and Burgess are also raising 14,000 red wiggler worms, which turn post-harvest plant waste, such as tomato stems or lettuce roots, into the soil in which new plants will grow.

To make all this happen, pumps run at 22 gallons a minute to draw water from fish tanks up to the top bunk, where the water is sprayed continuously onto the oxygen-producing plants in their soil. The water runs through the soil, where it is filtered by soil, roots, and the beneficial bacteria that live there. The water then drops in a frothy stream back into the fish tank, becoming highly oxygenated as it falls. No wastewater is ever returned to Minneapolis sewers.

“We have water in there that’s four years old,” explains Hebert. They do have to add water, about 60 gallons a week, per tank, because of plant transpiration and absorption, and because of simple evaporation, with all that water roiling around. To see if the water in the air can bring in more money, Hebert and Burgess are now trying to grow mushrooms in bags that hang like ghosts from the ceiling.

“I am 100 percent an accidental farmer,” says Hebert, who looks, with his soul patch and Carhartts, more like a coffee-shop laptop jockey than a farmer. “This all started as a hobby, and I saw the opportunity and went with it. The demand in the marketplace is there. We know how to grow the fish, but there are a lot of other pieces of the puzzle."

The pieces are falling into place. They’ve figured out breeding because bringing in other people’s young fish brings in disease. They’ve mastered raising the live zooplankton baby fish eat. Hebert just completed Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point training so he can process the fish himself and sell filets to the public. Soon they’ll launch an e-commerce site to sell fish and produce direct.

"We never wanted to get ahead of ourselves and grow a million fish before the whole puzzle is figured out,” explains Hebert. “That’s how people go bust.” Hebert’s day job is taking care of his two young boys, while his wife, who holds a PhD in food science microbiology, works at General Mills. At night he tends to his plants and fish. “We want safe, high-quality, nutritionally dense food,” explains Hebert. “

"Fish in a lake have all the contaminants the lake has—mercury, heavy metals, PCBs, whatever. You can eat these fish three times a day.” With that, he waves a hand over the tank, and the perch surge up again, the straining silver shiver of them. Here it is, the future, in heavy-load-bearing bunk beds, with mushrooms on top.

OUTBUILDING | An hour east of Minneapolis, past the St. Croix River, up where the green and rolling hills of Wisconsin echo with the footfalls of some of the most productive dairy cows in all the world, there’s a dairy farm. Anyone who’s driven backcountry Wisconsin knows the type, those telltale low-slung barns with big sliding doors, a ground-down outdoor divot made by mud-mucking Holsteins, and feed silos tracing castle spires on the horizon. Across the flat road from this particular dairy farm, there’s a nothing of an outbuilding, something flat and impermanent looking with a small white sign on the front carefully lettered in green: Future Farm.

Steve Meyer, co-owner and director of operations, pulls up in a white pickup truck and leads me through the foot-sanitizer bath that separates the future from dirty boots. Inside, at first glance, there’s a whole lot of nothing—but it turns out that’s the space for the coming expansion, and the fish processing area.

To one side of the big empty space are a half-dozen blue tanks, some filled with tilapia, others with albino catfish, and one small one filled with an experiment: freshwater prawns. “We just got them. They’re probably going to try to start eating each other,” explains Meyer. “Some people blind them so they can’t see each other to eat each other. They’re cannibalistic.”

Meyer doesn’t want to blind these cannibalistic freshwater Wisconsin shrimp; he’s hoping he can give them enough space that they can each establish their own territory and live in peace. This territory is beneath Target executives’ salad. The water from the various fish tanks is pumped out of the fish tanks and into long, shallow, rectangular rivers in an adjacent greenhouse. The greenhouse is fitted with foam rafts, large rectangles of sterile material with half-dollar-shaped holes punched into them. Every hole receives a baby lettuce plant, or a baby basil plant, a baby arugula plant, or similar, and is set into the head of the river. Each day a raft of mature plants is removed from the terminus of the river and harvested. This makes room for another raft of babies at the top. To look at one of these slow-moving rivers of plants is to see a simple size-order progression from sprout to maturity. Meyer estimates Future Farm can harvest about 500 cases of lettuce a week, most of which goes to the Twin Cities, Madison, and Eau Claire, especially to the cafeterias at Target, Medtronic, the Carlson Companies, Carleton, and St. Olaf, all of which have programs in place that prioritize buying local.

If the freshwater shrimp can live under the rafts of greens, Wisconsin could become as well known for its fresh shrimp as it is for its cheese curds—and both will be because of the cows. The considerable heat required to keep the plants and fish warm all comes from Wisconsin cows. John Vrieze, Future Farm’s co-owner, has a 1,000-head conventional, high-volume dairy herd across the street and a herd of 1,700 cows in nearby Emerald, Wisconsin. The manure from the cows is converted in something called an anaerobic digester into a usable and pure variety of methane, which heats the greenhouse.

Future Farm put its first fish in tanks in 2008 and has been working out the kinks since then. The capital costs have been intensive; for instance, the greenhouse requires multiple sources of backup heat, in case a farm system breaks. (Tropical tilapia and summer basil have no ability to maintain themselves at Wisconsin’s January temperatures.) Meyer is a manufacturing engineer by trade, and no kind of wide-eyed dreamer. “I am not an environmentalist,” he says flatly. “I got into this as a business. This is the future. It’s pretty obvious. This has been all self-funded. We put in for our first USDA grant just now. We should be a flagship in the state for what we do, but most people just don’t get it.”

Meyer notes that Future Farm is at its break-even point now and all the puzzles for their own particular system have been solved, except placing excess produce in the event a restaurant client, such as Minneapolis clients Birchwood Cafe or the Red Stag, has a slow week and drops the volume of its pre-order. They’re working on developing other channels for the produce, perhaps as Future Farm branded frozen fish and herb dinners. Today, Future Farm has five full-time employees and is getting ready to expand. “I’d like to play with eels,” notes Meyer, “And baitfish, maybe freshwater stingrays for aquariums. I think aquaponics and alternative energy, it’s the only way. It’s going to explode in popularity. I’d love to have one of these with a garden center, a couple restaurants attached; the whole thing would be a weekend destination. The key is to making the whole thing click. We’ll see how the prawns do.”

In their tank, the prawns are pale, almost see-through, and climb on a metal cage, not unlike children on monkey bars, their antennae wriggling, as they try to sense one another. They are wholly unaware of the nearby warm rivers, the cows who make it warm, or, so far, their tasty freshwater prawn brothers, waving their own antennae.

BREWERY | In east St. Paul, the abandoned Hamm’s Brewery looms over the city like a brick fortress, with walls nearly a meter thick, surrounded by acres of parking lot. These walls and floors were created to hold the weight of yacht-sized brewing tanks. A new company called Urban Organics is planning to use this old weight-bearing mega-structure to hold enormous tilapia-filled fish tanks and grow vegetables in an effort to provide safe, nutritious food to schoolchildren. Hamm’s slogan still echoes in these walls: “From the land of sky blue waters, from the land of pines’ lofty balsams, comes the beer refreshing, Hamm’s the beer refreshing.” We’re all familiar with the song that mourns tearing down paradise to put up a parking lot—but what is the song to sing when the nostalgic center of sky blue waters becomes the abandoned parking lot, and then that is replaced with fish that won’t be polluted by the mercury of the sky blue waters? Fred Haberman, Dave and Kristen Koontz Haider, and Chris Ames intend to put up a bit of post-apocalyptic paradise.

CAMPUS | The horticulture department at the University of Minnesota is famous as the birthplace of the Honeycrisp apple, the Frontenac grape, and other cold-climate superstars. Today, peek into its greenhouses and you’ll find lobster. Well, not lobster exactly, but Australian red-claw crawfish, a freshwater crustacean that can grow to more than a pound.

The U of M is launching its first aquaculture class, a collaboration between the horticulture and fisheries departments. They will have a warm-water greenhouse for crayfish and a cold-water greenhouse for trout. “A generation ago,” says horticulture professor John Erwin, “students were interested in large-scale production. Now students want to know about smaller-scale but sustainable systems.”

Erwin thinks the successful aquaculture businesses in Minnesota will produce small niche crops—shrimp or red claw crayfish.

“People want to support agriculture which doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment, people don’t want to eat pesticides, and people would like to eat food that’s ripe. The tomatoes and strawberries that are harvested before they reach what we would call ripe, and gassed for color, are not liked. Restaurants [in the Twin Cities] deserve a lot of the credit for creating this new market for what we call specialty crops. People like Kim Bartmann and Lucia Watson have led the movement, promoting local food, showing that amazing food can be made with local ingredients. They helped establish the market. Now it’s there, and now there is a new generation of students who want to sell to it."

As part of this new class, students will reach out to restaurants and farmers’ market shoppers to ask what they would pay a premium for if it was available locally. “My students don’t seem to want to be the next Tyson of fish but to make a nice, regular, sustainable income,” he says. Two former students are Dean Engelmann and Scott Endres, co-owners of south Minneapolis’s Wise Acre, a restaurant that sources much of its food from its own farm and greenhouse. Imagine the restaurants of the future stocked with Minnesota-raised oysters, lobsters, and trout.

BASEMENT | Gandhi Mahal, a small Indian restaurant in south Minneapolis, is building a tilapia aquaponics facility in the basement. “We are using the basement because we try to use all the spaces here,” says Ruhel Islam, the restaurant’s owner. “It is a three-phase project. We completed phases one and two: feasibility, cost, sourcing the right system. Now we are starting phase three: installing it. We are going to start with a 500-gallon tank and grow if we need to."

In addition to tilapia, Islam intends to grow specialty Thai chili peppers, spinach, and cilantro. He plans to net fish to order, for the freshest quality but also for inventory control. No fish will ever be going bad in his cooler.

“To be sustainable and self-sufficient is part of my mission, to grow as much food as we can. Our cooking oil is recycled for biodiesel. Last year we harvested 2,000 pounds of vegetables from our urban garden. It’s important to customers, but important to my own philosophy. I believe in self-sufficiency and am concerned about food cost and food security. I know how to raise fish. I did it back home in my village, near Bangladesh."

DINER | The Duluth Grill is a diner in Duluth; it used to be an Embers franchise. “We are putting the tanks into our aquaponic system today,” Duluth Grill urban farm manager Francois Medion told me one day in March. “We hope to have the fish in soon. We are thinking pacu—they’re sort of like a vegetarian piranha. We would like them to eat scraps we get from cleaning vegetables—lettuce bottoms, that sort of thing.

“What’s unique for me,” says the French native, who is best known in the Twin Cities for his career as Loring Cafe’s bread baker, “is that the Duluth Grill is a diner. It’s affordable, you get a large portion—simple good food. Usually the restaurants that cook from scratch are fine dining. We have only a 5,000-gallon tank, and this is a very busy place. We’re never going to provide year-round enough fish for the restaurant, but we can have some fish frys with our own fish and build from there."

WAREHOUSE | Walk into Dave Roeser’s squat warehouse in Maplewood and you’ll find a series of interconnected fish tanks. His son, Bryan Roeser, a biologist, convinced him that they could crack the code to aquaponics here, so the family designed a series of original systems that maximize energy consumption.

First, there’s a cold-water tank of 10,000 rainbow trout, about the size of the container on a moving truck, where cold tap water comes into the building. Once the water is warmed and dirtied up by the rainbow trout, it is pumped into a series of closed-top tanks holding 20,000 tilapia. The water leaves the tilapia tanks and enters one of several original aquaponic setups.

The “lettuce factory,” as Roeser calls one of them, is all vertical: columns of light flanked by growing panels, each of which slips into a slot, and each of which has holes bored into it. Small lettuce or herb plants are tucked into the holes and grow toward the light. Water from the tilapia tanks drips along the dark root-side feeding the plants. It gets to the bottom, is captured, filtered, and returned to the tilapia tanks. When the plants are mature, the panels are simply slipped out of their frame, the mature plants plucked from their holes and baby plants tucked in to replace them. The “orbital garden” is a rotating barrel with light bulbs in the center and the plants in holes on the outside of the barrel, growing in. The barrel turns through a pool of fish water, the roots becoming fully dipped and then going up and around in a circle.

The Roesers claim to be able to get as much out of their interior acre as an outdoor farmer would get from 100 acres. Dave Roeser is not an environmentalist; he’s a businessman. “We thought about current trends which are going to be here a long time—green, natural, and people worried about what’s really in their food. But there aren’t actually a lot of commercial ventures going on to meet that market, and because there aren’t a lot of commercial ventures, there isn’t the right equipment to make it function profitably and sustainably. So we decided to develop our own equipment.”

Garden Fresh Farms already has contracts with Bon App├ętit catering and US Foods, and the Roesers are on the hunt for a second space near the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Eventually, they see their venture as licensed farms where they provide setup, a farm manager, and marketing services. This could be especially valuable to resorts, reservations, cruise ships, and anywhere else a good deal of people need to be fed.

“About 80 percent of the cost of produce is actually due to transportation,” says Dave Roeser. “Not just the fuel, but the product loss that happens during transport. If we can grow things very close to people so you don’t have that cost, and that waste, we feel confident. Basil, oregano, thyme, these are all things we can grow very well, and bib, curly bib, oak lettuce, leaf lettuce.”

He doesn’t harvest a plant without an order, and he doesn’t plant one either. He also, unlike nearly every other farmer in Minnesota, is indifferent to the threat of hail. He likes to say that every sprouting seed in every tray is already sold: “If the issue is fresh and good, we feel very competitive.”

Peeking behind doors of the gee-whiz, green, integrated, zero-waste, beneficial-bacteria-fueled, thoughtful, entrepreneurial future of dreamers who are changing the world for the better, before our very eyes, I became thoroughly depressed. While people on cable television fight over whether climate change is political fact or fiction, the people who move units of food are not debating anything. They’ve moved into post-apocalyptic planning, because that’s where we are when it comes to nearly free wild food from the fin-filled sea.

But then it occurred to me: What if people had started eating chicken before we ate every passenger pigeon? These Minnesota fish farms and experiments may in fact represent the first time people get the chance to do the hardest thing of all: to catch ourselves mid-freefall and course-correct. Mistakes were made, and mostly not by us in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lead the way out, for all.