NEW YORK—It’s not your typical growing operation.
A closed loop system circulates nutrients and water through a fish tank, a worm bin, wheatgrass, and plant roots in the top floor of a Long Island City building.
“The fish provide the nitrates, the compost worms break down the decaying matter,” and ash added into the system supplies potassium, said entrepreneur Rael Clarke, who compared the system to what occurs inside a fish tank.
“I’ve taken the filtration process and used it to feed the plants, because in an aquarium, once the filter is full you have to throw it away and get a new one,” he said. “Here I let the plant roots actually do the filtering, so I don’t have to replace anything.”
Aquaponics combines hydroponics, a growing method that forgoes the use of soil and emphasizes nutrient recycling, and aquaculture, or fish farming.
Plant roots filter fish waste, a natural fertilizer, out of the circulating water, converting toxic ammonia into nitrates. The purified water cycles back through the system. Once started, it takes less water than normal farming. The system occupies little room.
Beginning to Grow
Clarke graduated from Polytechnic University of NYU with bachelor degrees in science and mathematics. He worked as a math teacher, but was left on a waiting list after one semester.
“They just wanted you to sit in a room doing nothing,” Clarke said. He felt constricted by the curriculum while teaching, and wanted something more. “It was a good learning experience for me,” said Clarke. “It allowed me to develop my own lesson plan.”
He found work teaching personalized college prep classes on weekends for high school students and a second job with a catering company.
His science and mathematics background—along with a green thumb cultivated during college—all converged into one after reading books about cutting edge gardening techniques, including “Hydroponic Food Production.”
“After I got this book ‘Aquaponic Gardening,’ I immediately got this space, got a whole bunch of pipes, and was like ‘I can do this,’” said Clarke. “This is one of the best books, if you ever want to pick up how to do it.”
The business, LOFT:LIC is only a month old. A kickstarter page seeks funds for growing the business. The title of the page is “Pioneering Aquaponic Scientific Advancement in New York City.” The fundraising goal is $6,000 by March 1.
In the future, Clarke hopes to work with the surrounding community to utilize vacant lots for community gardens, and also involve struggling youth, using experience gained from his project. He dreams of putting aquaponic garden environments on every rooftop in the city, giving the city increased self-sufficiency.Clarke also envisions expanding his unique setup, and providing services as an independent contractor. “If you’ve got the space, or if you’re like-minded and want to understand how to do it, I can come to the space and analyze it and tell you what would be best for it,” he said.