In the heart of Brooklyn sits a small aquaponics farm on what was once a vacant dirt lot nestled between a pizzeria and a tax-prep service. If folks were to peek in (and Yemi Amu sure hopes they do), they would discover a bounty of cabbage, eggplant, collards, and other veggies growing in pools of recycled fish waste.
Amu founded Oko Farms, New York City’s first (and only) public outdoor aquaponics farm, in 2013. Beyond providing fresh produce to the community, Oko Farms teaches people how to create their own soilless farms and offers workshops on topics like food production and security.
Aquaponics is an ancient agricultural method that doesn’t require soil. Amu raises koi, goldfish, and catfish in a 1,200-gallon tank. Nutrient-rich water fertilized by all those fish is pumped into another tank containing floating garden beds, irrigating and fertilizing them. The plants in turn purify the water, which is pumped back into the fish tank, and the cycle begins anew. Because her plot in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood lacks a reliable source of water, Amu refills the tanks just a couple times each year, letting rainfall replace what’s lost to evaporation.
That closed loop makes aquaponics a great option for sites with limited water or arable land, and for locations with contaminated soil. Although often associated with urban agronomy (and no small amount of tech and cash to get started), soilless farming has been used for thousands of years to grow crops like rice alongside aquatic animals like crayfish and is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.
Amu prioritizes produce that nearby immigrant communities might have cultural associations with because it’s more likely to help folks make healthy choices. “If the eggplant or leafy greens you grew up eating are available, then you’re going to eat more vegetables,” she says. She sells the harvest at the farm, the local farmers market, and through food-subscription companies. Oko Farms also donates produce and catfish to anyone who needs it, and supplies Nigerian vegetables — including lemongrass, efirin, and garden egg — to local West African soup company Egunsi Foods.
Amu’s interest in equitable food access started after she moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to New York City in 1996 for college, where she was surprised to learn that many low-income communities lack fresh food. Her experience with an eating disorder taught Amu about the impact food can have on physical and mental well-being — lessons she hoped to share while earning a degree in culinary education and working at a supportive housing facility. She soon realized that helping others adopt healthy eating habits wasn’t enough if they couldn’t afford or access the foods she recommended. “You can have the knowledge, but if you don’t have the tools, then there’s only so much you can do,” she says. That prompted her to start a rooftop farm so residents could raise fresh produce.
Eventually, she launched Oko Farms because the combination of raising fish and conserving water fascinated her. Her operation is growing: A second farm is slated to open in Williamsburg later this month. Amu is also growing Oko’s farm-to-communities program that helps people build their own aquaponics systems, and she’s currently collaborating with a developer to cultivate food on the first floor of a mixed-housing building in the next year or two.
Fix chatted with Amu about aquaponics, challenges to its widespread adoption, and what she hopes visitors take away from their experiences at the farm. Her remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Is aquaponics farming a sustainable solution for food production? How so?
A. If you live in an urban environment with limited space for food production, aquaponics makes sense for you. If you only have indoor space, it also makes sense because soil does not necessarily lend itself to the indoors the way soilless production can.
I don’t feel like aquaponics is the only way, but I think that we have to adopt practices that are not [only] sustainable [but] resourceful. I try to think about it that way: What are the ways that we’re feeding ourselves? Are we using water efficiently? Are we using land efficiently? Are we using space efficiently?
Aquaponics encourages us to have these conversations. Water is a conversation we often don’t have when we talk about soil, but aquaponics has water use front and center. You’re recycling water and you’re reducing runoff, because it’s contained within a closed loop. We use about 70 to 80 percent less water than traditional [farming]. We certainly use 80 percent less water than typical fish-farming operations.
It also lends itself better to small-scale farming than industrial farming.
Q. Why hasn’t aquaponics been more widely adopted?
A. So much of aquaponics is wrapped in technology. I don’t really see that kind of [tech-forward] aquaponics as part of our future because it’s just not accessible, mostly because of the startup costs. All the materials — the grow bed, the lighting, the machines, the control stuff — and the tech required is too expensive for the average person.
But there are people doing aquaponics all over the world [without] using any of that techie stuff to feed themselves and their families. Aquaponics is a very Indigenous way of growing food. That’s what rice cultivation has been for most of the world for hundreds of years — growing directly in paddies with water and crawfish, or some other types of fish. From the beginning of time, agriculture has always [used] animal waste as fertilizer, whether it’s worms, cows, chickens, or fish.
In the U.S., we think of aquaponics as something that’s very technology-centric and expensive. I can’t speak to why that is. I just know that when I look at what other people are doing around the world, the tech and the startup cost is not as expensive.
Q. How do you decide which vegetables to grow?
A. I try to expand people’s palates. I grow things that I know the average American [may] not [be] interested in, but I know that if a Bengali walks by, it’s going to stop their heart. I think it’s nice for folks to see themselves represented in spaces they don’t necessarily expect to. There’s so much to learn and share. By growing something that I think is Nigerian and that I grew up eating, I find that it’s something that somebody in Pakistan grew up eating and something someone in the Middle East grew up eating too, but they call it something different and cook it differently.
If someone says, “Can you grow this particular thing? I cannot find it anywhere,” I will also grow that.
I do a lot of research before I decide what to grow. I grow things that I think are going to blow people away, because I want to show off — that’s why we grow rice! [And] of course I want to grow stuff people use every day in cooking or [things] that [provide] an opportunity to teach them.
Q. What advice do you have for someone trying to set up a system at home?
A. The first thing I would say is aquaponics is farming. Sometimes people forget the same rules apply. The other thing is to really study the kind of fish that you’re raising and understand what those fish need to thrive.
If you’re [growing] vegetables, make sure that you’re raising freshwater fish, because vegetables and herbs won’t grow in salt water. If you’re in New York City, then you also want to be raising fish that are adapted to that climate.
People kill fish a lot, and I think it’s insane. It’s because folks don’t really take the time to understand the fish that they’re raising and what factors are important for that fish to thrive. If you’re trying to set up your own system at home, our resources page has tons of info for you.
Q. What is the role of your farm in the surrounding community?
A. I think of the farm in the same way I think of any urban farm: It’s a green space. It’s healthy for any community that it exists in. What we’re doing is creating awareness of what food production looks like and who is growing your food.
People come off the street and they’re like, “What’s that? Can I touch it? How do I cook it?” We don’t have any connection to where food comes from in the city. I talk to kids all the time who think food comes from the internet!
We do workshops when we grow rice. Then we cook rice together and people are always shocked at the work involved to do that. There’s so much about our food that we take for granted. I think our primary role is just having people who live in the city understand where their food comes from and what it takes to bring that food to the table.