A growing operation is bringing new life to an empty warehouse for an urban farmer in St. Paul. In 2010, Dave Roeser, an entrepreneur with a knack for starting companies, sold three of his four businesses, holding onto his real estate properties. With an empty warehouse, the Chicago native decided it was time to turn the vacancy into a new vocation. That’s when Garden Fresh Farms was born.

The patent-pending, orbiting garden slowly rotates basil, oregano and other herbs through a pan of water. Instead of adding fertilizer, the growing vegetables get their nutrients from the water, which is fertilized naturally by fish that live in it, a process call aquaponics.

“I have an accounting background, not agriculture,” said Roeser, founder and president of Garden Fresh Farms. “When I looked at the idea, I knew I needed a high-quality product from a system that would conserve energy and produce less waste. I hired people with the expertise in areas I didn’t know, and we’ve been able to grow this together.”

This modern-day “assembly line” of growing healthy food uses 95 percent less water than a traditional farm. Because the system is vertical and operates year-round, one acre in Roeser’s facility produces the same output as 100 acres outdoors.

Garden Fresh Farms received early-stage funding from the Norris Institute, the University of St. Thomas’ seed fund that provides start-up equity and assistance to Minnesota entrepreneurs with businesses that address important unmet needs. “When Control Data founder William Norris established the Norris Institute, he did so to fund ventures like this,” said Mike Moore, institute director. “Like Dave Roeser, Mr. Norris not only thought outside the box, but he always had an eye for creating good jobs in impoverished areas. Garden Fresh Farms has the ability to do that, while growing produce in any location, year round and far more sustainably.”

Roeser hopes to build more gardens at his facility by growing more vegetables and adding plant-based medicines used to create vaccines and cancer treatments through a new company, MNPHARM SBC. He hopes to open facilities in New York, Connecticut, Iowa and on an Indian reservation in South Dakota to bring good jobs and fresh, healthy food to empty buildings looking for new life.

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