St. Paul hydroponics operation baffles city inspectors

Frederick Melo
St. Paul Pioneer Press/ AP
Vanessa Cannon at Minnesota Acre Farms, an urban agricultural venture housed in a shipping container behind a retail store on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – As an astronomer and physicist, John Cannon's work is literally out of this world. His expertise as the department chair at Macalester College in St. Paul is studying nearby low-mass galaxies.

Cannon's latest adventure off St. Paul's Snelling Avenue is, quite literally, more down to earth: backyard hydroponics.

With the intent of saving his home planet, or at least improving his corner of it, Cannon recently launched the urban agriculture venture Minnesota Acre Farms LLC with a full-time gardener and two administrators from the University of St. Thomas.

Their thesis: proving that a railroad car-sized growing container behind Wells Pianos, by Snelling and Palace avenues, can produce as many fresh vegetables as a two-acre farm, and do it year-round.

Their bottleneck? The city of St. Paul won't let Cannon and his colleagues put their nutrient mix to the test until they get the proper permits for whatever it is they've got — a shipping container? a storage facility? — which defies simple definition under the city's legislative code, the Pioneer Press reported.

"We didn't think there was going to be all this bureaucratic overhead," said Cannon, noting similar Freight Farms facilities are already in operation at a Second Harvest Heartland site in Minneapolis and an independent farm in Shoreview.

"Winter is coming, and that is when the machine can really flex its muscles," he said. "We haven't even plugged it in."

Despite his enthusiasm, even some fellow practitioners of urban agriculture think Minnesota Acre Farms might have launched a little prematurely.

Chris Glasoe is the proprietor of the Frisk Fra Boksen — "fresh from the box" — a hydroponics venture in Shoreview. Glasoe said it took his operation three appearances before that city's Planning Commission and two before the City Council to get city codes changed and a permit issued.

The Shoreview process started in April 2019. They received final approval in late August of last year, and their container arrived in January.

Cannon and his colleagues received their vertical hydroponic installation from Boston-based Freight Farms in late August of this year, hoping to prove they could grow vegetables in a peat moss nutrient bath for local distribution. The goal, in part, is to avoid Big Agriculture's big carbon footprint and sometimes-questionable labor practices.

"The lettuce you buy at the grocery store is nutritionally depleted," Cannon said. "Our slogan is 'hyper-local greens for the Twin Cities.' We can distribute fresh greens within hours of harvest, even in the depths of winter."

City inspections officials say they're generally sympathetic to those goals, but Cannon's set-up looks a lot to them like a large outdoor storage container. And he doesn't have permits for a large outdoor storage container.

In September, the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections issued Minnesota Acre Farms notice of a city building code violation. The team later met with the city's legislative hearing officer, who upheld the violation.

"There's nothing in the legislative code about hydroponic farming, but there is language about storage containers," Cannon said. "We keep asking that the facility be evaluated based on what it does instead of on its outward facing appearance."

Cannon's colleague, Mitchell Karstens, appealed the city's decision to the St. Paul City Council, which had been scheduled to discuss the hydroponics venture on Oct. 21.

Supportive city residents who learned of the appeal through social media posts wrote to council members to highlight the importance of sustainable urban agriculture and locally-sourced food.

Instead of moving forward, the appeal was taken off the council's hearing agenda as the Department of Safety and Inspections works through how to reclassify the container.

Titled "Illegal Use," an Oct. 20 letter from city inspections indicates Minnesota Acre Farms is now in violation of at least three aspects of state building codes, including lacking a copy of the manufacturer's installation instructions, which must be available on-site.

Just as importantly, you're supposed to apply for a building permit and then install an outdoor storage container, not the other way around.

"I have reviewed the materials you submitted and have determined that the shipping container currently violates a number of sections of the state building code," said St. Paul Building Official Steve Ubl, in a letter asking for more information. "Because the shipping container was placed in its current location without proper plans or required permits, the city has been working to fully understand its classification and your plans for proposed use."

The container, which is roughly 40 feet long, 8½ feet wide and 9 feet tall, takes up unused space bordering the alley behind Wells Pianos, discouraging passersby from pulling a U-turn there.

"(Cannon) noticed my big beautiful parking lot, and approached me, and I said 'sure, why not?' He seemed like a nice guy," said Kieran Wells, proprietor of Wells Pianos.

"They've offered to pay me rent, but I don't really want to take any rent until they get squared away," Wells said. "It's been there for months and it's not a problem. … It cuts down on some of the through-traffic."