The best kale in town: 3 UMSL alumni combine expertise to produce some of St. Louis’ freshest greens

by | May 18, 2018

High school friends and UMSL alumni Tom Bortz, John-Paul Knobloch and Tim Hydar co-own Straw Hat Aquaponics.

Tim Hydar (pictured) and his business partners Tom Bortz and John-Paul Knobloch allot what time they can in the evenings and weekends to harvest the produce growing in their Straw Hat Aquaponics farm. All three UMSL alumni maintain their day jobs, challenging the friends to find innovative ways to streamline the production process. (Photos by August Jennewein)

It’s a brisk February evening in Ferguson, Missouri, and under dim fluorescent lighting, Tom Bortz is tending to his herd.

He tosses food into a 1,200-gallon fish tank, checks the airflow of the handcrafted container, harvests what produce he can and then heads out for the night. The rest of the Straw Hat Aquaponics operation relies on a mixed collection of koi, cichlids and oscars.

These fish, Bortz explains, are the engine of his aquaponic farm and the secret to growing what he proudly claims is “the best kale in St. Louis.”

John-Paul Knobloch (at left), Tom Bortz and Tim Hydar enjoy a “Flower Power” cocktail at Frazer’s Restaurant and Lounge in the Soulard neighborhood. The specialty beverage, created specifically to incorporate Straw Hat Aquaponics produce, consists of citrus champagne, pear, thyme and vanilla liqueur, and a buzz button flower. The yellow bud and stem may be small, but the flower packs an electrifying sensation when it touches the tongue.

For the past two years, Bortz, an alumnus of the biology and chemistry departments of the University of Missouri–St. Louis, as well as his high school friends and fellow UMSL alumni, Tim Hydar and John-Paul Knobloch, have been running Straw Hat Aquaponics about two miles north of campus.

Their system uses waste produced by fish to fertilize a wide range of soilless produce. These plants then naturally filter the water before it flows back to the tank where the cycle repeats itself.

Essentially, Bortz, Hydar (BSBA 2016) and Knobloch (MBA 2012, MAcc 2012, MPPA 2015) have created a pesticide-free ecosystem – first from the confines of a studio apartment and now from a commercial property tucked in historic downtown Ferguson.

From the exterior, the space is far from a standard picture of a blossoming ecosystem. All signs, including the red one outside, point to the basement’s former life as a cantina for El Palenque Mexican Restaurant. But the friends have transformed the 1,600-square-foot facility into a center where plants grow quickly and with a distinct flavor.

“The produce stays very tender, which is attributed to the roots always being in the water,” Bortz says while standing next to a three-level tower of vertically grown microgreens. “Normally, the plants are in the ground and the roots are spreading out trying to find water. These always have it.

Straw Hat Aquaponics grows all of its produce without soil, leaving the roots to gain moisture and nutrients directly from the water. While the system relies on the flow of water, it uses about 90 percent less water than conventional farming methods.

“Plants that grow in an aquaponic system are physiologically different as well. The cell walls aren’t going to be as thick because they don’t have to work so hard to retain water. As a result, the kale we end up with isn’t tough, it’s not bitter. You almost get a sweet flavor.”

In addition to their brag-worthy kale, the friends turned business partners also grow an expanding selection of greens with an impressively long shelf life – from lemon basil to their top-selling pea shoots.

Their produce is personally delivered to five restaurants in the St. Louis area and is sold seasonally at the Midtown Farmers Market in the Delmar Loop. Straw Hat also has a partnership with Eat Here St. Louis, a regional wholesaler, so the scope of the farm’s reach is difficult to quantify.

“We’ve found really good reception here in St. Louis,” Hydar says. “Luckily, it’s been great. All of the produce goes straight to the restaurants. The day we harvest it, it’s there. There’s no transportation or storage.”

Two years in, the co-owners are pleased with the success of the passion project so far.

The idea to start such a venture sprouted about four years ago over a beer at Ferguson Brewing Company, a restaurant along the same street where they would attempt their first home system and eventually expand their business model.

Straw Hat Aquaponics offers an expanding selection of greens, including a fan-favorite lemon basil. Its produce is available locally at Vin de Set, Oceano Bistro, Frazer’s Restaurant and Lounge, OmTurtle Yoga and Cafe, Panorama at the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Midtown Farmers Market.

True to form, Knobloch, a CPA, had been running the numbers of opening an aquaponic farm prior to pitching the idea over a pint. Bortz, a molecular biologist by day, had simultaneously but privately researched the science behind running a home system, so he was quick to agree. From there, it was only natural to add Hydar’s logistical expertise to the mix.

“It just kind of made sense to put together this three-headed monster,” Bortz says of the team. “We all have pieces of this that we are more responsible for than others, but that’s not to say that I only work with the fish and JP only looks at the financials. If we need help, we can help each other. We just do whatever we can to get it all done.”

With everyone in the group maintaining their day jobs, getting it all done isn’t easy, no matter how much they have streamlined the process over the years. This is where their friendship and passion for the rapidly growing method of aquaponics nurtures their budding business.

“We all wear every hat,” Hydar says. “We’ve each done any and everything you can imagine. We’ve painted walls. We’ve built things. We all plant. We all harvest. It’s true entrepreneurial spirit.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2018 issue of UMSL Magazine. Have a story idea for UMSL Magazine? Email

Sara Bell

Sara Bell

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