Ever think about urban ‘aquaponics’?

HUNTS POINT — Christopher Toole sees the future of urban farming at the bottom of a 50-gallon garbage bin in the South Bronx, where a pale foot-long fish does lazy loops in dark water.

The fish is one of dozens of tilapia Toole keeps in trash and recycling containers, “aquaponic” tanks and traditional glass tanks in Hunts Point, where he is conducting an ambitious experiment. His plan is to create a network of homes, restaurants and cooperative farms where millions of people in the metropolitan area will raise and eat what he calls Bronx Best Blue Tilapia.

Toole knows it sounds a little quixotic, but he is undeterred. A disillusioned ex-banker and scientist’s son, he now sees himself as a “Johnny Appleseed of fish.”

“I’ve been part of the parasite economy for so long, so it would be nice to be part of the productive economy,” he said.

Toole ditched his job and six-figure salary at Sovereign Bank in 2010 to immerse himself in the principles of urban agriculture and aquaponics — the growing of fish and plants together in recirculating water systems. He stopped shaving. He and his girlfriend, Anya Pozdeeva, a former financial planner, developed a business plan, including a $2-a-year “buyers club.”

Last spring, they went online and ordered 500 tiny tilapia “fry” that would seed the project.  They chose tilapia because it is relatively easy to grow and breed and has a high protein content — the same reason the fish, native to Africa, has become popular for farming around the world.

Toole and Pozdeeva started by installing breeding tanks in their 14th floor apartment in Riverdale, but had to break them down when neighbors in their co-op complained they were running a fish farm. They started a non-profit called the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education, and found space at The Point, a community development organization housed in a converted parking garage near the Bronx River and the Hunts Point Terminal Market.

In a back room at The Point, Toole and Pozdeeva arranged a dozen tanks. One aquaponic setup uses fish waste to grow mint and basil. Two days a week, they teach local children, most of them from poor local families, how to grow their own food.

“On one hand, it’s just fish. But on the other hand, it’s changing the world,” Pozdeeva said. She grinned slyly. “This is the new world order we’re trying to push.”

Toole and Pozdeeva met while working at Sovereign Bank. Now they take their inspiration from Will Allen, a renowned urban farmer, and Sweetwater Organics, an urban farm, both in Milwaukee; and Martin Schreibman, a Brooklyn College scientist who pioneered the farming of tilapia in urban settings.

For now, Toole and Pozdeeva are living off their dwindling savings. But their goal is to have a thriving, sustainable operation that will supply individuals, restaurants, community gardens and other green-minded businesses. To describe their urban utopia, they’ve invented a word, “permaponics,” which combines aquaponics with design techniques aimed at creating self-sustaining farms that do not rely on outside infrastructure.

Toole admits that’s a long way off. “But we’re getting started,” he said.

Meanwhile, Toole tends to his stock in Hunts Point. Most of the original order of 500 fry have been eaten or sold or given away, but many remain in the tanks in the back of The Point building, where children help Toole change and clean water. At least once a semester, some are plucked out for a fish fry with students and staff.

“Give a person some fish, and you start a self-perpetuating cycle of education and growth,” Toole said. “This is urban survival. And we’re waking people up to it.”


Neat Article about Local Farmer Charles Wilson!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Farm school grads give agriculture a SPIN

By Arlene Kroeker – Richmond Review

Published: May 19, 2011 10:00 AM
Updated: May 19, 2011 10:30 AM

Meet Charles Wilson. He graduated from farm school in December, 2010. What is he doing now? Farming in Richmond.

Which might seem impossible for a new farmer, given the cost of land. However, Richmond, recognized as a leader in farmland protection and urban farming research, is making it possible for new farmers like Charles to grow food.

The City of Richmond and Kwantlen Polytechnic University joined together with the Richmond Food Security Society and the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project and started the Richmond Farm School. The first class began in 2009, a one-year, non-degree program that trains students in a small-scale sustainable agriculture.

Charles lives in central Richmond, his house backs on to a park, his backyard a quilt with patches of garden beds. He has a business partner, a fellow grad Anna Rollings, and together they farm under the name of Natural Urban Growers. Together they farm half an acre of leased land in South Richmond, land owned by the City of Richmond.

When Charles retired from the workforce a few years ago, he had no idea what he wanted to do next. Farming wasn’t even an idea until 2008 when he read an article in the Vancouver Sun about the impending farm school. Then he realized that his first ambition at the age of seven, when he visited a farm, was to be a farmer. During his teen years, he had a garden, but that ended when his family moved to the city. He took up cooking, attended farmers markets, but he’d never heard of urban farming.

Acreage. That’s what Charles thought farmers needed. He found out that’s not true. The Farm School, with eight students the first year, was a comprehensive study of farming that took place half the time in the class and half in the field at Terra Nova or the orchard on Dyke Road in South Richmond.

Charles and his fellow students studied fruit crop management, including grafting, with Kent Mullinix (who is also the director of the Farm School). They studied all the steps in the food chain: soil management, plant science, animal husbandry (goats and birds), farm infrastructure, farm management (with Arzeena Hamir), beekeeping (with Brian Campbell), how to drive a tractor (a Kubota dealership donates a tractor for use during the season), sales and marketing (with Chris Bodner).

They learned how to do intensive farming on small plots—SPIN, which stands for Small Plot INtensive. And at the end of it all, Charles realized that there were many options open to farmers, and he and Anna decided to SPIN farm. For first generation farmers, SPIN farming removes two barriers—land and capital.

Using both the half acre and 800 square feet of Charles’ back yard, the new farmers operate a Community Supported Agriculture program. They sold shares to family and friends, giving them operational funds and time to plan for the season. Shareholders will receive a weekly box of produce throughout the growing season. Charles and Anna also sell at the Steveston farmers market.

These professional food gardeners grow tomatoes (not necessarily heirloom), gai lan, bok choy, beets, kale, cabbage, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, lettuce, herbs, grapes, as well as flowers – hollyhock, zinnias, columbine, sunflowers. They practice organic gardening.

Since their partnership began, just before graduation, Charles and Anna spent the winter doing soils tests and mulching (when weather permitted). They planned the layout, calculated the amount of seed required, marketed the program, started in the greenhouse in March (to deliver first order in mid-June), set up their own bee hive, and tended to all the administrative and practical aspects of owning a business.

For Charles, the father of three grown children, it is a luxury to be able to do what he wants to do at this time of his life. With farming, there’s always a new way of doing things—it’s ongoing learning. Before the class began, Charles had no idea about SPIN, or that farming could be accomplished at what seems like a small scale. And now, he’s growing potatoes in leaves and burlap sacks to jump start the process. It’s all about improvisation and problem solving, but for Charles finding solutions is highly fulfilling. Feeding friends and family has some satisfaction as well.

Arlene Kroeker writes about food every Thursday in The Richmond Review. She may be reached at akroeker@aol.com. 

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Amazing Online Video About ‘Waste’

This video is truly amazing and so funny! It’s great for the classroom or the boardroom!

worm bin project

I recently had the opportunity to watch a hilarious video on reducing waste. A local couple decided to compete against each other to see who could buy less and put less into the waste bins. It has been a few years, but the issue of waste is probably even more relevant now.

The Clean Bin Project – Trailer from Grant Baldwin Videography on Vimeo.

This inspired me to challenge some of my friends to a little competition: to just do one thing to reduce the waste in our bins.

I decided to start a worm composting bin, which turns out to be a little harder than I thought. Knowing a little about worm composting — for example that not any old worms can tolerate the heat of a composting bin — my first task was to find suppliers of the proper worms. I thought that living on the “left coast” as I do now, it should be super-easy to find suppliers of said worms. Not so.

A quick google search led me to city farmer’s list and I started phoning. I was a little surprised that nine calls later, I finally found a local guy who has some and I can pick them up tomorrow.

I have a certain bias towards local entrepreneurs and prefer the face-to-face transaction. For people interested in ordering from online suppliers, all sorts of companies are on the web and will ship (weather permitting, of course). Prices range from $35/lb to $45 /lb plus shipping and handling.

Anyway, I will keep you posted on my worm bin project and challenge you to find one thing you can do to reduce, reuse or recycle what would otherwise go into your waste bin too!

For more information on worm composting, go to city farmer.

Disappointing UN Declaration on chronic disease prevention

Disappointing UN Declaration on chronic disease prevention.

Zucchini Ribbons Sautéed with Thyme and Garlic

This past Saturday, I was very excited to discover the Earthwise Society demonstration farm and garden in Delta, near the shores of Boundary Bay. A Meetup group of environmental volunteers to which I belong had offered our services to the Society to harvest squash, among other things.

I came home with freshly picked corn, some heirloom tomatoes, some zucchini and some garlic.

This is one of the dishes I decided to enjoy with the produce. I found the recipe in the most recent issue of BC Liquor Stores’ Taste magazine, and only slightly modified it to reduce the fat and salt.

Zucchini Ribbon Sautéed with Thyme and Garlic

Serves 2-4

1 medium or 2 small yellow zucchini, cut into match sticks

1 medium or 2 small green zucchini, cut into match sticks

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 Tbsp butter

2 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place cut zucchini on clean towel to absorb excess moisture. Heat a large frying pan with oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add to pan thyme, garlic, zucchini and sautée, stirring often, 4 to 5 minutes until zucchini softens. Season with salt and pepper just before serving.


Book review: “The Zero-Mile Diet”

The Zero-Mile Diet: a year-round guide to growing organic food

As soon as I heard of this book, I wanted to read it. I have finally been able to get my hands on it through my local library and read it right through in one evening.

This year-round guide to growing organic food, by Carolyn Herriot, is a sensible and inspiring guide to ways anyone can grow and preserve their own food. Herriot is passionate about food security, self-sufficiency and growing high-quality and safe food.

This book is full of interesting information, as well a great how-to manual. Although geared to the growing climates of the lower mainland area of British Columbia, many of the hints and techniques could be easily adapted to the many other growing regions of Canada.

I highly recommend this book: “The Zero-Mile Diet: a year-round guide to growing organic food,” Carolyn Herriot. ISNB 987-1-55017-481-6

All about heart-healthy eating

In its first-ever single-topic special issue, the Harvard Heart Letter focuses on nutrition. This issue offers advice aimed at unscrambling the mixed messages about what constitutes healthy eating.

via All about heart-healthy eating.

Canada’s food labels leave too much to the imagination

Canada’s food labels leave too much to the imagination.

Canada battling proposal to reduce fats, sugar, salt: Journal

Canada battling proposal to reduce fats, sugar, salt: Journal.