Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Yemi Amu was accustomed to widely available organic food. When she moved to Bed-Stuy in 2009, she was shocked to find that fresh produce often is financially out of reach for many local residents. In 2013, she decided to launch Oko Farms, an education-based farm named for the Yoruban deity of agriculture, to promote sustainability, conservation and community in Bushwick.
“It’s common sense in Nigeria to conserve natural resources and eat organic, but here, it’s not,” Amu said.
Oko Farms utilizes aquaponics, the method of growing plants and raising fish using the same continuously recycled water. This conservation technique provides nutrient-rich fertilizer for the plants which, in return, filter all of the toxic waste and provide clean water for the fish.
“I want this ‘zero-waste’ mentality to be accessible to everyone because it’s more financially and environmentally sustainable,” Amu said.
Amu has big plans for this season. In partnership with Bushwick’s co-working space AgTechX and the Plant Factory, an urban food lab in Park Slope, she will launch a farm-to-kitchen workshop series to make teas, vinegar and kombuchas. All of the ingredients used in the workshops will come from Amu’s 2,500-square-foot farm, which is currently home to a thriving community of catfish, koi, mint, collard greens, okra, carrots, lemongrass, rice and more.
Land expansion is also on the horizon. Oko Farms recently achieved NGO status, so the team will begin fundraising and looking for a second, more prominent space in Brooklyn to host larger groups for demonstrations, classes and outdoor yoga.
“[Brooklyn] is where I live, this is my community, and this is where I want to contribute and do work,” Amu said.
Amu and her team offer sustainability demonstrations for school classes and youth groups year-round on the farm and in classrooms, and run a seven-month apprenticeship program. The Oko Farms team also has educated community leaders in creating and managing their own aquaponics systems with the hope to inspire broader participation in earth-and budget-friendly practices.
Oko Farms, which is one of the few public aquaponic systems in the U.S., attracts visitors from near and far. Amu recently welcomed guests from the Finnish government, students from Korea and a family from Peru.
“Our goal is to be an education and research space that promotes environmental stewardship. Being an urban farm gives us the opportunity to enlighten people,” Amu said. “For example, water is difficult to access in many places in the world, so people have to be conscious about how they use water. Aquaponics offers a great opportunity to engage people in that conversation.”
According to the New York City Hunger Report, the city’s hunger and food insecurity levels in 2015 were virtually the same as they were at the height of 2008’s recession; today, 1.4 million people citywide live in households without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Though there are hundreds of community gardens in the city, The NYC Food Policy Center notes that land-scarcity is still one of the most significant issues in urban agriculture, and point to aquaponics as the future of NYC farming.
“When I got here I didn’t understand why access to good food had to be so difficult,” Amu said. “Sometimes taking on issues like food justice and sustainability can feel overwhelming. But Oko Farms presents a simple way to make changes. Small decisions go a long way, and we’re a space to encourage this way of thinking.“