Evan Nicole Brown
In the midst of Bushwick’s bodegas and diagonal train tracks lies an oasis known as Oko Farms. This urban farm, previously a vacant lot at the intersection of Moore and Humboldt Streets, is named for the Yoruba (Nigerian) deity of agriculture called Orisa Oko. Yemi Amu, one of Oko Farms’ two founders, was born and raised in Nigeria until she moved to New York City at 16-years-old. Now, years later, she is managing this Bushwick-based farm and directing all of its programs. Oko Farms’ revolutionary aquaponics system, the largest and only outdoor one in New York City, is what she and her team specialize in.
According to Amu, aquaponics is a symbiotic ecosystem that combines soilless plant cultivation (hydroponics) with aquaculture. At Oko Farms, “waste water from the fish tank is pumped through several plant grow beds to provide nutrient rich fertilizer to our plants,” she says. “In return, the plants filter the waste from the water, so that clean water is returned to the fish.” This process of recycling nutrients allows Amu and her team to raise freshwater fish and various vegetables while also saving water in a sustainable fashion.
Since Oko Farms is entirely outdoors, they are not currently cultivating sunshine-dependent plants like tomatoes, rice, beans, leafy greens, herbs, and flowers during the winter months. But the fish they raise—channel catfish, freshwater prawns, bluegill, goldfish, and koi—are adapted to New York’s climate and can swim freely as temperatures freeze.
In a delightful twist of fate, Amu and her co-founder Jonathan Boe discovered the lot Oko Farms operates on when they needed it most.
“We came across the land for our farm through the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation in 2013,” Amu says. “At the time, we were looking for a space to demonstrate Aquaponics Farming to the public and were lucky to have met Joan Bartolomeo at the BEDC, who worked with GreenThumb to get us access to the land.” Bartolomeo was looking for farmers who could repurpose the lot into a more useful community space, so the interest Amu and Boe had in growing food using aquaponics made for a truly kindred partnership—one that extends to the greater Bushwick community as well.
“Bushwick is an ethnically diverse neighborhood with people who have memories of growing their own food and eating fresh from the land. We often have visitors from the community that tell stories about raising their own fish and growing their own food before moving to U.S,” Amu says. “This gives us a supportive community to continue to grow food and teach NYC residents sustainable methods for food production.”
Neighborhoods like Bushwick are often referred to as “food deserts,” a shorthand for areas with a lack of food options, but Amu rejects this phrase, noting: “there is a plethora of food in Bushwick.” What there is not a plethora of, however, is food that is highly nutritious or fresh. “The only true way to create access to nutritious and affordable food is to push for policy that provides both funding and access to land for urban farming.” And even that alone is not enough. Since communities of color are disproportionately affected by limited opportunities to eat quality foods, funding and land access needs to be granted equitably to black and brown farmers by local government.
Amu’s interest in farming came from her exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, a food standard she has brought to the Bushwick neighborhood. “Every roadside has someone selling fruits, vegetables, and nuts, [and] all of our meat and fish is fresh and consumed from nose to tail,” she says. The omnipresence of processed food in America was a culture shock to Amu, so she began to use farming as a tool to create access to the fresh food culture she grew up with. This goal has extended into education; Oko Farms has hosted several Bushwick schools over the past five years, and leads an Aqua Farming Program where students learn about the aquaponics ecosystem, and harvest and eat crops from the miniature gardens they build.
This spring, in partnership with AgtechX, Oko Farms is hosting workshops between February and May on everything from aquaponics, to plant distillation, to rice hulling. “I initially started growing food so that I could bring fresh food to people with limited access,” Amu says. “Today, I use our farm to educate people about how food is grown…and to share the joy of interacting with nature.”
All images courtesy of Oko Farms.