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A Very Simple Barrel System

A Very Simple Barrel System

I absolutely love Aquaponics gardening. Year after year, my Aquaponics system is the feature piece of my garden.  It’s a phenomenal, fun, way to mimic nature by creating a closed loop system that integrates aquaculture and hydroponics.  It’s also addictive.

What Aquaponics is not, however, the future of farming ,as many have labeled it. I am aware that this statement runs counter to many of the YouTube videos and local interest stories all over the internet, but I stand by my comments. I’m also aware that many of my Aquaponics posts seem to be negative towards a growing method I keep saying I love, but stay with me and I’ll explain.

First, Aquaponics is rather expensive to get into. Even a DIY backyard system is probably going to set you back several hundred dollars, while a kit will be at least $1200 and that’s for a small system.  Sure, a creative handyman can probably make something cheaper, but face it, most of us are just not that handy.

Secondly, they are fairly expensive to maintain, especially if you are going to try to grow indoors or all year round.  Growing in the winter, for example, is going to require heating the water, both for fish growth and for maintaining a strong colony of beneficial bacteria. Doing so comes at a price.  It you’re growing indoors, there is also the cost of lighting.

Someone will undoubtedly will suggest Solar power, and I’m all in favor of that. The thing is, a solar unit that will both operate the system and heat water is not an insignificant financial investment.

Our third limitation is the fish. They must be sourced, fed and replaced.  There are not many varieties that can be grown to market size in a single season without considerable inputs, thus reducing the profitability of the method. Tilapia, arguably the most popular fish for Aquaponics, is not cold tolerant and needs to be raised indoors or with heated water in the winter (in most parts of North America). Most cold hardy types require two or three growing seasons and must be over wintered.

Ornamentals, such as Koi,  and Bait fish, like minnows, are hardy options, but breeding them takes some practice and experience so potential profitability may be delayed.

Whatever varieties of fish we choose, they all require food inputs, and that’s another expense. Yes, it is possible, over time, to grow your own fish food, but that is another serious effort to accomplish.

None of these challenges are insurmountable nor are they meant to discourage an potential enthusiast. They certainly don’t discourage me. They do, however, demonstrate that Aquaponics is not the future of farming.

I write these articles to help newcomers have realistic expectations as they get started.  There are many thousands of healthy backyard systems operating all around the world. In some parts of the world, Aquaponics may be a part of a solution to the problems of hunger and water management. There are even a few profitable commercial operations, but the propagandists would have you believe that it’s a simple way to make a living growing fish and veggies together. Reality is a little different.

For those of you who have persevered and made your commercial Aquaponics profitable, I applaud you.  You have worked both hard and smart. As for me, I will stick to my seasonal backyard system that serves as an adjunct to the rest of my crazy integrated garden.

Aquaponics is indeed fun and can be worth the expense and effort.  It is not the future of farming, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon it. Not by a long shot. We simply need to be realistic.

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 It appears that Aquaponic Gardening in the USA is continuing to gather interest throughout the country, but it’s also facing a great deal of turnover due to the expense and fairly steep learning curve of start up.  Many excited newcomers, balk after seeing the high cost of pre made kits, or even the complicated nature of DIY when compared to growing in raised beds or traditional in ground gardens.

For those who manage a successful set up, new unforeseen headaches appear with water. Who really knew dechlorination and pH balance would be so time consuming and pricey, or that maintaining a thriving colony of bacteria that continuously convert ammonia to nitrites then nitrates is not as easy as it looks in diagrams or on YouTube.

Oh, let’s not forget about the fish. Waking up to fish floating in your tank is not only expensive, it’s discouraging, especially when you’ve poured a lot of hard earned money into having (Usually) Tilapia shipped from halfway across the country, only to watch them die in the first month or six weeks. In my case, I spent several hundred dollars learning that I could not raise redclaw crayfish here. I’m a slow learner.

The failure rate of ‘commercial’ ventures is even greater. The USA landscape is littered with abandoned Aquaponics systems that were going to make a fortune by selling premium products at premium prices to an ever growing health conscious public, who’ve grown tired of poisoning themselves with traditional supermarket fare.

The truth is, that there are only a relatively few places in America where the demographic that can afford premium prices, the proper climate for successful Aquaponic Farming, and would be entrepreneurs with the fortitude and work ethic to succeed are able to intersect.

I know some awesome people in west central and central Florida who are making it happen. I cannot promote them too highly. But they also work their butts off to make it happen.  Many, if not most, Aquaponics dreamers are simply not prepared to pay that price.

A large percentage of the success stories in the more temperate climates are not really commercial ventures at all, but are non profits, dependent on grants, gifts and donations to stay afloat. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the model per se, but running a non profit is a whole different animal and requires a different set of skills than a for profit commercial farm.  Many would be Aquaponic farmers miss that difference and are destined for failure from the beginning.

Like its older sibling, hydroponics, Aquaponic farming is NOT the future of food production. It has its appeal, it has a niche where it can be successful, but it is not going to begin replacing traditional gardening and farming anytime soon.

If you have stayed with me this far, you probably think I’m some kind of hater or have sour grapes about my own lack of success with aquaponics. If that’s what you think, you would be wrong by a mile. In fact, I am within a few days of setting up my 2016 backyard aquaponics system, and I already have several hydroponic projects going.

What I want to do, is cut through a lot of the boloney and help you be successful, or at least help you set realistic expectations if you’re new to aquaponic gardening, especially if you’re on a budget.

I have no intention of discussing how to begin a commercial aquaponics farm.  I understand marketing and sales, because that’s my background, and I’m an entrepreneur to the marrow in my bones, but I have no experience in commercial aquaponics farming, and I will not pretend I do. A successful commercial aquaponics farm is a unique animal. It will require capital, patience and night and day work for a long time.  I will tell you that, as I’ve already mentioned, location is mission critical. Out here where my wife and I live, such a venture would be a disaster. If you are really keen on investigating how you might launch a commercial project, email me, or use the comments section and I’ll be happy to direct you to some people in the business who will give you good answers without the bull. This article is for people who want to begin a backyard, basement, or garage system.

First, understand that you can build several raised beds or buy a whole lot of containers for what a backyard aquaponics system is going to set you back. A small ‘off the shelf system’ that will keep a handful of fish and grow a few veggies will cost you over $1000.  If you’re going to grow in your garage or basement you’re going to have to add in costs of lighting and water temperature regulation, which can be significant. 

If you’re going DIY it can be much cheaper, but still significant. First there is the cost of Fish Tanks and grow beds. Will you use plastic barrels, IBC containers, stock tanks, or some other container? Your cost will be determined by what you choose and where you source it. I have historically used plastic barrels and stock tanks, but I also have some IBC totes for potential future use.

Plumbing costs money. There is the pvc, fittings, valves, hoses, cutting tools to consider, in addition to the costs of a filtration system.  Unless you already have an off grid power supply, you’re going to have to find a way to operate the water and air pumps. If you plan to run year round you’ll also have water heating costs.

Now, for the fish. Most of us began with Tilapia. Most of us failed. If you live in in Florida, south Texas, Arizona, Nevada or Southern California, you might get away with it. For most of the USA, however, the only way to successfully raise Talipia, is to heat the water at least part of the year and/or to raise them inside. When water temps get below 50 degrees F, Tilapia are going to die. For example, my inlaws live in west central Florida just south of Tampa Bay.  They have wild Tilapia in the ponds and lakes around them. A couple of years back, during a particularly cold spell, tens of thousands of Tilapia died and floated to the surface of the local ponds. Now just imagine what would happen here in north Georgia, or Kentucky, or Indiana, or Montana, or Maine. I think you get the picture. Tilapia can handle a wide range of water quality conditions, but water temperatures are literally a killer.

I was successful growing Tilapia in my basement and garage when we lived in town, but it wasn’t cheap. I gave up very quickly once we moved out here in the country. The cost of heating water in my greenhouse was prohibitive.

On the other hand, I love gardening and many things grew better in aquaponics than they did for me using more traditional methods, so I started thinking outside the Tilapia.

After it became just too expensive to raise Tilapia, I tried bluegill and catfish. They grow great here. I suggest you look into what might work in your area. In many places, especially north of the Mason Dixon, Yellow Perch are a good option. They grow relatively quickly and are extremely tasty.

In our case, my wife doesn’t eat fresh water fish, so it was pointless growing them. If I want some crappie filets, I just go to the lake and catch some. Easy.  The last two summers, I’ve grown goldfish.  They are 20 cents apiece at the pet store. That price is hard to beat. If you don’t eat fish, if you are on a budget, or if you don’t intend to grow year round, goldfish may be a great option.

Other options include minnows and Koi. Minnows are cheap, easy to raise, and can be used, or sold as bait for crappie and bass fishing.  Our ducks like them, too. Koi are often in demand for backyard ponds and can easily pay for themselves.

Koi, minnows, goldfish, bluegill, catfish, and many other varieties can be overwintered if the tanks are deep enough, but my wife and I have decided that growing all year round is not worth it for us. We live in Bartow County Georgia, not Adelaide, Australia. 

My systems work this way. I set up my system(s) in April, stock it with goldfish, and grow exclusively lettuces, herbs and greens in raft (DWC) systems. By doing this and using plenty of oxygen in the water, I can keep growing lettuces almost all summer. I can also grow Okra very successfully in rafts.  By growing these things aquaponically and hydroponically, I have lots more room in my traditional garden for tomatoes, peppers, melons and etc.

Once fall comes, I will grow some kale and swiss chard. Then once things get too cold for gardening to be fun, I take the system down for the winter. The fish will be fed to the ducks and chickens. It’s that simple.

Aquaponics can be fun and rewarding. To make sure it is, think about where you live. What fish will work where you are? Do you want to eat your fish, or will they be just for aesthetic enjoyment?  Will you grow seasonally or all year round? Will you grow outside or in? What’s your budget?

In short, do your homework. It’s the equivalent of measure twice, cutting once. And by all means, think OUTSIDE the Tilapia.

Please email me with any questions or add your comments. After all, we’re in this together.

 

 

 

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logoIt sure seems like my posts are getting further and further apart. You have my humblest apology for not keeping you better informed, but my silence has been due to many changes and perceived changes around here.

First, we thought we were moving across the country, but that didn’t happen. Still, I had shut down most of the operation in preparation for selling you, so there wasn’t much to write about.

Now, we are staying put here in NW Georgia, but we’ve gone through a rethink of all of our operations, and lifestyle. These changes will dramatically affect East of Eden Farms and Our Edible Suburb.

As for the farm, we are going back to subsistence farming/homesteading, which means a big reduction in livestock and garden. Over the next few months we’ll reduce our flock of chickens to less than a dozen and our rabbit herd to around 6.  The quail are still in the testing phase, so their future is uncertain. We plan to add a pair of dairy goats back in next spring, but only a pair. The pigs will all be processed this fall. We may add a feeder calf in the Spring, or we may just barter pasture land for meat. Stay tuned.

The garden is being transitioned into a testing and education space. I’ve become passionate about helping people feed themselves and want to create different kinds of experimental soil, hydroponic and hydroponic growing systems for observation and learning. I intend to develop some gardening coursed along the way. I’m especially interested in growing methods for developing countries that require minimal inputs yet produce maximum results.  Eliminating hunger and malnutrition matters to me. And doing so using methods that enhance the environment rather than destroy it also matters. So watch for more information on these subjects, too.

Because I hope to document my experiments on video, you should look for more of my updates to be found here and on my youtube channel, “Our Simple Sustainable Life”

Thanks again for not giving up on me. I’m looking forward to getting the fall garden in place. Let’s do this!

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Photo comes from theaquaponicsource.com

Photo comes from theaquaponicsource.com

Two weeks ago, I was at my wit’s end with, and over, the whole Aquaponics thing. I threw up my hands and said, “I’m done. The end. El fin.” And probably a few other things, not ready for prime time.

The first two or two and a half years of my Aquaponics journey had been rather positive.  Sure, I’d had some problems, but I had successfully kept a batch of Tilapia, Bluegill, and Catfish alive, while raising loads of herbs, okra, duckweed and KangKong in the grow beds. Using water from filter changes and routine partial water exchanges, I had successfully grown a number of plants in self watering containers. I had even saved a small naval orange tree and a pineapple plant from the brink of death and watched them bear fruit. Life was good in Aquaponicsville.

Late last summer, though, things just went to…, um, er, well, lets just say they went south.  I had filter problems, pump problems, plumbing problems and even predator problems (it turns out, we have wetlands right behind us, complete with blue herons. You can figure out the rest).  I lost a lot of fish and spent days and days working on my systems.

Just when everything seemed to be gaining traction again, we were visited by the coldest winter in Georgia since 1912. My greenhouse isn’t heated, so I use aquarium heaters in the winter water. During normal winters, that’s not a big deal. This year, though, it was a nightmare. The water heaters just couldn’t keep up, but my electric bill sure did.

The cold kept the beneficial bacteria from growing, so it was very difficult to keep the water clean. In the end, my fish died and I was not happy. I had towel in hand and was ready to toss it into the ring and surrender, when my moment of enlightenment came. I had my priorities all bassackwards and was working too hard towards the wrong goals.

I have been pursuing fish as the end game, which is not my real priority in Aquaponics Gardening. Brittan and I don’t eat that much fish, and our market is fairly limited. The stress of trying to keep fish alive all winter was totally unnecessary.

To a large degree, even the plants we grow in the system, aren’t the end game, either.  They are  important to our operation, but the ones we raise in our growbeds are mostly there to take up some of the excess nutrients created by the beneficial bacteria.  In truth, I’m using Aquaponics to farm nutrient rich water, which in turn, grows the vegetables in both my Aquaponics growbeds and my wicking beds (self watering containers). Yes, the water is the end game, and I don’t need nutrient rich water in the winter time.

The moment the realization hit me, the lights came on in my head again and all the pressure melted away. Until my greenhouse is heated, Aquaponics gardening will be a seasonal venture.  I can raise just enough Tilapia to put in our freezer and sell a few of the excess and use twenty cent goldfish to run all my other systems.  After I harvest the Tilapia in late fall, I can bring the goldfish into the greenhouse, shut down the grow beds and overwinter the goldies in the big tank.  They can handle the cooler water.

I feel so much better now.  I didn’t want to give up on Aquaponics. I’ve never seen okra, basil or kangkong perform better than they do in aquaponics systems. I didn’t want to lose those results. Using the fish water in the wicking beds actually builds the soil rather than creating a toxic salt build up like some commercial nutrients do. On the other hand, I can’t go through another winter like this one, running up an electric bill, only to watch my Tilapia die off one by one in the frigid temps. Now that my priorities are back in focus, I don’t have to. Aquaponics is fun again!  I like fun.

 

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Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe

Just look at these cantaloupe plants.  They want to take over the world.  These little beauties are perfect illustrations of the power of aquaponics.  They are being grown in earthbox self-watering containers and are primarily being fed with water from my aquaponics systems.  How is that for awesome?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do supplement with a dash of chelated iron and some Epsom salts, but that’s about it.  I am loving the results.

I forgot to take photos of the current state of our raft system but it is the perfect way to grow greens, herbs and okra.  Also, I had some tomato seedlings that were struggling in their starter trays, so I moved them to the raft aquaponics for a couple weeks and, BOOM, the growth was off the charts.  I transplanted them into their earthboxes and they are outperforming the plants I put directly into the boxes.  It’s incredible.

With that awareness, We are putting up a series of small systems throughout the garden to provide nutrients for all our containers and wicking beds.  We bought two 100 gallon stock tanks to be used as fish tanks and are using half barrels as filters/grow beds.

system being planted

system being planted

The systems, as you can see from the pics are simple, almost rudimentary.  The half barrels are just sitting on top of the tank and are used primarily as a bio filter.   A simple 40 watt submersible pump sends the water up into the grow beds where it is filtered by clay pebbles and lava rock and falls directly back into the fish tank.
As a side benefit, they will also grow plants.

One of my additions to these new units was to add a garden hose faucet to the water line.  This is cheaper than running a bunch of drip lines, but saves a lot of time and effort vs. filling watering cans.

Because it’s late in the season, I’m using comet goldfish in everything except the raft system which has catfish.  Next year each unit will have catfish and Tilapia.  We will also add some 500 gallon (2000 liter) tanks as well, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I have a lot of electric lines I need to run before I can even think about a major expansion.  For now I’m just enjoying the power of poo; fish poo, that is.

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Raft System before planting

Raft System before planting

I do love aquaponics gardening.  I make way too many mistakes, but I continue to persevere.  Our raft system is running fairly well.  We have some fantastic basil.  I believe raft aquaponics and basil are the perfect match.  The plants grow tall and the leaves are twice the size of traditionally grown plants.  We have both sweet and purple basil.  Both are performing splendidly.  We have some butter crunch lettuce that is to die for.  The sage is looking good.  I just put some okra and a couple small tomatoes as an experiment.  We’ll see what happens.  I’ll try and get some snapshots of the root systems on these plants.  They are huge. I’ll get some photos this weekend to add.

On the downside, we’ve had some algae bloom that wreaked havoc on our catfish.  I’ve lost most of them.  Fortunately, there is enough ammonia in the system to keep feeding the beneficial bacteria and ultimately the plants.  In the meantime, I’ve treated the algae, added a bacterial supplement and covered the fish tank with shade cloth.  I didn’t have any of these issues when it was an indoor system, but there’s a whole new set of challenges having the unit in the greenhouse.  The plant growth, though, is way superior to indoors under lights.

Once I’ve fixed the ammonia and algae issues, I’ll add some goldfish and run my units off of those for a while.  Much better to learn on 15 cent goldfish than expensive or exotic species.

I have a flood and drain system ready to begin cycling as soon as the timer arrives.  I had some challenges with the auto siphons in the original design and decided to switch it to a timed fill and drain instead.  The flood and drain work great.  The timer should arrive just before Memorial Day, so I’ll cycle it for a few days then add some goldfish.  This unit will mostly grow zucchini and squash. I am told that by growing squash in an aquaponics system I can avoid squash bugs because they need soil to live on.  I can’t wait to get it started.

I have one more single barrel experiment to try before June.  I want to hook up a 55 gallon barrel, with the top third turned into a grow bed.  I will place it in the middle of my earthbox

First 2013 Tomatoes in Earthbox

First 2013 Tomatoes in Earthbox

garden and will run a hose off of the fill line so I can divert water to top up my self watering containers.  Yes, it will mean more frequent water changes in the aquaponics unit, but I believe the fish will benefit from that.  If it works, I will add a larger tank later in the summer.  This single barrel will grow oregano, thyme and dill.

In June, I will order my breeding colony of Tilapia.  They will be kept in an aquarium in the greenhouse.  I have three other aquariums to use for nursery and grow out.  By next spring, I fully expect to be using small swimming pools to grow out large numbers of Tilapia.

We will begin with Blue Tilapia as they are about the hardiest variety.  If all goes well, we will have to build another greenhouse next spring for the Giant Redclaw Crawfish.  I’ve been waiting two years already to get that project going.  I’m close enough to see it  now.  I have three obstacles between where I am and where I want to be; time, money and patience.  I’m a bit short on all three. Then again, who isn’t.

 

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seedlingsAfter a hiatus, I have agreed to resume writing for The American Preppers Network.  I feel very honored to have been asked to participate in this project.  Please do watch for my articles there.  I sent in my first (in a long while) submission this morning.  I called it “Sourcing Seeds, Saving Seeds and Walking the Tightrope, It’s All a Matter of Balance.

I’ll be submitting one article a week for them.  Geez, people, I can hear you laughing from here.  I know, I don’t even manage to submit an article HERE every week.  What can I say?  Even my wife calls me a Wingnut.  Ah, love, sweet love.

Besides that, the only other news to report is that the garden is coming along well, just a little behind because of my post surgical limitations.  I’m starting to catch up now.  Also, the aquaponics systems should be back online next week.  I’ll take some pics of that for your dining pleasure.  We have a litter of American Chinchilla bunnies to go with all the baby pigs and baby goats.  Spring is such a wonderful time on the Homestead.

Brittan has been busy with her flower and kitchen gardens as well as mowing the grass and a little auto maintenance, among other things. Her chiropractor is regularly amazed at her strength and muscle tone. We chuckle about it, but she really is S T R O N G!  And she is a dead shot.  I pity the fool who messes with my woman!

Finally, I’ve coined a new word for where we live.  Technically, we’re somewhere between the suburbs and rural America now.  So I call this neighborhood, ‘Sub Rural’.  I am not changing the name of the blog, though. No way.  No How.

Have a great Thursday, everyone.

 

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