Resetting the Table: An Aquaponic Farm Rooted in Community

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats Video.]

Editor's note: Resetting the Table is a monthly Serious Eats video series celebrating the diverse foodways that inform the way we eat in America. In each segment, Elazar Sontag cooks and talks with someone whose work in food, farming, or social justice is making a difference.

The sun is beating down on Oko Farms, and goldfish the size of sandals swim lazy circles through a tank of water shaded by a tarp-covered tent. Sunflowers sway in the wind, a light breeze rustles through planter beds, and bees hum as they move between clusters of bright little flowers. It’s not the kind of scene you expect to find in noisy, traffic-jammed Brooklyn, squeezed between a pizza shop and a banner promising "Fast & Professional!!" tax preparation services. But on this plot of land in Bushwick, Yemi Amu has transformed an abandoned concrete lot into New York City’s largest outdoor aquaponic farm.

Yemi utilizes the space on her farm to grow many of the vegetables she ate growing up in the coastal city of Lagos, Nigeria. Alongside onions and kale, she also grows gburé (water leaf), clove basil, several varieties of rice, sorghum, and other hard-to-find vegetables and herbs for Nigerian chef friends to incorporate into their cooking.

Yemi Amu standing in front of some of the planters at at Oko Farms

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Aquaponic farming is a sustainable method of growing plants and raising fish simultaneously, perfect for areas like this one, where a fire hydrant is the most accessible source of water. In aquaponics, water from a large freshwater fish tank is filtered to remove solid waste, then it's pumped through pipes into plant beds, providing the plants with nutrient-dense fertilizer. The plants filter out any toxic waste from the water, so that it’s clean when it returns to the fish tank, and the cycle repeats. This method of farming uses just a fraction of the water that conventional methods use.

Other farmers turned the Bushwick lot down, since without a water source it wasn’t farmable land. But Yemi saw the empty lot’s potential for aquaponic farming, and got to work.

Side-by-side photos of lot in which Oko Farms exists. From left to right: Before photo of empty lot; photo of farm in process of building, with a large basin of water where the empty lot once was.

Oko Farms before and during the building process. [Photographs: Courtesy of Yemi Amu.]

The 2,500-square-foot farm she has created acts as a community space of sorts. Students regularly visit Oko Farms to learn about aquaponic farming, and Yemi welcomes anyone in the community to wander through and learn more about what she’s doing. When she's not tending to her own farm, Yemi helps build aquaponic farms throughout New York.

Early one morning, I headed to Oko with the Serious Eats camera crew to meet Yemi, learn about aquaponic farming and the incredible work she’s doing in her community, and to cook lunch on the beautiful farm.