Edenworks Pioneers Commercial Aquaponics in Bushwick
On a cold day in March, the snow is already coming down thick when I emerge from the subway at the Montrose L stop in Bushwick. Somewhere near here, there is a rooftop greenhouse named Edenworks, and its three co-founders—Jason Green, Ben Silverman, and Matt La Rosa—have it up and running as a modular aquaponics laboratory-farm.
By the time I find the metal doorway of 234 Johnson Avenue, my shoes are soaked. A sign directs me a few feet down to another door that is abutted by a high gate on one side. I ring the doorbell and wait a few seconds before Jason arrives with a coffee mug in hand. He is wearing glasses, a thick sweater, and a big smile. We are standing in the middle of a snowstorm. “Aren’t you cold?” I ask. “I’m okay,” Jason says. “I have layers.”
The idea of growing plants in environmentally controlled areas has existed since Roman times, when the emperor Tiberius insisted on eating a cucumber-like vegetable daily, and his gardeners had to figure out how to make it available year-round. Aquaponic greenhouses, however, are another matter. In general, aquaponic systems work by re-circulating water from a fish tank through a vegetable bed. Nutrients from the fish waste feed the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy. A pump moves the water between the two.
Only since around 2000 have technical innovations made it possible to build a “closed greenhouse” like Edenworks, which operates a completely closed system that allows the farmer total control over the growing process, all while using less energy than traditional farming. “We actually do a couple of cool things to make sure that there’s no waste, and that we’re also creating the best environment for our seafood and plants,” explains Jason.
The Edenworks system involves running the water from the fish through a radial-flow filter, separating solids, and at one point aerating solid waste liquid to encourage the growth of oxygen- using bacteria. The result is a self-sustaining environment that limits resource use to grid water and commercial feed (to sustain the fish), and emits no waste. And, since getting their hands in the business, the team at Edenworks also has been inventing a few of their own tools. For example, before they built it, there was no plug and play system for monitoring an aquaponic greenhouse’s environment.
The Edenworks greenhouse sits atop the second story roof belonging to Kendi Ironworks, and all 800 square feet of it are hidden out sight from Johnson Avenue (although you can see it from Bushwick Place and from the south on Bushwick Avenue). The structure looks solid but unsurprising from the outside, if you’re the type who has seen a greenhouse before: a sloping, Gable roof and sheets of translucent plastic material for walls. But inside, it feels like a whole new world: warm light bathes a long row of vertical Farmstacks, each equipped with metal troughs that are growing carrots, mint, sage, marigolds, and more…all without soil. Directly behind the Farmstacks, there are giant holding bins for goldfish and tilapia. The fish are lively, and appear to be swimming happily around in the clear water. Two fans hum on either side of the stacks, gently circulating the air. I catch my breath in surprise. It’s warm without being hot, and peaceful like a sacred space.
Jason follows my gaze around the greenhouse, still smiling, and offers to give me some greens to taste, if I’m up for it. Because I’ve never seen such shiny, perfectly formed vegetation, my answer is a wholehearted, Yes. As Jason hands me a radish leaf, I can smell its essence before I even take a bite. The taste is completely engrossing and full. This, I say, is what radish is supposed to taste like. As I try vegetable leaf after vegetable leaf, it occurs to me that I have been eating vegetables at half-flavor my whole life, until I stopped by Edenworks.
So, I turn to Jason with the questions:
Greenpointers: How did Edenworks get started?
Jason Green: Edenworks has three co-founders: myself, Ben Silverman, and Matt La Rosa. Matt and I started working together first on Edenworks as a modular aquaponics system. At that point, we were more focused on home food production. The problem that we were trying to address—which was that local, fresh food is not easily available—can’t be adequately addressed by growing food at home for the average New Yorker. There isn’t enough space and time for that.
GPers: Definitely, space is an issue in this city.
JG: And, that requires a change in people’s behavior, like encouraging Gothamites to grow their own food, which is an unlikely cause to succeed. So, instead we started thinking about Edenworks as a piece of urban infrastructure: how can we build modular aquaponics systems at commercial scale? When we started working with Ben—Ben’s an architect and engineer—he was able to take Edenworks from a consumer product to basically a commercial one.
JG: The three of us, along with a bunch of friends, started building the greenhouse in December 2013. Over the year and change since, we’ve brought on a whole bunch of other team members who, as they joined the team, helped us build up the greenhouse and also started working on their jobs as engineers or designers or whatever.
GPers: And this greenhouse is a prototype?
JG: Yeah, so this space that we just toured, we call “The Farmlab.” It’s basically an 800 square foot prototype of this modular, data-driven aquaponics system. The next farm will be on a rooftop in Long Island City, about twenty times the size of this farm. So it will be about ten times the footprint, about twice the height, and so twenty times the food production capacity of this farm. And that will be truly commercial scale.
Here, we are selling a little bit of product, but the product that we are selling is just for validation. We want to prove how good our food is, so we’re selling to one restaurant, Adalya on Irving Place—high-end, Mediterranean cuisine—and the rest of the food that we’re growing is mostly for promotional purposes. When we go to a meeting with investors, we bring in produce. Or, like for journalists here. [laughs] They get to taste it. We chose to grow a lot of different things so that we can collect a lot of data so that when we go to build the next farm, we actually know what we’re doing. That was just sort of a long-term decision that we had to make, like “Are we going to try to make money off this farm or are we just going to try to learn to run our business well, using this farm, and then sell food from the next farm?”
JG: Everything gets used—zero waste—unlike traditional agriculture, where only a fraction of the water and fertilizer actually gets used by the plants because it gets washed out through the groundwater, ends up in streams, and then this produces the famous pictures of the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River drains in those big dead zones with all the red algae growing. That’s because of fertilizer run-off. So that’s what we’re trying to avoid.
We’ll probably grow things like trout and bass at the next farm. But tilapia we also like because of how efficient they are. Tilapia will convert 1.1 pounds of feed into 1 pound of lean protein, which is just incredible. You compare that to chicken, or pork, or beef and it is orders of magnitude more feed than you’re feeding to tilapia. And so, from the sustainability perspective, from the feeding 10 billion by 2050, sustainable seafood is really where it’s at for us and tilapia is just a really great starting point.
GPers: There’s a question that comes up with food that is “sustainable,” which is just why it seems so much more expensive than regular food?
JG: It’s an interesting question. What we’re growing is a premium product. And I would say it does sort of follow the Tesla model: we need to get to scale so that we can make it affordable for everybody, but it will be comparably priced to a Whole Foods. The whole thing with things getting more expensive because they’re produced sustainably is almost a moot point. Food has been commoditized. Food is much cheaper than it should be.
GPers: Because it’s heavily subsidized?
JG: And it’s subsidized because farmers can’t actually make a living growing food. I mean, isn’t that ridiculous? We all eat; and yet, food—because of globalization and commoditization—food is something that nobody can make a living producing, especially the small farmers. The people who are raking in the money are the ten big farmers, who are growing corn, soybean, and wheat.
And even they have very low margins and the people who are making a ton of money are the chemical producers, the fertilizer producers, the seed producers. That’s a problem. We are producing really high quality food, food that you should be proud to pay for. Also, there is a tremendous amount of data that shows that across the socio-economic spectrum people are willing to pay for food that you feed good about eating.
GPers: I’d pay more for the food I just tried in here.
JG: Oh yeah, the food is delicious. High-income shoppers are willing to pay 22% more for local food. Low-income shoppers are willing to pay 17% more. And that’s not a significant difference. People are willing to pay for food that they feel good about. We know that at least in New York there’s huge unmet demand for that food that people feel good about, and that’s primarily local food. You can’t get fresher or more nutritious food than local. And, of course, people want to know who their farmer is. They don’t want to buy from the conglomerates. We offer a really unique relationship with our customers in that way.
JG: The world is becoming ever more urban. Fifty percent of the world already lives in cities. By 2100, more than ninety percent of the world will live in cities. Food is increasingly being grown in cities. We’re seeing it in places like Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia. This is the way of the future. I think that the way that we’re doing it also, sort of an automated, optimized, but organic ecosystem-based approach to agriculture is one of the approaches I think that you will still see, a lot of hydroponics and aeroponics, but I think that agriculture as part of the urban environment is certainly the way of the future. Like building integrated agriculture, where a greenhouse or some agricultural environment is actually part of the building. It’s absolutely the way of the future.†
Edenworks is located at 234 Johnson Ave in Bushwick, Brooklyn. If you want to explore the farm, schedule a tour by emailing [email protected] You can also follow Edenworks on Instagram at @edenworksgrows. At one point, Jason started out with a window garden growing basil, parsley, and some cherry tomatoes: “The yields were terrible.” Now, when he’s not at the farm, Jason likes to hang out at the “dive bar right up the street, Post No Bills. Great hole in the wall.”