Today on Rootstock Radio, we speak to Fred Haberman, founder of Haberman, a communications company, and Urban Organics, a growing hydroponic agriculture company both based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Fred describes Haberman as playing the role of the “modern storyteller” because “a great story can truly change the world.” And this world-changing philosophy applies especially to the stories of brands in the good food movement. Fred became an organic agriculture convert when a friend had him compare an organic cherry tomato to a conventional one; put frankly, the flavor of the organic tomato “blew his mind.” Since then, Fred has been a proponent for organic agriculture not only because of the taste of the food, but also because organic agriculture is far better for the earth.
More recently, Fred developed a hydroponic facility called Urban Organics in the old Hamm’s brewery in Minneapolis. Urban Organics raises tilapia alongside chard, kale, basil, cilantro and parsley. In their closed-loop system, fish provide nutrients for the plants to grow while the roots of the plants provide clean water for the fish. This model of agriculture uses less than 2% of the water used by traditional farms. Fred hopes that in 10-20 years hydroponic agriculture will take off all around the world. In his words, this system of farming is “truly teaching someone how to fish.”
Interview with Fred Haberman
October 10, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m so delighted today to be here with Fred Haberman, who is co-founder of Haberman [ad agency] and Urban Organics. I like to think of Fred as a marketing and media maven in Minneapolis, and he also is an inspiration to so many of us. He likes to engage and drive positive social change. Fred is very much about being dedicated to change and the Good Food movement. He’s a longtime food activist and advocate for organics. He’s worked with many leaders in the industry, and he frequently speaks at national conferences and workshops. Welcome, Fred!
FRED HABERMAN: Thank you, Theresa.
TM: Fred, so fun to talk with you all the time because you’re such a pioneer. And I love your tagline, “Modern Storytellers.” Tell me a little bit about that. What do you think about telling stories?
FH: Oh, I love it! You know, a great story can truly change the world. And my wife and I, we started the company well over twenty years ago. And when we were traveling around the world and meeting exciting pioneers, what always struck us was certainly that, once again, a story well told can absolutely motivate and inspire people. And of course, there are a number of role models that we all have—certainly for me and probably you, Martin Luther King or Gandhi, the list goes on. So we wanted to translate those learnings into helping brands and individuals really help inspire their own movements. So we’ve been trying to take the lessons from these great leaders and apply them to brands, particularly in the Good Food movement.
So yes, modern storytelling is alive and well, I think, both through the digital realm today, certainly, but always through the face-to-face, through the experience that people have when engaging with each other.
TM: Well, you know, Fred, you’ve worked for so many different food companies, so I bet you’ve had lots of experience telling some really terrific stories about food and the Good Food movement. Do you have a favorite story that has to do with the food movement that you’d like to share with us?
FH: You know, it’s interesting, people—there are a number of wonderful stories. And the story of Annie’s is a wonderful story, where this woman was tired and sick of the same old mac and cheese that wasn’t organic, and she thought, “Hey, there has to be an alternative. I can do something about this,” and started selling mac and cheese out of the back of her Volvo. And lo and behold, later, the first we know, it’s a very large organization. I think there are many, many stories out there of someone, more often than not, let’s say, a mom who says, “I’m not going to feed this to my kids anymore,” and they go out and they develop a product and begin the process of transforming their small segment of the food system.
TM: You know, it’s kind of interesting, that David and Goliath story is sure a popular one, and when you look at $30 billion food companies, which is kind of like what the big companies are, it’s hard to get your head around it, isn’t it? So you know, you may think that you’re, “Gee, I’m a multimillion-dollar company,” and yet compared to the big ones you’re still pretty small.
FH: Incredibly small, quite frankly. I mean, when you look at the hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars that’s controlled by just several organizations globally, it’s quite frankly a drop in the bucket.
TM: Yeah, and the ongoing consolidation surely gives me the chills.
FH: That’s right.
TM: You know, I see you as a social entrepreneur, Fred. I know that you believe that this social capital is truly a good way for helping solve the world’s problems while still producing profits for a business so that you can have both. And I know that sometimes that feels like a conflict, and I wondered if you could speak to that.
FH: For me, it’s very… So I define my individual purpose, quite frankly, in the world as using entrepreneurial principles to solve social issues. So I guess that would also be my definition of social entrepreneurship. I very much want to try to create sustainable businesses or develop sustainable business models to solve, once again, a social challenge or issue. For me, having worked both the nonprofit sector, the foundation sector, the for-profit sector, it’s hard for me to see these wonderful nonprofit organizations, for example, that are going out and they desperately need funding but then the funding dries up. So I’m always trying to find and develop sustainable business models that don’t have to always go out and try to find that funding.
So for me, I also think that business can be something that can be a force for good in the world. It doesn’t have to be something that’s negative. For example, there are many organizations that have ESOPs, that give to multiple constituents and stakeholders, that give to their community, that give back to their employees. So I’m very excited about that.
I also think that when I look at Urban Organics, which I think we’ll probably talk about, when we located this aquaponics facility in east St. Paul we wanted to create this financial business model. Well, since doing that, we’re in an area that some people would coin a “food desert.” Well, food deserts are job deserts, and so we wanted to also create, help stimulate that sector of St. Paul by creating jobs. And in doing so over the last several years we’ve helped create several hundred jobs and $200 million of investment. So now people are working, and that’s a good thing.
TM: Well, thank you so much, Fred, for bringing up Urban Organics, and yes, I was definitely going there, because I do want to talk about Urban Organics. But I’d love for you to talk to our listeners about some of the things that you’ve done at the Habes to both enhance the working place and to actually just keep your staff very engaged. I know some of your staff and I know they love working for the Habes, and they really are proud of some of the things they do. And maybe you can talk a little bit about, like, for example, your garden that you’ve done, and maybe you’ll talk a little bit about U.S. Pond Hockey that you also have done so beautifully every year.
FH: Thank you. You know, for me, the mission of Haberman is to tell the stories of pioneers who are making a difference in the world. And the experiment, so to speak, over the last twenty years is to find work for people that they’re passionate about, and to help engage employees in activities that excite them. And generally speaking, we’re all very passionate about food, and we wanted to learn more about where our food comes from. And being a downtown Minneapolis agency, we partnered up with a former actual partner in our firm who decided to go have four kids, God bless her, but lives on a farm outside of Minneapolis. And she became our chief gardening officer, and now we have—
TM: (laughing) I love that!
FH: Yeah. So we ended up for the last nearly ten years growing all kinds of vegetables, and we give the employees free fresh produce and the like. And then at the end of the year we have this party called DudeStock, and we usually make food and we have a contest where we’ll develop recipes, make wonderful dishes with the produce that of course we harvested. We also give the food to folks, the excess food to folks that are in need.
And then, of course, being—you mentioned the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. We have passions outside of food, although food, they tend to revolve around food. But in this case, living in Minneapolis, we play a lot of outdoor ice hockey. The ponds freeze over, and another passion I have is just playing outdoor ice hockey as if you were a kid again. And we get about 20,000 people that show up each year to this crazy hockey tournament we created called the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, and it’s just a wonderful, wonderful experience to do that.
TM: I have actually been to the Pond Hockey Championship, and what fun. And I’m really looking forward to seeing the garden sometime. And for you business owners out there, how about that? Chief garden officer—that’s pretty good. I like that a lot.
FH: It’s a good title.
TM: And you know, Fred, I just want to ask one more question, and then I really want to talk about Urban Organics some more. How is it you and Sarah got so passionate about the food movement?
FH: You know, there are a number of things that basically came together. Number one, about thirty years ago a good friend of mine, Andy Wright, shared a conventionally grown cherry tomato and an organic cherry tomato with me, and I tasted the organic cherry tomato and it blew my mind. And right away the case of organic versus conventional turned me to the other side. So I’ve always, the taste of food. And number two, the idea of protecting and being an advocate for the environment—once you just delve a little bit into the science as well as just looking at what’s happening in nature, you begin to realize that organic agriculture is far better for the earth than the other forms, certainly large chemical agriculture.
Thirdly, there’s a social justice component to it that really excites me. And having traveled around the world and seen a lot of these dynamics play out, it just really became a tremendous force in my life. And there’s something very authentic about that story, and it’s also a David story. And so for me, it just became, like I said, this tremendous force in my life that takes me over because I love it so much.
TM: That’s so excellent to hear, and I know Sarah, your wife, feels the same way too. So for me, you truly are a social entrepreneur. And I think a great example of that is the kind of vision that you brought to Minneapolis with the Urban Organics, which is a St. Paul, Minnesota–based aquaponics farm. Can you tell us some more?
FH: Sure. This is a really exciting project that a few of us formed: Dave Haider, his wife Kristen, and Chris Ames, several years ago. We were actually inspired by a wonderful gentleman that probably a number of the listeners know, Will Allen out of Milwaukee, who I got to know and who just became my living role model.
TM: The king of urban organics!
FH: Yeah, well, he transformed a food desert in Milwaukee into a food oasis and just really a very, just brilliant man, very inspiring. But anyway, there was a building in east St. Paul, a number of buildings, actually, in this neighborhood, that could have been converted and should, we thought, should be converted, and primarily for agriculture. And we thought, well, heck, if we’re going to do that, let’s do it in a way that we could showcase the world how the future of, one aspect of the future of farming might look. And in this case, what we did is we transformed this building and developed an aquaponics facility within.
And with aquaponics, it’s a closed-loop system where you grow and raise fish. This is a very, very top-level description, but we raise the fish, and the fish create waste, and then the waste is filtered out. And in essence we convert the nitrites into nitrates, and that water flushes through underneath these plants that use this organic, fertile water to grow. And so in this case we’re growing USDA organic greens and sustainably grown tilapia using only 2 percent of the water versus traditional agriculture. And so it’s very exciting that we have this environmental orientation to this urban farm, while at the same time transforming this distressed real estate asset and helping to develop this area economically. So it’s all really, really exciting.
And now we’re launching what could be—at least I’ll say it until told otherwise—the largest aquaponics facility. This will be our second facility. We’ll be launching it in the first quarter of next year. And that will be, it just so happens, at the Schmidt Brewery site, the old Schmidt Brewery. The first one was at the Hamm’s Brewery. So we don’t always look for breweries, but in this case, follow the beer!
TM: If you’re just joining us, you are listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with a man who was called out as one of the two hundred Minnesotans you should know, Fred Haberman. And Fred is talking with us about his new hydroponic project.
You know, I’m so excited about this aquaculture with organic—I’m assuming it’s going to be organic tilapia. Is that it?
FH: Well, the fish—we don’t have a designation from the government yet for USDA, but we’re following strict guidelines, of course, from Europe, which more often than not is stricter than in the United States. But the greens are all USDA organic certified.
TM: Well, and forgive me because I’m not exactly well versed in the whole aquaponic/hydroponic. You feed the fish, and then they extract a fertilizer that then gets pumped into the vegetables. Is that how that works?
FH: That’s basically it, yes. They create waste, and the waste is filtered out, and the remaining water is rich with organic nutrients.
TM: And so it’s a kind of a beautiful closed system. But here is, I bet, our friends in the organic sphere are probably asking this: Isn’t certified organic about soil? How do the standards look like for this aquaponic, certified aquaponic vegetables and greens?
FH: That’s a fantastic question. And quite frankly, people are still working through this at the USDA. However, we were able, with this facility, to get USDA organic aquaponics facilities, aquaculture facilities. More and more, I think, research is going to be going into this, and the Organic Trade Association is working with the USDA to develop more evolved standards for the overall aquaponics and aquaculture programs. But at this point we were able to get it from a certifier, and we’re very excited about that.
TM: Well, I’m assuming then the fish get 100 percent organic feed then.
TM: And is it kind of like corn and soy? Or what kind of feed do they have?
FH: You know, it’s interesting you ask that. I know we were using different feeds. I’d have to, as of right now I’d have to go find out from Dave, my partner, to find exactly what we’re feeding, because I think we changed it. But I don’t, right off the bat, know exactly what we’re feeding them, but I know it’s an organic feed.
TM: So it’s definitely certified organic, which is so excellent. And then what kind of greens are you experimenting with now in your—
FH: Yeah, so we’re experimenting with a whole host of greens. We’re experimenting with… I mean, right now basil has been very, very good for us, but we still will do all kinds of leafy greens, you know. And we’ll do a whole herb program, but it’s almost always leafy greens. So it’s chard, kale, and basil, I would say, are our three biggest, and then we’ll play around with mint and cilantro.
TM: I bet it’s just so beautiful in there.
FH: Well, as of right, I mean just two months ago we had mostly basil in there, and the smell was just incredible—it was amazing. And of course, you know, in the middle of winter, in February, just pick any of these winter months in northern Minnesota, or actually the northern part of the United States, almost all of the leafy greens are imported from water-constrained areas like Mexico or Southern California, Arizona, and the like. And now you can get it within twenty-four hours without shipping the product more than ten miles to the grocery store. And so it tastes great, it’s fresher, and… But of course, it’s still a small percentage overall of what people are eating in the Twin Cities, but nonetheless, it’s pretty awesome from an environmental perspective.
TM: And it’s still very experimental, isn’t it?
FH: It is. You know, we’re basically taking a cottage industry and seeing if we can scale it. And I would say it is still fairly experimental. This is going to be a big part of the future. I think ten to twenty years from now you’re going to see hundreds of these around the world. The larger vision, for me, is to think about having a half-a-million-square-foot facility, let’s say Africa, where you have protein and nutrition right onsite with the fish and the plants. And what you need, really, is a well and obviously some infrastructure to get it started. But now, here you are, truly teaching somebody how to fish. You’re creating an independent system that can feed people for a very long period of time, and very localized versus all the shipping and dependencies that are created, quite frankly, with the way that we’re feeding the world right now.
TM: And you know, you mentioned that it uses so little water. Did you say 2 percent—
FH: Two percent.
TM: —of the water. And so why don’t you explain that a little bit?
FH: Well, it’s a closed-loop system. You can only imagine how much water is required versus, say, in a traditional farm setting. The one thing, though, that—and I will say it up front—that is the challenge with it is, quite frankly, energy, the cost of energy. That’s where technology is meeting agriculture, in the sense that the promise of LED lighting has not completely been fulfilled at this point, but people a heck of a lot smarter than yours truly, with a lot more money, hopefully will be figuring this out so that the energy costs and the energy inputs will come down.
And that’s why, for me, the next level of experimentation with this and development of this will include solar. So if we can figure out solar, for example, say, take Colorado, where they have solar energy powering a system that only uses 2 percent of the water to grow, say, half a million pounds of produce for a year and a few hundred thousand pounds of fish—now we’re really getting somewhere.
TM: Well, you know, I have been fascinated with the topic of urban agriculture, Fred, and I’m just… You know, like you mentioned Will Allen, who’s doing a tremendous project; there are projects in Madison and all over the United States, doing urban agriculture. What are your feelings about the future? How much do you think we could grow just right within the city if we put our minds to it?
FH: A ton! I mean, it’s not going to solve… It’s always a fairly long equation. But this is, I truly believe, one important variable in this quest to feed the world and to do it sustainably and, in our perspective, organically. If you look at, of course, all of the vacant lots, or all the tops of buildings, or distressed asset buildings, you begin to realize that there are just, there’s a lot of space out there where we could begin to grow food. And we know it’s happening with local, local, local. To me, it’s a far more sustainable and secure model for our food in the future.
TM: Yes, food security, having some food in cities, I think, might be very critical. You know, I’m so interested in the fish. I had a tilapia the other week that I got from the Co-op, but you know, I’ve never seen organic tilapia. And so you must be growing organic tilapia. Where are you selling it?
FH: We’re selling it at restaurants; we’re selling it at grocery stores. Arctic char is going to be the next fish that we’re going to be growing, or raising, at the next facility. You know, fish, there’s a tremendous demand for the fish, but of course we just don’t, we can’t produce as much fish as we can produce. The produce we can turn, boy, I’d say fourteen to sixteen times—we can do fourteen to sixteen different crops, so to speak. We can change it up, we can do a lot of things with it, and it grows very quickly and it’s beautiful. The fish are also amazing but they take a lot longer to grow. And so we just, you’re contained, so to speak, on the amounts that you can grow.
TM: So how long does it take to grow?
FH: Nine months for a tilapia.
TM: Oh, nine months!
FH: Yeah, whereas you can grow in twenty-eight days some huge bounty in the produce—
TM: In the produce world. Wow, I had no idea it was that long.
FH: That’s from fingerling. I mean, these are little, very teeny fish.
TM: So at any one point in time, in your first facility, how many tilapia do you think you have there, feeding your produce?
FH: I’d say several hundred will be, for that 9,000-square-foot floor, is what we had. And they’re all at different stages, so that we can keep that nice concentration of fertile water pumping through the system. So it’s very much a timing thing, so to speak, with the fish and the plants and monitoring how much of that fertile waste is in the water. And people a lot smarter than me are supporting all of that.
TM: That’s pretty exciting, to see how that happens. I’m looking at maybe three hundred fish a month that you’re selling out every month, but still it isn’t quite economically sustainable yet.
FH: Well, so we’re very close to being economically sustainable with Hamm’s, the smaller facility. The larger facility, because of the scale of it, which will be 100,000 square feet, roughly, we believe that that’s going to definitively prove the model. We feel like we’ve hit the scale that’s required, and we have the market, so to speak—people want this fresh product year-round. We’ve been talking to grocery stores and restaurants and some food service folks, and people are really excited. So we believe that after roughly a year of operation that we’re going to have some really positive economic news related to our business.
TM: That’s very exciting, Fred. Congratulations. Where did you say the second one was again? Is it in Minneapolis?
FH: You know, it’s about ten miles away in St. Paul from the Hamm’s facility.
TM: Well, that must be very exciting for the city of St. Paul. Fred, does Urban Organics have a website?
TM: Great, and are you going to be posting pictures on it so that we all can see them?
FH: Yeah, and there’s a Facebook page too.
TM: And Facebook page. And how about the Habes? ModernStorytellers.com?
FH: You got it: ModernStorytellers.com.
TM: It has been such a joy to get to know you and Sarah and the Habes. And I am so inspired by you. You have so much fun, you are so passionate about food and what you do. And the world so needs more social entrepreneurs. And so I just want to say thank you for all the great work you’re doing. And I’m almost afraid to ask this next question, but I have to: Got any other interesting ideas that you’re hatching up there, Fred, right now?
FH: Yeah, we’re launching a food brand, it’s mostly sauces, next quarter, or I should say in the beginning of next year. Basically the food or the sauces, all the ingredients will come from Urban Organics and other incredibly sustainable sources. So we’re really excited about that. But there’s nothing better than giving somebody food, good food. I just love it. And it’s also fun discovering new recipes, and just the food world is the best. And you know, we talk about the serious side of food, but then there’s that incredibly joyful side that’s outside the advocacy side that’s just, oh, thank you so… Just sitting down and enjoying it together, and community, and discovering new tastes. I love that.
TM: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. We’re speaking with Fred Haberman, and once again, you can learn more about the Habes at ModernStorytellers.com, and you can learn more about Urban Organics—and you’ll have to help me there, Fred. It’s—
FH: You got it, UrbanOrganics.com.
TM: Dot com. Okay, great! And maybe soon we’ll be able to see some new pictures of the new, once brewing beer and now brewing fish, I guess!
FH: That’s right.
TM: And vegetables.
FH: We should probably do some fish and kale chips and beer! Maybe that’s what we’ll do.TM: Sounds good! And I’m looking forward to keeping up with you, Fred, learning more about your next projects, your sauces, and all the great work that you’re doing. Thanks so much for being with us.
FH: You’re the best, Theresa. Thank you.
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