Raising Trashcan Tilapia is Latest Trend in Urban Farming

By DNAinfo Staff on January 18, 2012 12:03pm

Urban farmer Christopher Toole reviews his original notes on his plan to breed tilapia in the Bronx.
Urban farmer Christopher Toole reviews his original notes on his plan to breed tilapia in the Bronx.
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DNAinfo/Jon Schuppe

HUNTS POINT — Christopher Toole sees the future of urban farming at the bottom of a 50-gallon garbage bin in the South Bronx, where a pale foot-long fish does lazy loops in dark water.

The fish is one of dozens of tilapia Toole keeps in trash and recycling containers, “aquaponic” tanks and traditional glass tanks in Hunts Point, where he is conducting an ambitious experiment. His plan is to create a network of homes, restaurants and cooperative farms where millions of people in the metropolitan area will raise and eat what he calls Bronx Best Blue Tilapia.

Toole knows it sounds a little quixotic, but he is undeterred. A disillusioned ex-banker and scientist’s son, he now sees himself as a “Johnny Appleseed of fish.”

“I've been part of the parasite economy for so long, so it would be nice to be part of the productive economy,” he said.

Toole ditched his job and six-figure salary at Sovereign Bank in 2010 to immerse himself in the principles of urban agriculture and aquaponics — the growing of fish and plants together in recirculating water systems. He stopped shaving. He and his girlfriend, Anya Pozdeeva, a former financial planner, developed a business plan, including a $2-a-year “buyers club.”

Last spring, they went online and ordered 500 tiny tilapia “fry” that would seed the project.  They chose tilapia because it is relatively easy to grow and breed and has a high protein content — the same reason the fish, native to Africa, has become popular for farming around the world.

Toole and Pozdeeva started by installing breeding tanks in their 14th floor apartment in Riverdale, but had to break them down when neighbors in their co-op complained they were running a fish farm. They started a non-profit called the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education, and found space at The Point, a community development organization housed in a converted parking garage near the Bronx River and the Hunts Point Terminal Market.

In a back room at The Point, Toole and Pozdeeva arranged a dozen tanks. One aquaponic setup uses fish waste to grow mint and basil. Two days a week, they teach local children, most of them from poor local families, how to grow their own food.

“On one hand, it’s just fish. But on the other hand, it’s changing the world,” Pozdeeva said. She grinned slyly. “This is the new world order we’re trying to push.”

Toole and Pozdeeva met while working at Sovereign Bank. Now they take their inspiration from Will Allen, a renowned urban farmer, and Sweetwater Organics, an urban farm, both in Milwaukee; and Martin Schreibman, a Brooklyn College scientist who pioneered the farming of tilapia in urban settings.

For now, Toole and Pozdeeva are living off their dwindling savings. But their goal is to have a thriving, sustainable operation that will supply individuals, restaurants, community gardens and other green-minded businesses. To describe their urban utopia, they’ve invented a word, “permaponics,” which combines aquaponics with design techniques aimed at creating self-sustaining farms that do not rely on outside infrastructure.

Toole admits that’s a long way off. “But we’re getting started,” he said.

Meanwhile, Toole tends to his stock in Hunts Point. Most of the original order of 500 fry have been eaten or sold or given away, but many remain in the tanks in the back of The Point building, where children help Toole change and clean water. At least once a semester, some are plucked out for a fish fry with students and staff.

"Give a person some fish, and you start a self-perpetuating cycle of education and growth," Toole said. "This is urban survival. And we’re waking people up to it.”

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