After the 2008 financial crash, Christopher Toole and Anya Pozdeeva, two former New York bankers disillusioned with the frantic pace perched among Manhattan skyscrapers, founded the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education (SAVE).
“We wanted two feet on the ground,” said Toole, 47, who had some experience with fish from childhood summers with his scientist father at Woods Hole in Massachusetts, a marine biology research center in the Cape Cod area.
Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system that combines tank fish breeding with hydroponics in a symbiotic environment.
Effluent water from a fish tank is used to fertilize vegetation; the by-products from fish waste is filtered out by the plants as nutrients, and the cleansed water is then recirculated.
A small aquaponics system allows people to grow healthy food in a small apartment with very simple equipment. “We built our system just from trash cans,” said Pozdeeva, who emigrated from Russia’s Siberian region 20 years ago.
“The Aztecs practiced a form of early aquaponics by raising fish alongside crops. They built artificial islands known as chinampas in swamps and shallow lakes and planted them with maize, squash and other plants. Canals navigated by canoe surrounded the islands and were used to raise fish. Waste from the fish fell to the bottom of the canals and was collected to fertilize plants.”
Each week Toole and Pozdeeva teach aquaponics to about 80 children at SAVE’s base at a community center in the south Bronx. Toole told a journalist with Agence France-Presse, that he breeds several fish in his trash can farms, but tilapia do best.
The tilapia feed on duck weed, a grainy green plant which Toole and Pozdeeva scoop up from ponds in the Bronx’s Van Cortland Park, then drop into their tanks. They require just five to 10 gallons of water and by nine months are big enough to eat.
“It’s illegal, but on the other hand it’s choking the pond, so you could argue we’re doing it as a favor,” Toole said.
Toole and Pozdeeva also sell tiny tilapia fingerlings to customers at $5 a head via their www.vifarms.com website, Facebook and other sites.
Toole is considering partnerships with chefs, other urban fish breeders, and consultancy work for newcomers, and Pozdeeva grows mushrooms on a simple piece of cardboard that thrive in the same warm and damp conditions that appeal to tilapia.
Toole is also involved in honey production. “Right now I have 10,000 bees in our living room,” he says. “So I’m not just sleeping with fish, but with bees.”
A group of about 20 families who call themselves “The Urban Farming Guys” are doing something similar in one of the worst inner-city ghettos in Kansas City.
They used materials from a scrap yard to create a deep water aquaponics system with 2,000 gallons of water, and grow a thousand fish in the space of a living room.