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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 38
May 26th,  2011
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,
I've gotten a number of inquiries about the diseased lettuce seed incident, and what people need to do to keep it from happening to them, so I'm going to write it up here and now (at least in outline form). Here goes:

When farmers produced all their own seed, the farmer simply didn't select any plants with disease to pick seed from for next year's planting. Unless you grow your own seed (a WHOLE nother subject!), you buy your seed from a seed house. Because seeds take a long time to sprout and grow to maturity, seed houses don't test the seeds themselves, as the extra time involved would increase their cost. Even if they did test, they wouldn't know for sure until weeks or even months later if a particular batch of seed presented a problem. So it's just not done.

That doesn't mean that it's not a good idea, or that you can't do it. As a result of our lettuce incident. we now test-germinate and plant seeds in an aquaponics system that is separate from our main commercial systems in case we have another infected seed problem. This also gives us information on germination percentages. Occasionally we will get a batch of seed that has a germination rate as low as 50%, and this shows up when we test the seed before planting thousands of them. The "fix" is to simply put TWO seeds in the pot. With a 50% rate, one of them is likely to germinate, and you can pinch the other off or just leave both and harvest two plants weighing the same as a larger single one from one pot.

It's easy for us to test seeds in Hawaii because we have a 365-day growing season. If you're in a temperate climate it can be done easily before growing season in a small indoors aquaponic system under artificial lighting (see our Apartment/Condo Systems plans). Get the varieties you're planning to plant during your regular growing season. Purchase ALL the seed you plan to use at this time, because if you just get a few now for test planting, and "get more" later, you can't be sure without testing that they are from the same batch and are OK. Store the bulk of the seed that does not go into the test planting in a cool dry place until growing season. Plant at least ten of each seed about three months before growing season in your small indoor aquaponics system. Watch for and record poor germination, poor growth, and disease incidents. You should attempt to treat any disease that shows up in this test grow, as you want to make sure you have an effective treatment for that disease if it shows up in your crops during growing season.

If you have tested your seed this way and it has passed with flying colors, you can plant with confidence that you won't have disease problems come into your systems through the seed you use, as we did. And as a pleasant side-effect from having the small indoors test system, you will also have fresh "test vegetables" way before the normal growing season to eat and share with friends.

If you're interested in
commercial scale aquaponics, please take a look at our Commercial Aquaponics Trainings (Special Offer in right sidebar of this email), where you will learn more about real-life operation of a commercial aquaponics system than you can anywhere else in the world. For smaller home backyard and apartment systems, please read on:
Purchase Construction Plans and Operating Info for 4 Different Sizes of Apartment/Condo Aquaponics Systems $49.95

Our Apartment/Condo System package includes new and easy-to-understand building instructions and complete operating information for 4 different sizes of small aquaponic systems based on our years of experience operating a commercial aquaponics farm. Anyone can build a system out of plastic barrels, but operating one successfully without good and easily-understood information can be frustrating. You simply use the "Daily Operations Checklist" in the manual and follow the step-by-step instructions on your way to success.

We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and built our first commercial aquaponics systems with FAR less information than this manual contains. We included all the information learned from that experience in this manual so you don't need to make any of the same mistakes we did.

Learn about our Apartment/Condo Systems!

Aquaponics Nugget #38:
Redux of The Start Up Blues (Part 3)

This week we explain how to get through the next part of this adventure, or "How To Modulate The Nitrite Spike". During our third system startup, we remembered what we learned about nitrifiers being light-sensitive and getting inhibited by too much sunlight, and we pulled the shade covers 2/3 of the way off the fish tank and half of the rafts off the troughs (this was a big commercial system). This inhibited the nitrifiers enough so that nitrites dropped from over 10 ppm to 4 to 5 ppm within two days and we didn’t have the hard nitrite spike we’d had in previous system startups.

Within a week the spike appeared to be over and nitrites had dropped to 3 ppm, so we put the covers back on the tank and the rafts back in the troughs. We planted our little vegetable sprouts into the rafts we’d left in the troughs six days after we first put in the inoculant bacteria, then added the balance of the rafts and planted them when nitrites dropped to 3 ppm. We ended up with 1 ppm nitrites and 20 ppm nitrates ten to twelve days after inoculation; perfect!. This is the easy way to control nitrite spikes during startup yet still start the system quickly.

Don't worry if you have a slow system startup; these systems work. They’re rock-solid and absolutely work. If you’re only two to four weeks into system startup and things aren’t growing as well as you’d hoped, you CAN'T base any conclusions on this. Make sure you are not making the following mistakes, however:

One way to foul up system startup: Nitrifying bacteria are sensitive to ammonia levels in the water above 3 ppm, which will inhibit their growth or kill them outright. When starting your system with a nitrifying bacteria inoculant such as ProLine, your system MUST have less than 3 ppm ammonia, preferably 1 ppm ammonia, or it WON'T START!

The only thing you can do if you have a system with 6 ppm ammonia or higher is to dump (yes, dump out onto the ground!) about 3/4 of the system water. The easy way to do this is to turn off the water pump, cap the pipe in the fish tank that leads to the hydroponics troughs so that no water goes out there, put a hose (the bigger the better) into the troughs, and siphon the trough water off downhill. If you have no hill, pump it out.

Now, refill the troughs with water containing NO ammonia, let it sit for 24 hours to dechlorinate if it's chlorinated tap water, then remove the cap and pump for six to twelve hours to fully circulate and mix the new water with the high-ammonia water remaining in the fish tank. This dilutes your system water ammonia levels to around 1-2 ppm (check and confirm it this time with the test strips to make sure). Now put a new gallon of ProLine bacterial inoculant in. Forty or fifty gallons of system water from an operating aquaponics system that you are absolutely CERTAIN has no diseased fish, no diseased plants, no parasites, no crawfish, and no duckweed dumped into your system at this point will work just as well as the Proline inoculant. If you purchase fish from someone with a guaranteed clean aquaponics system, put fifty gallons of their system water in your haul tank when you haul the fish to your location, and transfer it to your fish tank along with the fish.

Another way to foul up system startup: Some of our students have left the covers off the fish tank and the rafts off the troughs for three weeks or longer while trying to inoculate their systems with nitrifying bacteria. This creates TWO problems: the first was that their ammonia levels were WAY too high (over 6 ppm) for good nitrifier health, and the second was that they couldn't measure any nitrites or nitrates.

Their lack of measurable nitrites and nitrates wasn’t because there weren’t any nitrifiers or nitrates in their systems, but simply because the levels were so low they were unmeasurable using the inadequate test strips they had. Sensitive test strips that would work in this situation, which will show low levels of nitrites and nitrates well, are the Hach "Aquachek" test strips, their catalog number 27454-25 (you can get these from Aquatic EcoSystems in Florida at 1-877-347-4788, their catalog number H27454). You MUST use these strips or something equivalent which can measure nitrites in the range of 0.25 to 5 ppm; and nitrates in the range of 1-20 ppm to have an accurate idea of what's happening in your system. OK, so now you have the right test strips; where did the high ammonia level come from?

Their too-high ammonia level was created because they left their rafts off long enough for their systems to grow a LOT of green algae (there should be NONE or very little in your system, because you should have the rafts ON, except for a short while during system start-up if there's a nitrite spike over 5 ppm). They made a mistake assuming there were no nitrites or nitrates; there HAD to be, as the incredible green algae in the troughs and fish tank couldn’t have grown without these necessary nutrients and without the troughs uncovered.

The problem with this type of algae is that it has a very short life cycle measured in hours, and when its little carcasses sink down to the bottom of the troughs and decay, they turn into a LOT of ammonia. This ammonia inhibits and depresses the nitrifiers, which, though they ARE present, are not obviously so because their measurable levels are so low. If you've made this mistake, you will see high ammonia levels, and low or unmeasurable levels of nitrites and nitrates on your test strips, leading you to think that NO system startup has occurred. The fix here is to dump three quarters of the green system water, refill with clean water, and COVER THE TROUGHS THIS TIME! After a while, your system will settle down and you will see normal levels of these nutrients (1-2 ppm ammonia, 0.25 to 1 ppm nitrites, and 1-20 ppm nitrates).

(Next week: "Startup Blues, Part 4"; we'll cover more of what NOT to do, plus what TO do!)

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Free Farm Tours
Aquaponics tour at the Friendly farm!

We hold a free workshop on our farm the FIRST Saturday of every month,  focused on growing food with aquaponics and permaculture.  Click here for information. See you there!

If you are a school, a non-profit organization, an organization working with the poor, Native Hawaiians, or ex-inmates, or if you are a church, we will hold a free farm tour for you anytime. You DO need to email us first to schedule, or we might be out on errands!


3-1/2 pound kalo (taro root) grown in a 2" net pot (little bump at bottom)


4-month old prawn (macrobrachium rosenbergii) grown in hydroponics troughs of our aquaponics systems

Special Offer! Sign up for our October 2011 Hawaii Commercial Aquaponics Training OR our September 2011 Florida Commercial Aquaponics Training now, and we will email you our Micro System package so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)

Sign up for Hawaii and Florida Commercial Aquaponics Training

In The Farmily
This week's "In The Farmily" is Susanne's column about John May, from Oklahoma, who "met" us when we hit the wall financially in late 2008 (months before our Costco account income began). He was the collections manager for one of the credit cards we had, back when we still had credit cards. He called us every week or so for several months, and along the way I told him about Aquaponics, and invited him to visit our website. He did so, and it changed his life.

One day, out of the blue, a man called me and asked me a lot of questions about Aquaponics, and our commercial DIY package. I did not put together who he was and how he knew about us until he told me of the credit card connection. John also told me that by making this personal call to me, he was putting his 27 year career with a major bank in jeopardy. He told me that ALL calls when he was at work were recorded, and if I indicated anything about this personal call, he would lose his job.

John purchased our Commercial DIY materials, and evenings and weekends over the past two years has built his system. He kept working in the collections department, a job that I cannot even imagine such a gentle man having to do.

One day, several weeks after receiving the DIY materials, he called to offer us a personal loan to pay off the account that was by then several months overdue. He had never met us personally, but had only had phone conversations with us and read our website and written materials. It was a profound gesture of trust and support that reassured us that we were on the right path.

Last month, John put fish in his system, and last week, he quit his job, because it was "killing" him. He gave me permission to share his story, and how it overlaps with our own. John saw the possibility of Aquaponics, and trusted us long before we became successful. His belief and trust in us was a huge boost to us, in our early days.

To John, who is definitely a member of our "Farmily", we say Mahalo nui loa, which is usually  translated from Hawaiian as "Thank you very much", but really is more like "Great thanks, everlasting" for believing in us, and for trusting us, and for joining us in becoming primary food producers. We are blessed to know you. Thank you for letting me share your story, John.

For those of you in the Oklahoma area who would like to contact him, his email is <>, and his company's name is Green Country Aquaponics, LLC. He could use your support, as we so needed his.

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This email, our manuals and construction plans are all copyrighted by  Friendly Aquaponics, Inc, Susanne Friend and Tim Mann, 2008-2010

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