Sun, Apr 29, 2012 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: New Yorkers bring rural life style to urban jungle


Former banker Christopher Toole teaches children about aquaponics at a community center in the South Bronx in New York, on April 19.

Photo: AFP

So you recycle, drive a small car and try to eat organic; What about running an eco-sustainable fish farm combined with a naturally fertilized vegetable patch in your kitchen?

Christopher Toole and Anya Pozdeeva, two former New York bankers who founded the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education (SAVE), are there to help.

“We call it ‘beyond organic,’” said Pozdeeva, 39.

Aquaponics is a technique with ancient roots for breeding tank fish, recycling their effluent-filled water to fertilize vegetation, then allowing this naturally cleaned water to drip back into the tank below.

It is a perfect, miniature eco system that will let you grow healthy food in a cramped apartment with almost no specialist equipment.

“We built our system just from trash cans,” said Pozdeeva, a slender woman who emigrated from Russia’s Siberian region 20 years ago and still speaks English with a slight accent.

If growing fish to eat in your New York apartment sounds unlikely, then Toole and Pozdeeva are even unlikelier urban eco pioneers.

Just a short time ago they were bankers working crazy hours among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, a far cry from the gritty Bronx where they are based today.

After the 2008 financial crash floored the banking industry, Toole, then a vice president at Sovereign Bank, discovered he had a serious eye problem, which he said was stress-related.

Both of them were severely disenchanted with their careers.

“They know how to squeeze every drop out of you and then throw you away,” Pozdeeva said.

“We wanted two feet on the ground,” said Toole, 47, and -striking-looking with a bushy gray beard and pork pie hat.

Instead, he put two feet in the water.

Toole knew a little about fish from childhood summers with his scientist father out at Woods Hole in Massachusetts, a famed marine biology research center in the Cape Cod area. Aquaponics, he reckoned, would allow him to marry sustainable food production with what he hoped would be an equally sustainable business model.

Risky? Yes.

“But understanding risks is something they teach you a lot about in banking,” he said.

Each week Toole and Pozdeeva teach aquaponics to about 80 children at SAVE’s base in a community center in the south Bronx, one of the most socio--economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the US.

During a recent session, the couple got youngsters to help with everything from cleaning fish tanks to planting mint, cabbage and other greenery.

The children, more familiar with the Bronx’s concrete jungle, were quick to get involved.

“I’m afraid he’s going to come up and bite me,” a small girl giggled as she put her hand into the top of a barrel containing large tilapia.

“Well, he’s afraid you’re going to go down and bite him,” Toole said.

When two boys turned from gardening duties to a mud fight, Pozdeeva calmly stepped in.

“Dirt is precious,” she reminded them. The boys went back to gardening.

Toole breeds several fish in his trash can farms, but tilapia do best.

They require just 19 liters to 38 liters of water and by nine months are big enough to eat. Besides, they can be entirely vegetarian and seem to like duck weed, a grainy green plant which Toole and Pozdeeva scoop up from ponds in the Bronx’s big Van Cortland Park, then drop into their tanks.

“It’s illegal, but on the other hand it’s choking the pond, so you could argue we’re doing it as a favor,” Toole said of the freelance weed harvesting expeditions.

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