Aquaponics combines fish and plants in a closed and soil-less ecosystem to grow produce. If you combine aquaponic farming with employment opportunities for adults with disabilities, then you have O2 Urban Farms, a Cincinnati nonprofit that’s a win-win for the community. Specializing in growing artisan lettuces, adults with disabilities at O2 Urban Farms work in almost every aspect of the business to gain employable skills while giving local folks a palate-pleasing farm-to-table option.
Southwest Ohio Parent spoke with Tim Sundrup, director of operations at O2 Urban Farms to learn about this unique non-profit that’s growing opportunities in the community.
How did you come up with this concept?
The idea started when one of our founders, Mark Ruberg, read about aquaponics during a cross-country flight. He began experimenting with the process at home and shared his interest with a colleague of his, Tom Mendel. They decided to create a nonprofit to focus on sustainable farming techniques, environmental education and employment for marginalized communities.
Can you describe some of the jobs that your participants perform?
Most of the farming process is handled by our participants, including seeding, transplanting, harvesting and cleaning. One participant delivers to our wholesale and retail locations, others work at the farm and farmers markets which includes working directly with customers. While our staff assists our work participants as needed, we do push the workers to autonomy and ownership of their job.
Do you grow other things besides lettuce?
We have experimented with other crops on our system, like bok choy, basil and other herbs. We found varying success commercially and on the system. As we were trying out different crops, we found we had begun to make a name for ourselves by offering excellent salad greens. So, we decided to focus on what we were known for and doing well. We grow six lettuce varieties that we blend into an artisan mix.
What fish do you raise and what do you do with the harvested fish?
Our fish are the workhorses that drive our closed-loop aquaponics system. We have about 600 tilapia and hybrid striped bass. Their waste products become nutrients for our plants. We do plan to harvest the fish in the future.
What are your goals for 2022 and beyond?
We are looking for new opportunities to expand our retail sector. As we emerge from the pandemic, we are reworking and expanding our school and community education initiatives. Our partnership with the Ken Anderson Alliance continues to grow as they begin construction on a new live community for adults with disabilities with plans for an onsite aquaponics farm.