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Posts Tagged ‘hydroponics’

 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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bunniesDecember is ‘retrospective month’.  Turn on the radio, the television or the internet; open a magazine or newspaper and you can find a nearly infinite number of ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ stories for the year that was.  I think I’ll give that a miss.  2013 was a tough year, mostly because of the wet winter and my surgery.  Poor Brittan was left virtually alone to keep this ship afloat.  She did a great job.  She is one incredible woman.

Fortunately, the year is behind us, I’m 90% healed (and probably can’t expect more than that) and the new year awaits.  I am psyched and ready.  I hope you can keep up.

Here are some of the plans:

  1. In January, I plan to apply for a live plant license in order to sell seedlings to the public.  Oddly, you can sell basil leaves a farmers market, but the plant requires a license. It’s ok to sell tomatoes by the bushel, but you better have a plant license to sell that seedling for a buck and a half.  I know, it’s weird, but that’s life and we’ll comply.The idea was born from two seemingly coincidental events. First, we had so many starter greens and herbs last year that we had to feed hundreds of them to the compost heap.  Secondly, a nearby shop experienced a lack of interest from a well-known starter plant distributer.   The truck would drop off the plants, but the company didn’t come around to attend to them or keep them freshened.  As a result, many plants bolted or died.  I thought to myself, I bet that if seedlings were grown locally and naturally, they would have a stronger appeal and be able to be cared for in a better manner.  Since one of my favorite parts of gardening is starting and transplanting seeds, it seemed serendipitous.  I’m only hoping the State of Georgia agrees. seedlings
  1.  We will be expanding our garden considerably.  The addition of aquaponic and hydroponic systems is going to allow us to greatly increase the amount of produce we grow and make available.
  2. More Rabbits, Fewer Goats is the name of the game.  We’ve already reduced our goat herd considerably and may move a few more.  We didn’t have the market for goats and goat meat I had hoped for, so we are cutting back to a smaller herd that will still be large enough to provide plenty of meat and dairy, but will not overburden the pastures or pocket book.  The freezer will remain full and we may occasionally still have some goats for sale.  At the same time, we are increasing the number of rabbits.  The manure alone makes the decision worthwhile.  The rabbit waste is like gold when it comes to producing good compost.  There is nothing better.  We can raise 99% of all the food the rabbits need and the meat will feed us AND our dogs/cats.
  3. We will be cutting the number of hens, adding ducks and bringing back turkeys.  Basically, we decided that the broiler chicken business was too much work for no money.  We will keep a few hens for eggs and pasture maintenance, but just a few.  We have missed eating good turkey this year. Those rubbery, greasy things from the grocery store simply don’t cut it with us anymore, so we’ll raise a few birds this year for fall consumption.  I can’t wait.  The big thing, though, is Brittan want ducks.  She likes to watch them waddle and hear them quack.  She wants to try cooking with duck eggs. Who am I to argue?  Besides, I want to keep a few meat ducks (the OTHER red meat).
  4. tilapiaTilapia and Crawfish have been added already.  The Tilapia are doing nicely in their winter tank and we expect them to be ready for a nice autumn harvest.  In March or April, I will separate a breeding colony and begin breeding my own.  That ought to be an adventure.  My crawfish are surviving.  That’s better than the last time I tried raising them.  My fingers are crossed as I really want to be able to make a go of them.  They can be great food, good fish bait, and the carcasses are awesome for the compost heap.
  5. You Tube Channel is on the drawing board.  I’ve toyed with the idea of a channel for a couple years and even made some episodes that I never posted.  Brittan has convinced me that it would be a good idea, so I’m looking at “Gardening With The Village Idiot”, or something similar, to be released this spring.  The concept is, if I can do it, anyone can.

There are other projects and dreams in the oven, but I hope these will be enough to pique your interest enough to keep dropping back in on us here.  We love it when you come visit our site.  We’d like to see you come by more often.  And…we’d love to hear from you.  Don’t be shy.

 

 

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After one day of cycling, it is obvious that the small pump/hydroton grow media combination will not work in this system.  The clay pebbles are dry as a bone.  I am going to take out about 75% of the pebbles.  I will leave a layer in the bottom of each tray to assist drainage, but will replace the rest with coconut coir.  I am pretty sure the wicking potential of the coir will keep the beds moist.  The coir I’m using in my earthboxes is doing a splendid job of wicking and getting moisture to the plants.  So tomorrow we start work on version 1.1.

 

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This is the Goldfish Tower. At least is will be once I add the goldfish.  Right now I’m letting it cycle before I add fish.

The Goldfish Tower started life as an EZgro hydroponics unit.  I bought it a couple years ago as an experiment.  Frankly, I didn’t like the results.  I don’t believe, though, the poor results were because of the unit. It was user error.  I didn’t keep the nutrients in balance.  Heck, I think I let the tank go completely dry a couple of times.

I pretty much lost interest in hydroponics because of the lack of sustainability.  The nutrients could not be acquired or made locally and certainly don’t exist in nature.  Hydroponics just didn’t fit our model.

Shortly after abandoning the EZgro to the garage, I learned about aquaponics and suddenly what I considered an obvious flaw in the hydroponics concept was overcome.  Fish are sustainable.  The fish food can be grown in the garden and the fish create the plant nutrients, so the EZgro was back on the team.

The unit is quite simple.  At the base is a 5 gallon tank. In the bottom of the tank is a small water pump.  A section of pvc is connected to the pump and functions both as center pole to hold the grow beds and a conduit to carry the water.  Each of the grow beds has four growing chambers for plants.  The grow beds are filled with media.  The original system used a mixture of vermiculite and perlite.  I have chosen to use hydroton, which is expanded clay pebbles.  They are light weight and hold moisture and bacteria well.

Water is pumped up through the pvc conduit and into the top chamber.  The water (carrying nutrients of course) trickles down through each layer and back into the tank below.  The plants get the nutrients from the water and the hydroton acts as a bio filter cleaning the water then returning it to the fish.

I added an aquarium heater to maintain a comfort zone for the fish and an air stone to keep the water aerated.  The pump, air stone and heater all use electricity and as such, compromise the sustainability model.  Once I figure a way to use solar power to generate the electricity we remove most of the compromise.

The concept is sound, but the system as implemented has some weaknesses.  First, the tank is small.  I can only keep a few goldfish even with the addition of the air stone.  I’m going to try for 10, but believe that could upset the balance in the system.  Five would be better, but I’m not convinced that 5 one inch goldfish can generate enough nutrients for the number of growing chambers in the unit.

Secondly, I have questions about the water pump.  I think it’s too weak.  It is not a true flood and drain as it doesn’t actually flood anything.  It trickles. I could probably use a different pump and will consider that if results demand it.

The weakness of the pump leads to a third potential weakness, which is the hydroton.  I like the pebbles for flood and drain, but I’m thinking the slow, trickling water flow may require a growing media that has some wicking capability in order to hold moisture.  Perhaps a layer of coconut coir on top of the hydroton will fix the problem.

We won’t know anything until we try.  I’m quite prepared to make modifications as we go.  I am going to plant spinach and butter crunch lettuce as my first crop.  Stay tuned for updates.

 

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Ok, I’m a hypocrite.  After posting all over Twitter that I don’t blog on weekends because no one reads it, here I am.  I just wanted to write this before I forget it, since I’m using this space as my journal.

We are using feeder goldfish for this experiment.  Since we were having some nutrient deficiencies, we added some more fish last weekend.  A couple of the fish died the next day.  That will happen with thirteen cent goldfish.  The nutrients have improved.  I think I still need a few more fish for cauliflower.  I should have started with spinach or something.  Now it’s a quest.  The plants are showing new growth, but it’s slow.  The system is not really mature enough yet.

Everything in the water is in balance except the ph, which is still low.  I added some egg shells but they did not move the needle.  We use oyster shell grit at the farm for baby chicks, so if we have any, I’ll add a little and see what happens.  I’ll add slowly.  Just like salt in cooking, you can always add more, but it’s hard to take it out once it’s in.

EzGro Hydroponics Unit

I have my second experiment just about ready. I cleaned out my old EzGro hydroponics unit and am converting it to an aquaponics garden.  Since the tank is only 3 gallons, it will also be a goldfish garden.  I intend to use it for greens and for starting seeds.  I am using hydroton clay pebbles for the growing medium in this one. I think I’ll have it up and running by the end of the week.

While I was at it, I planted some sugar snap peas in an Earthbox out in the sunroom.  I’m also going to start some cherry tomatoes and see if I can grow them in a container in the sunroom through the winter.  Nothing to lose by trying.

In related news, I finished planting this season’s onions.  I still need to get some garlic in the ground, but I’m out of space.  Must dig out some large containers an put them in one of those.

Today was a gorgeous day for working outside.  I really enjoyed it.  Got a lot done and even had time for a nap.  Yeah, baby!  That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

 

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Here is what all the fuss is about.  Introducing, the Goldfish Garden prototype.  The GG consists of two major parts and a bunch of smaller ones.

The fish tank is a standard tank from Petco.  We have cheap feeder goldfish in it.  During the spring we grew basil in a floating raft sitting right in the tank.  It grew well, but our sunroom didn’t have enough direct light so it got a little stretched and stayed thin.  Good leaves with good flavor, though.  It bolted earlier than the ones grown outside.  We will be adding a few more fish later this week.  I don’t believe we will get enough nutrients for multiple plants from the few fish we have.

The upper container is an earthbox.  B and I have been EB fans for years.  We have about 40 of them for our outside garden.  I have modified this one a couple ways to make it compatible for aquaponics.  First, I put screening material around the divider between the growing segment and the water reservoir.  I also put screen on the inside and outside of the overflow drain.  I added the screens to filter out growing media since I’m using this as a flood and drain unit.

I have an aquarium sized submersible water pump (75 gal per hr capacity set at 50%) running from the tank to the feeder tube in the Earth box.  The pump is attached to a timer that is set for 3 minutes at 6 a.m. and three minutes at 6 p.m.  For now that allows the reservoir to overflow.  The overflow runs back into the fish tank.  The next generation will have the overflow run through a filter tank and then back into the fish tank.

The fish tank has a bio filter to assist in maintaining beneficial bacteria balance.  I have also incorporated a single air stone for extra oxygenation in the water.

The growing medium is coconut coir which is lightweight and ph neutral if any should get into the fish tank.  Coir wicks water well and should support plants effectively.

Speaking of plants, this unit is hosting 4 cauliflower seedlings.  As they grow, they will require a good amount of water and nutrients so we’ll add fish and adjust the water timer as required.  We may also need to bring in an LED grow light, if it doesn’t look like the box is getting enough direct sunlight.

Now it’s time to watch the results.  I have water quality testing products to monitor ph and nitrogen.  If this works, I already have a design that incorporates  a 300 gallon fish tank for Tilapia, an earthbox for larger plants like tomatoes and peppers, a floating raft for greens and an open tank for duckweed. But first things first.  Let the growing begin.

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