You can recycle, drive a small car, and try to eat organic food. But you can also go further and raise fish with an eco-sustainable technique and have a garden with natural fertilization in your own apartment in a city like New York.
Christopher Toole and Anya Pozdeeva, two former Big Apple bankers who founded the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education (SAVE), are on hand to help. ” We call it ‘beyond organic, ‘” said Pozdeeva, 39.
The Aquaponics is a sustainable food production technique that combines fish farming (aquaculture) with growing plants in water (hydroponics). It is a perfect, ecological miniature system that allows to produce healthy food in a small apartment with simple equipment, they explained.
“We built our system from garbage cans, ” said Pozdeeva, a slim woman who emigrated from the Siberian region of Russia 20 years ago and still speaks English with a slight accent. If raising fish in a New York apartment seems unlikely, Toole and Pozdeeva seem even more unlikely as urban ecological pioneers.
Until recently they were bankers working long hours among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, far away from the bleak Bronx where they currently live. But after the financial debacle of 2008 brought down the banking industry, Toole, a vice president at Sovereign Bank, discovered that he had a serious eye problem, which he said was caused by stress. Both he and Pozdeeva were very disenchanted with their careers. ” They know how to squeeze every last drop out of you and then throw you away ,” Pozdeeva said. ” We wanted to be down to earth, ” said Toole, 47, with a thick gray beard and a pigskin hat. Instead, they put their feet in the water.
Toole knew a little about fish from his childhood summers with his scientist father at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts (Northeast), a famous research center in marine biology in the Cape Cod area. Aquaponics, he estimated, would allow him to combine the sustainable food production with what it hopes is a sustainable business model. A risky idea? Yes. ” But understanding risks is something they teach you a lot in banking, ” he said.
Each week Toole and Pozdeeva teach the aquaponics technique to about 80 children at SAVE’s headquarters in a community center in the South Bronx, one of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the United States.
During a recent class, the couple had the young men do everything from cleaning fish tanks to planting mint, cabbage and other vegetables. The children, despite being more familiar with the concrete jungle of the Bronx, were quick to get involved. ” I’m afraid it will come and bite me ,” laughed a little girl as she put her hand on top of a barrel with large tilapia. ” Well, he’s afraid you’ll come down and bite him, ” Toole reasoned.
When two children put aside gardening to start a mud fight, Pozdeeva calmly intervened. ” The land is precious, ” he told them. The boys went back to gardening. Toole raises several types of fish in his garbage can farms, but tilapia are the best. They require 19 to 38 liters of water and in nine months they can be eaten. Plus, they can be totally vegetarian and seem to like duckweed, a green-grained plant that Toole and Pozdeeva pick from ponds in the Bronx’s Van Cortland Park. ” It’s illegal, but on the other hand those plants are suffocating the ponds, so you could argue that we are doing a favor ,” Toole said of his expeditions to collect these types of plants.
In addition to teaching, Toole and Pozdeeva sell small tilapia fingerlings for $5 a unit through their website www.vifarms.com, Facebook and other websites. It’s only been a year since they created SAVE, but Toole and Pozdeeva have a lot more fish to fry.
Toole plans partnerships with cooks, other urban fish farmers, and consulting jobs for newcomers. But after fleeing world banking, he doesn’t want to end up working for anyone, or “selling our soul”, as he puts it. That seems unlikely to happen.
Pozdeeva has found that mushrooms, raised on a simple piece of cardboard, thrive in the same warm, dark and humid conditions that are conducive to raising tilapia. And Toole is very excited about diversifying into honey production. ” Right now I have 10,000 bees in our living room, ” he said. ” So I am not only sleeping with fish, but also with bees .”
In fact, the only thing that could stand in the way of the green revolution, it seems, is New York’s especially strict rules regarding pets in apartment buildings. ” Basically, we need to be somewhat discreet ,” Pozdeeva said of her domestic fish colonies. ” But that’s the good thing about fish .”
Thanks to Héctor Cano for the link.