Grow Your Veggies All Year Long with Aquaponics!

I was privileged to be an UPTOWNER at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism under the tutelage of an amazing journalist and person, Paula Span.

The first article I wrote for the publication was **shocker** about food. I found the story by walking around Harlem and talking to random people until I found I story I felt worth reporting. This was only the third person I accosted. Turns out, he’s doing big things!

Original article is HERE.

Harlem Aquaponics Business Provides Fish, Produce and Education

Randy Cameron, founder of Skyponics Urban Farming, wants to bring sustainable food to New York City.
By Amanda BurrillIn January, when New York City’s average high temperature is 38 degrees, a windowless storage room in Washington Heights will yield 32 heads of lettuce and handfuls of basil weekly.Harlem’s Skyponics Urban Farming, owned by local resident Randy Cameron Jr., focuses on a sustainable farming technique called aquaponics, installing systems on rooftops, in storage rooms, even in living rooms. “I’m hoping to eventually get clients who want systems in their homes, people that are really on board with sustainability,” Cameron says.Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising fish and prawns in tanks) and hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) to grow food in a sustainable, symbiotic environment. Plants and fish consume each other’s waste products in a process that can yield both edible seafood (tilapia and catfish are popular) and produce like lettuce and tomatoes.

Although it has taken time to gain momentum, aquaponics is experiencing a surge, says Martin Schreibman, who founded the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center at Brooklyn College in 1999. In 2004, a paper he co-authored predicted that aquaculture could become a $1.5 billion a year industry in New York. “In the early years, I wasn’t able to convince people that we really needed to look for alternative forms of food production,” he says. “People are catching on nowadays.”

Two year-old Skyponics is Manhattan’s only for-profit aquaponics business; New York Sun Works, a nonprofit in Chelsea, works exclusively with urban schools.

Cameron, 44, decided to enter the business in February, 2010, after Michelle Obama invited former NBA player Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, an urban farming project, to help launch her “Let’s Move!” program. Reading about Allen’s nonprofit company, Cameron realized he had the skills to launch an aquaponics business himself.

“I used to spend my summers landscaping and fishing in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. I was landscaping since the eighth grade. I had a knack for it; a natural green thumb,” he says. A professional angler, Cameron also worked summers as a Martha’s Vineyard fishing guide through high school and college. He remains an annual fixture at the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

“Before, I thought of fish as fun. It was a hobby,” he says. Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he and his friends bred African and South American cichlids, small fish raised for fighting. Cameron developed ways to make his contenders bigger and stronger and sold them to local pet shops.

After graduating from college, Cameron moved back to Harlem and worked for the Children’s Aid Society in a job flexible enough to allow him to grow plants and breed cichlids, then worked for the Madison Boys and Girls Club. He decided his experience with youth development could make an aquaponics venture educational as well as profitable.

Setting up the business was a challenge. He attended a seminar at the Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo to learn the commercial side of aquaponics. Polishing his business plan, he teamed with the Urban Garden Center in East Harlem and set up a functioning demonstration. Local investors came and listened to his pitches during the summer of 2012.

A year later, restaurateur James Lee, founder of Melba’s in Harlem, has installed Cameron’s systems at two Washington Heights locations, Cabrini Cafe and Buddha Beer Bar.

Basil and lettuce grow from clay pebbles in Cabrini Cafe's storage room. Photo by Amanda Burrill

Spring Creek Gardens, a sprawling apartment complex in Brooklyn, hired Cameron to work with 27 teens from spring into summer, and the Summer Youth Employment Program sent teenagers there three days a week. At first, none of the teens wanted to work outside because it was hot, Cameron says, but as they learned and interacted, he saw a change. “By the end there were some tears about leaving,” he said.

A basic Skyponics system for home or classroom costs $300. “I feel lucky because my initial contracts have been successful, got my name out there, and allowed me to scrutinize opportunities while seeing through the bullshit.” Now, he says, “I have a better idea of what can be profitable and successful.” Cameron has three employees.

Skyponics is now working with Brooklyn’s Abe Stark Elementary School and Democracy Academy, and Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy, which will use Spring Creek’s indoor garden for winter training. Cameron has also contracted to build an indoor private commercial farm in Hartford, Connecticut.

In April, with Urban Garden Center, he will establish Harlem Farm, a 10,000 square foot aquaponic and vertical hydroponic system involving tall columns that grow lettuce. The facility will produce 16,000 pounds of tilapia annually, he predicts, and 20,000 pounds of lettuce, all to be sold to city restaurants and wholesalers.

mockup harlem farm (2)

Skyponics Urban Farming has also landed its first international contract. After a June presentation at the Haitian consulate, Cameron agreed to build an aquaponics system that yields tilapia and beans as part of existing rice fields. Construction is scheduled to start in March in Saint-Marc, about 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince.


(Featured photo by Amanda Burrill)

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