Oko Farms: Little (Fish) Farm in the Big City

by Robin Madel

Published: 12/02/16, Last updated: 5/24/19

Fish farming often gets a bad rap because of problems like overcrowded cage and pen conditions and water pollution in offshore pens. There are much better ways to farm fish, like land-based recirculating farms that often include the use of the fish waste to fertilize produce grown hydroponically (what’s known as ‘aquaponics‘). People might not be familiar with this type of fish farming (or produce farming either, for that matter), so we thought it would be a good time to introduce our readers to a few of the farmers that grow both fish and produce on their farms.

This week we’re talking with Oko Farms Co-Founder and Farm Manager Yemi Amu. Located in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Yemi co-founded the farm with Jonathan Boe, and it is now the largest outdoor aquaponics farm in New York City. At Oko Farms, they raise freshwater fish and a variety of vegetables and herbs on a formerly unused lot in the heart of Brooklyn. According to their website, by establishing the farm in New York City, “…we shrink our carbon footprint for fish consumption, reduce the ecosystem pollution and health concerns associated with commercial-scale aquaculture and produce a high-yield of organically grown vegetables in dense urban spaces.”

What’s the history of Oko Farms?

Oko Farms started in 2012. It began out of a desire to educate people living in urban areas about sustainable fisheries and to bring sustainable aquaculture into NYC’s urban farming conversation. We built the Moore Street farm in 2013.

What obstacles did you have to overcome when building the farm and how has the community responded to it?

Our first obstacle was access to affordable land. There is limited land available for farming in NYC. We spent an entire year looking for an adequate and affordable piece of land until we were introduced to Joan Bartolomeo, who formerly managed the Moore Street Market. She was looking for urban farmers who would be interested in converting a vacant lot two doors down from the market into a productive space. Unfortunately, the lot, located next to a liquor store, was known for attracting drunks and drug-related activities.

She [Bartolomeo] worked closely with us and GreenThumb (part of the New York City Parks Department) to acquire the lot. It was transferred from the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, the original owner, to the Parks Department, who now leases the lot to us.

Our second obstacle was raising funds to develop the site based on our original design. Eventually, we decided on a simple, low-cost design that we were able to build with volunteer support, donated lumber and other supplies. The Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation raised $700 on our behalf and we received a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation. Both Jonathan and I had full-time jobs while we were building, which was quite a struggle.

The community was excited to have anything other than drug trafficking happening in front of the lot. We had several people from the community and surrounding areas help clean out the lot. There was an older gentleman who took pictures of the entire cleanup and build for us, and another gentlemen who is an electrician helped us with all of our electrical needs.

How big is the farm, and what do you grow? What kind of fish/seafood do you have? What do you feed to your fish?

The farm is 2,500 square feet. We raise edible fish (tilapia, catfish) and ornamental fish (koi and goldfish). We also cultivate a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Our fish eat a combination of commercial pellets and duckweed, which is cultivated on the farm.

Who buys food from Oko, and what do they buy? Where do you sell it?

We sell on site and to restaurants including Roberta’s Pizza and Breukelen Brasserie. We are also in discussion with other restaurants and the Bushwick Food Coop. The community purchases directly from us; however, most of our sales are to restaurants that are within a 10-block radius of the farm. We currently sell only the vegetables and herbs.

Our current site does not allow us to raise enough fish to sell to the public on a consistent basis. However, at the end of each season we harvest the fish and throw a party for the community. We find that most Americans are suspicious of farm-raised fish and are unfamiliar with aquaponics. The party gives people the opportunity to taste our fish and familiarize themselves with sustainably raised farmed fish.

Can you talk a little about the role aquaponics plays in local/sustainable food systems?

Aquaponics can play several roles in a sustainable food system:

  • It can reduce our dependence on ocean fish;
  • It creates an opportunity to develop a sustainable aquaculture industry that provides jobs in several areas including research, farming, fish mongering, fish veterinarians, etc.;
  • It allows for the production of both fish and vegetables using a method that is both water- and land-conservative;
  • It creates awareness about all of the factors that impact where our fish comes from;
  • It contributes to local fish production; and
  • It connects youth to local food production and inspires interest in both science and food production. We need a generation of young people who have awareness of where food comes from and how our food choices impact the health of the environment.

Overfishing is a significant problem. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has classified 85 percent of the world’s fish as exploited. This is problematic as the ocean and its inhabitants are crucial for human survival; together they help regulate the climate, absorb carbon dioxide and serve as a food sources for millions of people. I believe that, in addition to adequate regulations and traceability that help the consumer avoid purchasing fish that is illegally or unsustainably caught, sustainable aquaculture and aquaponics can also help us reduce our dependence on ocean fish so as to help repopulate the ocean.

What advice would you give to people interested in learning more about aquaponics, or even trying their hand at it?

Spend time visiting aquaponics facilities, volunteer there if you can or take a class.

Follow Oko Farms online:

Facebook: OkoFarms
Twitter: @okofarms
Tumblr: Oko Farms
Instagram: @citygrowersnyc

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