FAQ to Urban Farming

Name:  Anya Pozdeeva

Occupation/Company: Farmer & Teacher, Vertically Integrated Farms Inc. & S.A.V.E. – Society for Aquaponic Values and Education

Neighborhood: Bronx, NY

Answers to questions from SELF Magazine

  1. Your husband had some knowledge of fish from his childhood, but how did you two learn about Aquaponics? – I love gardening, he loves fish and water. He was talking about growing fish in our apartment for years, but I was not very excited of the idea of being surrounded by a bunch of fish tanks. However, after some research he showed me some very logical, compact, good looking, re-circulating systems, based on balanced natural growing methods, namely Aquaponics.  Aquaponics is generally when we are growing herbs, vegetables and flowers using the fish water as plant food; and in turn, the plants clean the water for the fish. This is new technology applied to an ancient, natural method of growing food that is beyond organic, and right in your bedroom or backyard!  As soon as I learned about this sustainable gardening without soil that can be done inside or out, I was all for it.  Working on all our different projects together and combining our passions is great for our relationship, and family, as well. Kids love it.
  1. How did this idea come up, and how and where did you do your research? – Aquaponics, Permaculture (permanent agriculture/culture) and our urban blend of the two, which we call Permaponics, mimic nature. This close to nature approach, balanced approach, was and is very appealing to me, especially when it comes to taking care of live animals.  Our research was done using the internet, researching articles from all over the world and in various different languages, reading books from our ever growing library, talking to people, visiting places where things grow and observing nature. Aquaponics is very popular in Australia due to the scarcity of fresh water. In a balanced recirculating aquaponic systems water is lost only to evaporation, which is minimal. My husband is originally from Australia and was absolutely in awe of Backyard Aquaponics, Murray Hallam’s Practical Aquaponics, and various other Aussie Aquapons and Permaculturalists; graceful, simple, practical and realistic. In the last couple of years we’ve met many amazing people who grow and work with food. We’ve learned that everyone is inventing their own systems, and everyone is learning from each other. This community inspired us further, and we built our first system, a scaled down commercial style deep water technology, after purchasing plans from Friendly Aquaponics in Hawaii. It was very exciting.
  1. When people think of farming, they think of outdoors. Where did you get the idea that breeding fish was possible in an apartment? -The beauty of Aqaponics is that it can be either inside or out.  Fish prefer dim light, lots of air and some temperature stability. That’s easy to accommodate in our apartment.  Plants need water, air, growing medium, nutrients and light.  Position your grow bed near the window and/or install extra lights, and the remainder is a matter of style and plumbing. Both fish and plants need warmth year round.  We primarily grow Tilapia, which is originally an African tropical fish, and prefers the temperatures of 75-85F for excellent growth. We live in NYC, and in the winter indoors is the best place for growing fish, plants and mushrooms. In your apartment, you can grow food year round privately and securely. As a relaxing bonus you get to save all that travel time to the shops, and instead watch your fish, plants, mushrooms and other animals grow. We are lazy farmers!  J

Using your resources, whatever is available to you, and simply making it happen is the key to urban farming. There are many graceful and practical solutions, and there are more created every day. People who are inspired become very creative and this is a beauty of our time. We need to relearn how to live in harmony with nature, and it can start right in your own living room, bedroom, basement, balcony, shed, garage or any other space in or around your home. The fact is we all need clean food.  Certainly the oceans, seas, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and other wild waters of the world need some rest and recovery from people. Your own grown food is best, knowing your farmer is next.

  1. You two first started your project using trash can.  Is the process as simple as it sounds? – It is absolutely that simple.  The 3ft+ deep, food grade recycling bins with wheels, handles and a lid that we favor work great because they have the depth to create a dim place for the fish to hide near the bottom, and a small footprint for urban spaces.  A used trash can is never a good idea for growing fish.  A can is normally metal, which will rust, and no one wants metals in their food.  Used plastic trash bins are not good either as the plastic will have absorbed whatever it contained prior.  Used containers that were and are still food safe are often OK, and can be a great cost savings.   Food fish clearly prefer these bins to the standard aquarium fish tank because they’re closer to pond depth and the fish are more comfortable not being on display to predators through clear glass. Just don’t forget a good air bubbler. The fish effluent water can be pumped into a grow bed filled with expanded shale or clay balls like Hydroton, or even 3/4inch gravel, just not soil.  Plant your seedlings directly into the grow media and voila, you will have your Aquaponics system working wherever you are.
  1. What are some things to think about if one wants to start practicing Aquaponics in one’s own apartment? – Make sure the floors can support the weight of the system, because water is heavy.  Secondary water containment plans are always a good idea!
  1. What is the budget for starting an Aquaponics in one’s apartment?

The cost of food- grade bin or a 50 gallon fishtank + 50 gallon plastic bin for a growbed + grow media + air pump + water pump + tubing + fish + plants = all under $300. Add some additional light if your apartment is dark.  You could spend less if you source used equipment, or you could easily spend thousands for ready-made or custom installed designer systems.  We are happy to help provide the know-how and products for either style!  We teach through our non-profit, www.savefarms.org

  1. How long did it take for you to plan and build your Aquaponics farm?  The final assembly on all our systems can be measured in just a few hours.  We’ve spent months, years, and really our lifetimes researching, experimenting, observing and doing it again with another layer of learning and planning.  It takes months for a system to mature, balance well and run properly, so patience and perseverance are very important when you’re growing food.
  1. What are some basic tools someone can start with to make an Aquaponics farm?  Do you have any DIY tips for our readers?   The most important thing is observing and learning from those observations, then adjusting what you do accordingly.  The DIY tips read like a shopping list, so the best thing is to use the internet, talk to people and read books.  Books about permaculture, fish farming, urban gardening, mycelium, reusing materials, alternative energies and more are very helpful, but nothing teaches faster than doing it. Don’t give up, it gets easier.
  1. How can one practice Aquaponics in their home without running into any sanitary problems?- Fish are cold-blooded animals and typically do not carry the same bacteria, diseases or health risks as keeping warm-blooded animals, like e-coli and even allergy causing dander.  Therefore, properly managed, live fish are very safe to have and grow around people. Your dog, cat, or pet bird is a much bigger health hazard to keep near humans than a few tanks of fish. And dogs and cats usually have no food value, they just eat and produce by products that we don’t use (pop, fur etc.).  Fish have a much better conversion ratio of food to bodyweight than dogs, cats, birds, cows, pigs, goats or any warm blooded animal.  1.2 pounds of food grows 1 pound of Tilapia, in optimal conditions!  We humans can contaminate aquaponic system water with e-coli.  This water will then touch the vegetables, which you may eat raw.  So, make sure you wash your hands very well (don’t use soap, or wash it off extra carefully, soap kills the fish) before you touch your aquaponic sweet water.

10. How can this lifestyle benefit a person living in an urban environment? – You are more in touch with what you eat. You put so much love and care into growing those fish and plants; they will taste better than anything you have ever tasted. You’ll waste less food, it becomes too precious. Since you are what you eat, why not try pure love for dinner?  It is beyond organic, clean and grown without hurting our land with massive destructive agricultural practices. Gardening and growing animals is a great recreational activity, it makes people simply happy. Indoor plants filter air and make your environment beautiful and relaxing. In cities we are surrounded by too much concrete and there are too many sharp angles. I think we get very tired of it sometimes without even noticing it. We get hurt. Live plants, animals and mycelium heal us.

11. What was the largest obstacle that you encountered when you and your husband started practicing Aquaponics in your apartment? – The Coop Apartment where we live didn’t like the idea and have complained ever since we left banking. In the last two years, we never had a leak from a fish tank. Ironically, we did have a leak from a broken toilet, which was actually the fault of the coop management.

Maybe we should have kept our Aquaponic and Permaculture discoveries a secret, but we were too excited and eager to share our positive experiences with others whom we thought would benefit.  Teaching is part of our mission and usually our primary activity.

12. Do you consider your work to be art, activism, or science?  If you consider them to be all three, then which do you connect to the most?- Yes, certainly all three.  Now we put more emphasis on activism, justice and freedom for obvious reasons – We are in the midst of a worldwide food and ecological crisis. We are trying to teach people how easy it is to be sustainable and independent. This is what planet Earth needs now; this is what children need now. Helping to create a better future for our kids, creating jobs now, bringing beauty and peace to distressed areas are only a few topics by name. Everyone can relate to food, every person of every culture. We bring people together and grow food; it is a good purpose and a great motivator. We teach children of all ages and adults at THE POINT CDC in their After School Program, and for community through savefarms.org.  We work and teach at community gardens, public schools, NY Botanical Garden, SUNY (State University of New York) and even walking on the streets. We enjoy inspiring people to get closer to Earth.

13. What do you feel is the benefit of teaching Aquaponics to children, and how has it influenced your life’s work?- Children loves to play with water, they’re fascinated by fish, chickens and everything that moves and grows; just like they do. Children are fascinated with ever-changing Nature. They are not completely imbedded in the dogma of the mind. We like to keep this fascination always alive, bringing both children and adults closer to the mysteries of Life. I do not know what can be more important than this. Kids learn how to appreciate and respect food.  They learn to love and honor the animals who sacrifice their lives to feed us. This appreciation of life’s lessons is priceless and often difficult to find on the streets in the city.

14. Can the Aquaponics system be easily replicated, and if so, how do you think it will influence the way we consume fish?  Aquaponic and Aquaculture systems are basically very simple.  They are easy to replicable, and modify for specific circumstance. Knowing what your fish, chickens and the other animals we consume, eat; knowing where your fish has been, and that they have never been treated with hormones is increasingly important to every consumer. Our oceans and other waters are being polluted more and more with crude oil, radiation and all sorts of other human waste. Wild caught fish make a very scary lunch. Besides, it looks like there are just not too much fish left in the oceans anymore; we do need to give the oceans a rest. For this reason farmed fish becomes more attractive. Still, mass-produced farmed fish are often fed chicken and wild caught ocean fish, artificial additives and hormones. Growing your own fish, or at least knowing the farmer who does is the least worrying, and the best for everyone.

15. What other eco projects have you attempted in your own apartment and in your community, particularly projects involving plants and vegetation?- One of my biggest initiatives is about teaching people about the wild edible plants that grow as weeds. I was amazed about how plentiful and delicious they are, growing in public parks. We were able to confirm that the parks department typically does not spray herbicides or pesticides, as they found them to be an ineffective and unnecessary expense, so the plants are much healthier than those grown commercially in monocultures. Wild plants, grown without artificial fertilizers, have a higher nutritional value.  They are not over-bred and have an intense, rich taste.

Another ongoing ecological project is growing mushrooms on used coffee grounds and paper waste, which every city produces a lot of daily.  In NYC alone there is approximately 2000 tons of paper waste produced daily and only 50% of that is recycled. Gourmet mushrooms grow well in the same room as fish; they both don’t need much light, but they want warmth and air. This past winter at THE POINT we collected some used coffee grounds, from Bascom Catering at THE POINT Café, and successfully turned them into delicious Oyster mushrooms. This success was thanks to the good work of the second and third graders. It was very exciting, equally for kids and the chef who donated the used grounds (his trash) to the class. When we handed the chef back sumptuous bunches of Oyster mushrooms, he looked like he saw Jesus turning water into wine.  It’s not magic but, sometimes I feel this is what we do. We let nature turn garbage into expensive gourmet food, and teach others how to do the same.

16. Do you have any practical DIY tips for our readers?- Observe everything. Start paying attention to your environment. Start asking questions about your food- where is it from, how was it grown, by whom and where. Educate yourself.  There are a lot of people sharing information which may often not be available in official publications. (especially in China, lol)  If you learn something useful, teach others and you will find you learn more.

Learn about the uses of different plants, and mushrooms, that grow in your area –both for food and medicine. Imagine, your supermarket would be empty one day. Where would you get your food? The farmers market?  Your own garden?  The woods nearby?  Perhaps you’d better start planting a food forest, we began that a few years ago too!

In 1917 US Government suggested that every family should have 2 laying hens for each household member, as a reliable source of fresh organic eggs all year round. Chickens can live on table scraps, unused vegetables, bugs and their own egg shells. Consider having a chicken or 2 as a pet instead of a small dog. They’re fun and easy for kids to take care of too!

It’s easy to start.  Just grow fish.  Utilize the fish water for your plants. Instead of growing only flowers in your front and back porches, or on a terrace, grow food like herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, and other fruit and vegetables.

Plant fruit trees and berry bushes in nearby public parks and forests. Plant too many potatoes, and of different varieties too!  Add carrots and onions and there it is your groceries are growing. No one ever complained. Learn how to grow edible mushrooms under your bed or as part of an Aquaponic set-up.  It’s fun, easy and rewarding.

For more growing techniques and foraging information please visit www.vifarms.com

I hope this is not too much freedom to handle.

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About Anya Pozdeeva, vifarms

Vertically Integrated Urbarn Aquaponics, Permaponics, Permaculture and Sustainable Living, New York Style! www.vifarms.com
This entry was posted in Aquaculture, Aquaponics, Beyond Organic, Edible Invasive Weeds, Hydroponics, Mycilium, Organic Gardening, Permaculture, Permaponics, sustainable urban farming, The early days, Tilapia and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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