Yemi Amu believes that fish poop can change the world — or at the very least change an abandoned Bushwick lot into a thriving farm.
She and her partner Jonathan Boe have spent the past year setting up small aquaponic gardens — closed systems that use fish feces and water to feed plants — and now they’re planning their masterwork: a fish poop-powered urban farm at the Moore Street Market in Bushwick.
“It saves water and you don’t need a lot of space,” said Amu, who is constructing the urban oasis under the moniker Oko Farms. “You can do more than you could do with a soil-based garden and you get both fish and vegetables.”
An aquaponic system filters waste from freshwater fish — think tilapia, goldfish, or koi — using a bacteria that converts ammonia to nitrates: plants’ favorite food. “All you have to do is feed the fish high-quality food and it does the rest itself,” said Amu.
So far, Amu and Boe have set up five aquaponic systems around the city, including one at the Breukelen Coffee House on Franklin Avenue that is already producing basil, mustard greens, and mint. “They’re going to start serving sandwiches and use the vegetables,” Amu said.
They also installed a small aquaponic system inside the Moore Street Market several weeks ago and are waiting for the soil to have enough nitrates to plant vegetables. But the outdoor farm planned for the vacant lot next door to the market is far leap from any of their earlier projects.
“We want to use it to grow vegetables that will be used by the vendors in the market and also use it for community education and to teach kids about urban agriculture,” said market manager Joan Bartolomeo, who is also the president of the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation.
It was Bartolomeo’s idea to bring new life to the unused lot, which was the site of a vacant home until the city purchased the plot and demolished the building in the mid-aughts while officials flirted with the idea of tearing down the Moore Street Market and constructing housing.
When city planners changed their mind about closing the market, the lot became overgrown with weeds and strewn with liquor bottles. The proposal has earned the support of Community Board 1 and must still win approval from the city, but by next spring, Bartolomeo hopes it will be in bloom. “The lot is hemmed in by buildings and there’s not a lot of sunlight, so it seemed like something other than traditional planting methods would be best,” she said. “And since we don’t get southern exposure, we’re going to plant a lot of leafy greens.”
Amu and Boe plan to build a greenhouse to contain the fish farm, which they say can thrive even during a chilly Brooklyn winter. “If you dig the pond deep enough, the fish can go to the bottom where it’s warmer,” said Amu. “Or you use seasonal fish — once it’s cold, you harvest the tilapia and add a cold water fish like trout. Just like you grow winter crops when it’s cold, you grow winter fish.”