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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 37
May 18th,  2011
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,
I know, I slipped my Tuesday launch date for the newsletter by a day. But I have a good excuse: I've been excitedly working on our biogas lab, and we're now ready to turn on the water heater (used to heat the digester enclosures) and charge our test digesters (means fill them with poop water!) to make biogas. AND, we have so much news this week that I'll be sending out another newsletter in two days announcing the 2011 World Aquaponics Conference and introducing our new Commercial Aquaponics Training format.

As we mentioned the last two weeks, we got an infected batch of seed that destroyed $10,000 worth of our crop. Because of requests from readers, we're going into that in detail here. We sent the infected lettuce to the State Agriculture Extension Service testing lab in Hilo, and got the following results back: there was powdery mildew on the crowns of the lettuce, along with alternaria fungus, Rhizoctonia solari (multinucleate type), and  pythium fungus (root rot) on the roots. How could we have so much go wrong at the same time?

It probably didn't ALL come in on the infected seed. It's more likely that the seed was infected with one of these, and that when the plant grew from seed with a built-in infection, it started out weak, and the other diseases had an opportunity they otherwise would not have had to move in. Plants in aquaponics systems tend to be incredibly disease-resistant anyway, a fact which was proven out when we removed the diseased plants from our system and halted the spread of the disease.

We're still losing about 10% of the lettuce (the variety that was infected as seed) to this, but we're removing
the affected plants as soon as they show signs of this disease, and the nearby plants don't develop it. Some savant out there is asking "why don't you just stop planting the infected seed?" Well, we mixed ten varieties of lettuce seed together in a big bin about three months ago, and it is already mixed. We can't tell the infected seed by color, so we just pick out the bad ones off the rafts as soon as they start to show signs of the disease.

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 #37:
Redux of The Start Up Blues (Part 2)

"Startup" time in an aquaponics system is when you fill the system with clean water and introduce ammonia (from the fish) and nitrifying bacteria to begin the nitrification cycle which powers plant growth in your aquaponics system. Last week we covered putting fish in the system and how to avoid haul-related mortalities. This week we continue to help you understand how getting things right now will set you up for success in your aquaponics career.

In our manual we call this next section in quotes "Do Nothing: The Three-Month Startup", because aquaponics systems will naturally startup all on their own without any human intervention if you just put fish in, aerate them and circulate the water, and keep ammonia below 3 ppm.

"Nitrifying bacteria occur naturally throughout our world. If you put fish in your system and just wait, the bacteria show up in two to three months. This is what the university aquaponics establishment told us to do; we did it on our first system and it works. It just loses you three productive months during which you need to make loan payments and eat".

So, if you're concerned about doing something wrong, you can just wait for the nitrifiers to show up on their timetable. But if you want to get started a little quicker,
we call this next section of our manual "Inoculate: The Five-Day Startup", because aquaponics systems will startup just fine WITH human intervention.

We started our second system with a non-refrigerated ProLine nitrifying bacteria concentrate in the one-gallon size for $42 (catalog #239211) from Aquatic EcoSystems, then put fish in. On this system startup, we had nitrites in the system in three days and nitrates showing in five days. We didn't know how to avoid a hard nitrite spike at that time, and so our fish went through a 10-day nitrite spike of over 10 ppm, with no mortality. We were lucky that time! This is the easiest and best way to start a system, if you know how to help your fish survive the nitrite spike.

On our third system we used one of the Aquatic EcoSystems' (AES) $317 gallons of bacteria (plus $180 UPS overnight shipping in a styrofoam cooler), waited three weeks and nothing happened. Then we pumped over 400 gallons of water from another system and had nitrites within a couple of days. We have other reports of these bacteria AND the $42/gallon bacteria not working and think AES just had a bad batch or two.

First, don't add the inoculant until and unless your ammonia is lower than 3 ppm, preferably 1 ppm. Here's why: nitrifying bacteria are inhibited by ammonia levels of 3 ppm or higher, and if you have higher ammonia, you WON'T get system startup. Make sure you have less than 3 ppm ammonia in your system before wasting inoculating bacteria on it. If you're higher, dilute your water, pump for 12 hours to mix, measure again, THEN, when your ammonia is down to 1-2 ppm, add your innoculant bacteria.

IMPORTANT!  When nitrifying bacteria are introduced to a system, the fastest-breeding and feeding bacteria are the ones that eat the ammonia and produce nitrites. The ones that convert the nitrites to nitrates have slower reproduction rates and are much slower to get established, resulting in what is called a "nitrite spike" where you have very high levels of nitrites for a week or two before it starts getting converted to nitrates. This is a concern because nitrite is as toxic to fish as ammonia. Theoretically, over 6 ppm of either will stress and eventually kill tilapia. However, we've had our fish in an ammonia spike of 24 ppm for a couple weeks because we didn't know what we were doing, but they lived. We also had fish in a nitrite spike of over 10 ppm for a couple weeks, and they all survived that. We recommend that you don't do this on purpose, though.

Here’s how you start your system: put the fish in your system; they will make ammonia just by swimming around (they excrete it through their gills when they breathe). If your fish are coming soon but are not available yet, you can start by putting Aquatic Ecosystem’s ammonium chloride tablets (catalog #239100, $13.39) into your system water to a concentration of 1 ppm, OR about a cup and a half of household ammonia for a 1,024 square foot system, NOT BOTH!. Also, DON'T put fish AND ammonia tablets or liquid ammonia in the system; if you have fish to put in, they will provide all the ammonia needed. Then you pour in the $44.68 gallon size Proline nitrifying bacteria (catalog #239211) from Aquatic EcoSystems. Keep the water pump on 24/7, AND keep the blower(s) on 24/7 during this time because these bacteria need oxygen. Test once a day hereafter for about a week, and you should see nitrites showing within two to three days at about 2-3 ppm. If you don’t do something to modulate the nitrite spike, you could end up with so much nitrites you get into the theoretically toxic range for fish of 10 ppm and over.

To measure nitrites and nitrates properly during system startup, you need a different kind of nitrite/nitrate test strips than you use during normal system operation. Get a bottle of Pentair R444 test strips (Aquatic EcoSystems catalog #) to use during startup. This product has nitrite and nitrate ranges that can measure the higher ranges of these two that occur only during startup. During normal operation, use the Hach H27454 test strips (Aquatic EcoSystems catalog #).
Here’s how you modulate the nitrite spike to keep your fish safe (ONLY necessary if you have fish in the system): the first day that the nitrite side of the test strip shows up as 5 ppm or over, take about half the rafts off your troughs. Keep monitoring nitrites each day, and if they continue to go up from 5 ppm, take the other half of the rafts off your troughs (leaving the cover on the fish tank). Because the nitrifying bacteria that create nitrites are sensitive to light, this measure should bring the nitrites down to about 5, where they will stay for seven to ten days or so. At the end of this phase, you will see the nitrites go down to 2-3 ppm. At this point, you can put all the rafts back on the troughs. You only have to do this startup ONCE with a system when it is new. You can plant your sprouts (which you need to have seeded into the net pots two to three weeks EARLIER than this) into the rafts as soon as NITRATES first show up on your test strips. During normal operation you will see ammonia levels from 0.25 to 1.0 ppm; nitrite levels in the same range; and nitrate levels from 1-3 ppm up to a maximum of 10-15 ppm.

(Next week: "Startup Blues, Part 3"; we'll cover more of what NOT to do, plus what TO do!)

Click to see our new Video!

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 (dates to be announced) 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
JackMicroSystemSmall 2
Jack's Micro System

Jack's Micro System has recovered from the lettuce blight we talked about last week. It's got rafts full of 2" tall sprouts now, all kinds (NOT just lettuce).

I asked Jack last night when the last time he fed his fish was. I expected to hear the standard kid's answer of "well, I think I fed them yesterday" or some such, but Jack just said "today". He's the oldest, most mature ten year old on the planet.

He's also the only person in the family (besides me) who puts away for a rainy day. As a result of this, Susamme has made Jack the custodian of the "vacation fund". This is a stack of dollar and five-dollar bills that Jack squirrels away in his closet somewhere.

How it works is that when Susanne or I have some small-bill change, we hand it to Jack. This is money that would have gotten spent on little things, but that now is in the fund. We've noticed that we're more careful about what we spend our money on now, and there is a lot more going into the vacation fund as a result.

Today Susanne is going in for a cataract operation. Although only 37, she found her vision was going bad in one eye about six weeks back, and now her distance vision is completely gone in that eye. The surgery will remove her existing lens and replace it with a plastic multifocal lens that will restore her vision to better than it originally was.

Talk about wonders of modern science! I'm just glad it is possible, as she means so much to me, and clear vision is a gift that has to be seen to be appreciated.

We'll follow Jack's adventures with his new Micro System for the next few "In The Farmily" columns!

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