New York City’s New Fish Farm Norm: Fish on Rooftops?


We’ve heard of urban farms and rooftop farms, but the next big thing in super-local farming concerns fish farms: a rooftop fish farm to be exact. Running with an idea that was first popularized in 2012 by designer Antonio Scarponi, three partners in Brooklyn have decided to make rooftop fish farms a reality in New York City.

The Idea of Rooftop Fish Farms is Spawned

Rooftop fish farm possibilities first took the Internet by storm in 2012, when the GLOBE / HEDRON design was released. The original design by Antonio Scarponi was made with a geodesic bamboo dome and was specially designed to be biodegradable and structurally sound for placement on roofs. The design was relatively self-sufficient as far as energy is concerned and was intended to cost about a much as a car, making it accessible for most families in Switzerland, where the idea was launched.

With this project, the idea was to farm on an individual scale. Each farm would be able to feed four families of four with seasonal vegetables and fish. That being said, this prototype design got people buzzing about the possibility of bigger structures and the future of urban farming, though for rooftop fish farming to truly take hold on a larger scale, we would have to wait a few more years.

Verticulture Farms Brings Aquaponics to Brooklyn

For the folks behind Verticulture Farms, the idea of rooftop farming came first and foremost from an interest in urban agriculture. Co-founder Miles Crettien says that he was originally made aware of the issue in 2009, when he heard Grace Lee Boggs speak about programs she was working on in Detroit.

“I became inspired to work towards providing healthy affordable food to diverse urban populations, says” Crettien. He moved to New York and started looking for ways to make this happen.

In New York, he teamed up with friend and co-founder Ryan Morningstar. The two had worked on an organic farm in Massachusetts together for five seasons. “I started reading a lot on the topic including The Vertical Farm by Dickens Despommier and Eco Cities Living Machines by John Todd,” says Crettien. “The concept of closed loop ecological designed food production really struck a chord with me.”

In 2012, the group of founders, by then increased to four, began meeting to discuss the development of an aquaponics company. While at first, this was more a passion project than anything else, “It soon became apparent that there was a real market need and opportunity to grow and build a viable aquaponic business in NYC,” says Crettien.

After exploring many different design options, they decided to implement an indoor vertically stacked grow bed, where they could grow a variety of plants and raise Brooklyn-born-and-bred tilapia. With this system based in aquaponics, the fish and the plants that feed them form their own ecosystem: the natural waste from the fish nourishes the plants, and the plants are used to filter water for the fish. No pesticides are used, as they could kill the fish, making the greens entirely pesticide-free. Verticulture Farm’s design allows for high yields and easy to implement, particularly in New York, where outdoor space — even on roofs — can be scarce.

“Since we can build farms in otherwise underutilized environments, we have the opportunity to grow food where there is a lack of fresh affordable food and provide jobs and training to people who live in the neighborhoods where we grow,” says Miles. “This is a major social mission of ours that we are vehemently pursuing.”

The Future of Verticulture Farms

But they aren’t stopping there.

The first farm was an experiment, a non-profit program that was on a much smaller scale and donated all its fresh fish and vegetables to a youth-run farmers market sponsored by the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project. But since then, Crettien and his co-founders have now transformed the company into a for-profit enterprise with a social mission. They sell their greens and fish locally and are currently working on building NYC’s first full-scale vertical indoor aquaponic farm, which should be ready to use within six months. They intend to pay employees $15 to $20 an hour and to sell the produce to local markets and restaurants.

“From there we will look to scale within NYC and other cities of high demand and need for fresh, locally grown greens, herbs and fish,” he says, which means that farms could soon be available not only in New York but in urban centers around the country.

Related on Organic Authority

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Is City the New Country? Urban Farms Take Over Metropolis

Tilapia image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco