Urban Hydroponic Farm

By CHRIS HAVENS, Star Tribune

Jim Hannigan

Jim Hannigan

Jim Hannigan is a glass-half-full kind of guy.

He has to be if he wants to sell you juicy strawberries in January picked fresh from his St. Paul farm.

For one thing, he’s not a farmer. For another, winter isn’t exactly peak growing season in Minnesota.

Hannigan runs a produce distribution business on Rice Street and plans to build a hydroponic greenhouse on his property to grow fruits and veggies for local folks. An urban farm, he calls it, that would use alternative energy, employ St. Paul residents and provide tasty, homegrown produce.

“I can sell it — I can’t grow it,” Hannigan said. “But I’ll find somebody who can.”

He has been talking to a lot of people lately trying to make his urban farm idea a reality. The St. Paul City Council recently gave its support to the project, which is awaiting final approval from the federal government of $500,000 in stimulus plan money.

Lettuce as economic stimulus?

The 2-acre greenhouse meets the stimulus plan guidelines because it would focus on energy efficiency and preserve and create jobs, said Dave Gontarek, a city planner who has been helping Hannigan.

Plans call for renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and reusing water. Composting would take care of waste and aid in creating energy.

Among the most important things in Hannigan’s mind is that the greenhouse would cut fuel costs from having to transport produce from thousands of miles away.

“Everyone has a different definition of local or homegrown but whatever it is, it’s close,” he said. He would be able to grow, process, pack and ship produce all from one location.

Hannigan’s firm, J&J Distributing, currently employs 100 full-time employees and 140 part-timers; nearly 70 percent of his workers live in the neighborhood.

Building the greenhouse would create about 40 construction jobs, and operating it would add 50 jobs to the J&J payroll.

Hydroponics — growing crops in liquid nutrients without soil — is a growing method used in hot and cold climates. It doesn’t require as much water as conventional farming methods and can be done indoors with grow lights. High-demand food — such as tomatoes, lettuce and berries — are often grown hydroponically.

Using consultants from hydroponic hot spots Canada and the Netherlands, Hannigan is still working out which crops he will grow first. Everybody loves a good tomato, he said, but berries would be a prized crop.

“It’s a good investment,” Gontarek said.

But, as critics, point out, it’s an expensive one.

Hannigan estimates that it will cost between $2 million and $3 million to get up and running. He’s still deciding whether it would be a for-profit or nonprofit venture. Financing and plans need to be finalized by fall, and then the whole thing needs to be built by the end of 2011 under the stimulus money guidelines.

“I guess the pressure’s on,” Hannigan said.

Chris Havens 612-673-4148