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Queens Chronicle

Astorian grew his organic farm in LIC

Rael Clarke uses fish tanks to grow bok choy, lettuce and kale

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:23 am, Thu Jan 17, 2013.

Rael Clarke, 25, wanted to try an ambitious experiment in late 2011 to see if he could cultivate an aquaponic farm in a Long Island City apartment.

He succeeded and named the space LOFT:LIC. It only lasted for a year, however, because he chose not to renew the lease on the apartment due to the high rent. Clarke dismantled the farm at the end of December and is trying to find a new place to keep it going.

Aquaponic farming is, in Clarke’s words, “the marriage of aquaculture fish farming and hydroponic soilless plant farming.”

Fish produce ammonia, which turns into nitrites and is used as a fertilizer for the plants to grow. For growth medium, he uses clay for the plants while an aquarium pump circulates water between several chambers.

Plants and fish are in separate tanks but share the same water.

Clarke, who lives in Astoria and works at an upscale catering company, said his goal is to raise awareness of aquaponics as a way for sustainable farming.

“Traditional farming consumes, I want to say, 20 times as much water because as you irrigate your crops the water just becomes seeped into the soil and becomes runoff,” Clarke said.

“By recycling the water I can achieve greater efficiencies.”

It can be hard work, Clarke said — but the fish do much of it.

“If you have an apartment or a home that can already accommodate a medium or large fish tank, that’s all the work,” he said. “Just take care of the fish.”

He has been able to grow organic bok choy, bib lettuce, kale and other heirloom vegetables. Compared with store-bought vegetables, he said his crop is harvested “three weeks longer and tastes fresher.”

When he informed his family of the endeavor they “thought I was a little crazy.” Regardless, he still received some help.

To help support the farm, he had jazz nights and would host art exhibitions of a friend’s artwork. His mom set up a Kickstarter account as another means of funds, but it never reached its goal.

Even though he has had to move out and dismantle the farm, he still considers it a success.

“[Last] year has just been an experiment to show I could do it and to expose it firsthand to as many people as possible, such that we can as a city can decrease our levels of transporting food,” he said. “We have the technology. We have the resources.”

The type of space Clarke needs to continue his project is not excessive as aquaponics is scalable, he said.

“As long as it gets sunlight, it can fit within the confines of 5 or 10 square feet. It really can be a personal farm.”

Clarke said an aquaponic home farm would cost a minimum of $500. Individuals would need water pumps, a good fish tank, clay fertilizer and food for the fish.

Those should be fresh-water fish such as goldfish or catfish. Clarke himself used hundreds of goldfish and tilapia. Sunlight is a necessity, and Clarke, also recommends reading books on this type of farming.

After wrapping up shop in LIC Clarke moved back to Astoria. The fish didn’t make the move.

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