Green light

Why Dave Roeser believes Garden Fresh Farms can move up the food chain

Dave Roeser owned an empty warehouse and he wanted to find a way to use it.
That simple need led him to create Garden Fresh Farms, an indoor agriculture system that uses much less electricity and water than similar models.
He’s opened a second facility, near St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, with the original in Maplewood. And he’s beginning to sell farms to groups of investors across the country. Can Garden Fresh Farms scale up?

Upsize: We’re inside your newest warehouse, in St. Paul. Describe what’s here.

Dave Roeser, Garden Fresh Farms: This is the start of the farm. It’s in two sections, 10,000 square feet total, and it’s modular, with units of 5,000 square feet. This is a working farm. We start the plant in beds, and we put them in what I call a kindergarten. They grow for two weeks, and that’s a traditional hydroponic set-up.

Then they get put into boards. The workers insert the plants into the holes, and the plants go into either flat boards or curved, depending if the plants care about gravity or not. The curved boards are put together and become an orbiting bed.

Upsize: You’ve got oregano and thyme growing here, on the vertical boards?

Roeser: The vertical panels of plants get moved four feet a day, and the plants spend five weeks in what I call the lettuce factory. The orbiting garden goes around the light, and that’s an advantage.

The technology for growing indoors is the same: there’s a shelf and a light. A lot of people are doing that, but the problem is you don’t get enough density. So we curve the boards and it’s four shelves but one light fixture.

You have twice as much growing area and 75 percent less light fixture. Also, we keep the lights close to the plant.

You lose 75 percent of the value of the light with each foot of space—you’ve noticed in a greenhouse how hot it is, with the lights way up overhead. We eliminate that waste.

Upsize: Where will these plants go?

Roeser: Our thing is we pick the orders in the morning, and they will be in the store tomorrow. We’re supplying Kowalski’s stores. We do some Whole Foods stores.

We’ll harvest 800 basil plants per drum a day, in the orbiting gardens. The vertical harvest, we’ll get 1,200 plants a day, per 5,000 square feet.

Upsize: And you have tanks of fish here, tilapia. How do they fit into the operation?

Roeser: We used to be in trout, but the water temperature doesn’t match what plants like. The fish make the fertilizer. They create the waste and it goes through filters. Each section uses 250 gallons of water a day. What we would spend on fertilizer we spend on fish food.

Upsize: Describe the aluminum drums you have along the wall of the warehouse.

Roeser: This is version five, with electronics, and our clutch-drive system. It’s all out of aluminum. We’re making another version that’s portable.

Think of Saudi Arabia. They import food. Think of having this in your yard to grow your own food. It will fit into a shipping container, 9 feet high and 40 feet long.

Upsize: How did you get into agriculture?

Roeser: I have an accounting and finance background. I left HP, Hewlett-Packard, when I was 39; I was a controller. I left to start my own business, and started one and then two more.

Baskets by Design was my first company, we made big gift baskets for Macy’s and others. We were on a big scale; competing with Harry & David.

Then I had a distribution company and then a confectionary company, to make better things for gift baskets. As those businesses grew we would outgrow buildings. I would keep the buildings, and one was empty so I thought, how could I use this? That was in 2010.

Upsize: What trends were you noticing?

Roeser: I’m not really a trendy guy. I was looking for something long-term, and green, healthy, sustainable were all long-term trends. I started researching on hydroponic and indoor farms and I realized those projects were never going to be profitable.

Upsize: You mean because they could only be done on a small scale?

Roeser: The first environmentalists were actually accountants. We’re always asking, how do you reduce costs?

Upsize: What do you mean, about accountants being environmentalists?

Roeser: The first thing an accountant asks is, are there ways to reduce waste? What are you doing with your scrap? That’s how I think. You’re re-using or re-adapting. This building was sitting empty for 12 years, for example. How can we re-use it?

It’s good business. No one would say I’m a tree-hugger, but I’m doing a lot of things good for the environment with Garden Fresh Farms.

Upsize: In the CleanTech Open competition, you won a national sustainability award. Tell me about it.

Roeser: Our system reduces water use by 90 percent. It reduces land use 100 to one: When this whole building is in use, it will be equivalent to an acre of land, and that would equal the production from 100 acres of farmland. And then the real estate—when it’s full of farms, it will be worth twice the value on the tax roles.

We also have a CSA farm share program, my wife does that. Ours is year-around, whereas most are just in the summer. We partner with other farmers, and we’ll buy from them. People can come to the farm. Or they come to Sunrise Market and we are at Williams Sonoma, too.

We deliver our produce to corporate sites, as well. You have fresh food every week, and then the consumer is getting pesticide-free food.

Upsize: Tell me about your expansion plans.

Roeser: We have an offer on a site in Iowa, and we’re leasing in New York and in Connecticut. Our idea is to locate farms near distribution points, because distribution is the key to the food business.

If you go to Whole Foods, you go to the local aisle. But to get in their planogram, the food actually has to go to Indiana, where their distribution center is. We can sell into Whole Foods, but the manager locally has to override the system.

Our idea is for Whole Foods, for example, we’d put a farm in Indiana. For Walmart, we’d put a farm in Mankato, near their distribution center. The idea is we want to get the produce on a truck the same day it’s picked.

We’re trying to raise $10 million from investors to go into four cities, then up to $50 million to get into more.

Upsize: This all started with an empty warehouse.

Roeser: I wanted to find a solution for my predicament—I’ve got an empty building. I had to put a business in there. It’s a weird way of thinking, but my whole family is entrepreneurial-minded that way.

When I was doing research on other hydroponic farms, I sat down and started running the math. I said, the square footage has to come down dramatically and the electricity has to come down.

For example, a place in Racine, Wisconsin, they were boasting they spent 20 cents per plant for energy. Well, we’re under a nickel.

Upsize: What about water? Lack of water is a problem all over the world.

Roeser: Here in Minnesota, water is cheap. Out West, you don’t own water rights under your property.

Upsize: Garden Fresh Farms could offer a solution to that problem, I imagine. What do you envision for Garden Fresh Farms in five years?

Roeser: It will be in more than 10 cities, and I think it will be in a couple of countries as well.

Upsize: What’s a lesson you’ve learned, to pass on to other business owners.

Roeser: One thing is distribution: it’s something to pay attention to, because it kills small companies. We thought we had it nailed, but when you’re creating something people aren’t used to, it’s hard.

It was like the micro-breweries, when Budweiser controlled all the distribution. They had to come up with creative solutions.

With Garden Fresh Farms, we learned that the produce model hasn’t changed for 40 years. It doesn’t fit with their model, but it does fit with the customers. Our goal is to build our farms next to distribution centers and help solve that.

Upsize: That sounds tough to do, to elbow into a locked-up system.

Roeser: There’s also millions of people who eat every day. We don’t have to get all the market share, to be successful.

interview by BETH EWEN
photographs by Jonathan Hankin

CONTACT: Dave Roeser is founder of Garden Fresh Farms: 612.741.7741; droeser@gardenfreshfarms;

Beth Ewen