Clean and Green
Fresh food from a basement? Urban Greens is an unconventional, city-based farm.
ANDREW RESCORLA (M.S. ’12) doesn’t look like most people’s image of a farmer. There’s no farmer tan, no dirt under his fingernails, no mud on his boots—er, shoes. But then again Rescorla’s farm, Urban Greens, doesn’t look much like a typical farm, either.
Located in the concrete basement of a strip mall in the Minneapolis suburb of Columbia Heights, Urban Greens is a hydroponic farm. Inside the space, windows are covered to block out light, and the room is filled with the murmuring of running water and the thrum of blowing fans. An eerie pinkish light illuminates several 6-by-8-by-8-foot-tall racks in the center of the space, each outfitted with shelves filled with thriving plants growing in long, gutter-like trays of nutrient-enriched water. There’s lettuce, kale, chard, arugula, sorrel, parsley, thyme, and basil plants with leaves as big as a man’s hand.
When Rescorla tells people he’s an urban farmer, he says some are confused, many others intrigued. “People are more and more curious about where their food comes from,” says Rescorla, “so they are interested in hearing how we grow greens in Minnesota year round.”
RESCORLA STARTED THIS urban farm-to-table business two and a half years ago with his childhood friend, Joel Love, with little more than a wish and some trial-and-error knowledge. Today they provide direct-delivery boxes of fresh herbs and greens on a weekly or biweekly schedule to between 75 and 100 households in northeast Minneapolis, Columbia Heights, and St. Anthony.
Neither Rescorla nor Love knew much about farming when their venture began. The two friends grew up in Indiana and studied engineering at Calvin College in Michigan. After college, Love took a job in the energy industry and Rescorla moved to Minnesota to earn his master’s degree in environmental engineering at the U before taking a job working on clean drinking water systems.
The idea of developing an urban farm—a nontraditional spot for growing produce and vegetables within a city—first took root in around 2013, he says, and continued to grow while he was working on clean drinking water projects in Ecuador and West Africa.
Initially, he was intrigued by a variant of hydroponic farming, something called aquaponic farming. With aquaponic farming, plants are still grown in a hydroponic setup, but freshwater fish are added to the closed-loop system as a second crop. Waste from the fish produce nitrogen and other nutrients that growing plants need.
“When I heard about aquaponics,” Rescorla says, “I was really intrigued and inspired by the idea of fish and plants living symbiotically."
Enlisting Love’s help, the two set up a test project in Love’s attic in Pennsylvania. It was a modest table-top affair consisting of four pet store goldfish and three heads of lettuce. Rescorla says it’s almost embarrassing now to look back on that science-fair-style experiment, but it actually gave them momentum to move forward.
After their initial aquaponics experiment, Love and Rescorla conducted a slightly larger test run in the basement of Rescorla’s house in Minneapolis using a hydroponic system alone. (Rescorla explains that aquaponic operators must keep both fish and plants happy, which the duo found a difficult balancing act both technically and economically.) Based on their second experiment, the pair decided to give up on raising fish but to move forward with hydroponics. In 2017 Rescorla convinced Love to quit his job and move his family to Minnesota.
Neil O. Anderson, (M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’89) a professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, says the U has conducted several grant-funded research projects involving aquaponics and hosted three educational symposiums on the subject. Although the idea is enticing from a sustainability perspective, the economics of aquaponics is tough, especially in a northern climate, Anderson says. Unlike plants, fish grow slowly and the cost of raising them, at least on a larger scale, cannot be made up in the market where they have to compete with cheaper imports.
“The economics are all just in favor of the plants,” Anderson acknowledges.
Hydroponic farming also offers other economic benefits. Unlike traditional soil-based farming, it requires less space, less water, and is not dependent on the weather. At Urban Greens, each rack holds 400 to 500 plants in a footprint hardly bigger than a big backyard garden. “That’s a pretty good use of space compared to farming in dirt,” Rescorla notes. “The yield per square foot is much higher.”
Plants grow more quickly, too. Conventionally grown lettuce takes eight to 10 weeks to mature. Urban Greens lettuce is ready in just six weeks and is delivered to customers’ doors hours after being picked. “The greens you get from us are very fresh,” Rescorla says. “They can keep up to three weeks in the fridge. The taste of ours is good, but ultimately, it’s about freshness.”
Home delivery also makes economic sense, he says. Profit margins in farming are as slim as a new reed, so cutting out the middle man by selling directly to customers makes Urban Greens’ business model more economically viable. It also makes it possible for the company to give back to its community by providing fresh, healthy food.
“Part of our vision from the beginning was to enrich the local community, to be part of the community,” Rescorla says.