This story is part of an editorial collaboration with ForceBrands, the leading recruiting firm for the food, beverage, and beauty industries.
New York’s urban agriculture community has evolved and frequently blossomed over the past decade. Although the city has nearly always grown food in some shape or form, the relatively recent opening of rooftop and indoor farms have marked a new, quickly evolving urban ag era.
Nigerian born Yemi Amu has been a part of this movement by opening the city’s only teaching aquaponics farm called Oko Farms. Centered around closed looped systems that rely on fish waste to fertilize plants, Amu started her business in 2012 to help bring sustainable farming practices to New York City. She now teaches workshops and hosts volunteers while also designing and building customized systems for a variety of clients.
We recently caught up with Amu to learn more about her passion for aquaponics and what it’s like to run a farm in New York City:
ForceBrands: What inspired you to co-found Oko Farms? Have you always had a passion for sustainability?
Yemi Amu: I started Oko Farms because I wanted to showcase aquaponics in New York City. Aquaponics is a sustainable form of farming that grows plants and fish together in a recirculating ecosystem. No one was making this particular way of growing food accessible to the public at the time (2012) and I thought it would be an exciting challenge. To date, we are still the only space in New York City where members of the public can come to see an operational aquaponics system and learn how it works.
When I moved to New York City from Lagos as a teenager, I was shocked at the amount of wastefulness I saw in comparison with my upbringing. Since then, I’ve made it a point to integrate sustainability into my passion for food and farming. My work at Oko Farms builds on that passion by teaching New Yorkers, many of whom have never been to a farm, how sustainable agriculture relates to them.
FB: What’s the mission of Oko Farms, and has it evolved over the years?
YA: My mission is to bring sustainable agricultural practices and awareness to all people living in New York City. When we first started the farm five years ago, our goal was to demonstrate aquaponics as a sustainable way for urban food production. So the mission has only broadened through the years, as we have increased our community engagement exponentially. Farming is only one aspect of running an urban farm, it turns out!
It’s amazing to see the number of people who come through the farm increase year after year, for workshops, tours and youth education. It’s a truly special place where I feel honored to share my knowledge, and also learn from the people who visit the farm every season. We also see an important part of our mission as growing with and building the food community in New York City, from partnering with other urban farms, to chefs, to community gardeners. Partnering with other organizations is what makes us strong.
FB: Tell us a bit about Oko Farms’ aquaponics training program. What do you hope people gain from this experience?
YA: Every year, we have a few select adults on the farm for a whole farming season from April to October. The full emersion program gives a realistic experience of what it takes to run a productive urban farm. They’re involved in every aspect of daily activity on the farm, from learning how to care for fish and plants, to helping with our educational programming, to completing their own personal projects that we provide guidance on. Our trainees gain tangible skills in sustainable farming that we hope they integrate into their individual career goals once the season ends and they leave the farm. For example, one of our trainees from last year, a trained chef, will be helping us run culinary classes on the farm for the 2018 season.
FB: What do you find most rewarding about the work that you’re doing?
YA: I’m grateful every day that my job is to share my knowledge and experience around food and agriculture in New York City. Especially when we teach young people as part of an in-school program we do with a non-profit called Leave It Better. It’s surprising how little knowledge children who were born and raised in NYC have about where there food comes from. A group of students even told me that cows eat milk and cheese! At the end of the program, they get to harvest lettuce from a mini aquaponics system that also includes goldfish. It’s so rewarding to see previously picky eaters clamor to eat the lettuce that they grew in their own classrooms.
FB: Here at ForceBrands, we build the teams that build the brands. Tell us a bit about the team at Oko Farms. How would you describe the culture? What qualities do you look for in new hires?
YA: We are a women-run company, with a culture that’s dominated by our shared passion for food and community. Any new hires, including our trainees, need to share that passion, even if they don’t have a professional background in food or farming. We are also a small team so we tend to wear a lot of hats.
FB: Launching a new company is no easy feat, especially in New York City. What challenges, if any, have you encountered since starting Oko Farms?
YA: The challenges we have faced in Oko Farms’ five-year history aren’t any different from the challenges other farmers face. Climate change, finding our market and accessing land are all problems that every farmer will face, no matter the location or how big or small the operation in question is. The urban environment provides an interesting challenge in that the general public doesn’t know much about farming in general, so there’s a level of education and outreach that we wouldn’t need to provide if we were in a different location. That being said, for me, the education is the most rewarding part of my work for me.
FB: Where do you see Oko Farms in the next 10 years?
YA: In the next 10 years, we want to strengthen and increase our partnerships with hospitals, schools and community organizations, which will allow us to reach a wider audience. As for the farm, we hope to move to a larger space soon that will allow us to both grow more produce and invite more people to the farm at a time.
FB: And lastly, just for fun, if you didn’t end up co-founding Oko Farms, what do you think you would be doing instead?
YA: Oko Farms is an amalgamation of all of my past experiences in food and nutrition education and farming education. So I would still be doing what I’m doing now, probably just under another name.