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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 27
February 10th,  2011
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,

Being a pioneer can be scary. You're in new territory without any maps; "There be sea serpents here!", the old charts used to say. There are no sea serpents in aquaponics, but after surviving a near-bankruptcy in a different business, I know there are risks in any business and one needs to minimize them wherever possible. It's a new world out there: "unshakable" companies like GM need bailouts costing billions, and major banks and brokerages melt like snow in the summertime. The old rules no longer apply.

How does one navigate this brand new world? In 2006, we had two thriving businesses tied to the construction industry. When it went poof in 2007, we decided to grow food. We had no idea how, but we knew it didn't go out of style, and people didn't stop buying it like new homes and cars when the economy got difficult.

After two weeks of intense research, we set our feet on the path that led to us becoming the first aquaponics farm in the world to get USDA organically certified in 2008, the first ever to deliver to Costco, and the first to share everything we learned with others who wanted to duplicate our success. The farm has paid the bills since the first check came in September 2009. We'll talk a lot more about the organic aquaponic systems we pioneered and developed in this week's Nugget; but if you want to learn how to do this instead of just read about it, we have trainings scheduled for Florida in March and Hawaii in April of 2011.

Our FIRST EVER mainland training is scheduled in Florida from March 21st to March 24th, 2011. The training will be held at the Community Center of Ridge Manor, 34240 Cortez Blvd, Ridge Manor, Florida. Susanne Friend and Tim Mann of Friendly Aquaponics will be teaching the course  with Friendly Aquaponics affiliates Tonya Penick and Gina Cavaliero, who own and operate Green Acre Organics, where the hands-on sessions will be held. These Florida affiliate trainings will be held at Green Acre Organics on a regular basis from now on. The conference room we've hired for the Florida training only holds 120 participants, so reservations for the course will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis.

If you're interested in commercial scale aquaponics, please take a look at both the Hawaii and Florida 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:

Hands-on Live Micro System Trainings planned for Hawaii locations in February:

If you want to learn aquaponics easily and inexpensively, these Micro System trainings may be perfect for you. They show you how to build AND operate a stable, durable, and productive 64 OR 128 square foot backyard aquaponics system in two weekends for less than $900 (for the 64), or $1,200 (for the 128) worth of materials you can buy locally.

To register for either of these trainings, just click on the links below or sign up for the Hamakua course by calling John and June at 962-0515; or the Kona course by calling Alexis and Chris at 325-7665.

Enroll in the February 12th Hamakua Micro System course

Enroll in the February 19th Kona Micro System course

Aquaponics Nugget #27:
Organic Aquaponics Systems (Part 1 )

Organic Aquaponics Systems

We learned (in the excellent 2007 UVI aquaponics course), that aquaponics systems tend to become acidic (lower pH numbers) over time because of the conversion of the
carbon dioxide the fish breathe out into carbonic acid; and that the operator needs to add bases to the system (chemicals with higher pH numbers) to bring the pH back up into the range that is good for fish and plants.

he first six months we operated our original UVI-type systems, we did so EXACTLY as we had learned, by adjusting pH with potassium hydroxide and calcium hydroxide (chemicals that are very basic), when the pH went down below 6 or so. This was NOT an organic system, because both of these chemicals are on the OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute) not approved list.

These two chemicals are also quite caustic; if you scoop up a handful of potassium hydroxide (lye) without a rubber glove on, you will have a serious chemical burn to deal with. Although UVI told us they adjusted pH about once a month, we found that we had to adjust pH every two weeks at times. We did so VERY carefully, because if we put too much of the hydroxides in, we could cause the system pH to hit levels that would damage or kill fish and plants. Our method was to put in a small amount, let the system circulate for 24 hours, then remeasure pH, and adjust again (carefully!), if we hadn't hit our target of 7.0. Because this was so new to us, we took water quality measurements twice a day for four months, going through a mountain of test strips. We have a very good picture of what the water temperature, pH, DO, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates were in the system during this time.

When Susanne was preparing for our organic certification in 2008, she got rid of the potassium and calcium hydroxides and substituted calcium carbonate to adjust our system's pH. In Hawaii, calcium carbonate is coral sand from the beach, AND it is on OMRI's approved list. We can tell you there's nothing safer; our kids used to eat beach sand when they were little and it would show up in their diaper the next day. Anyway, we put a few handfuls of calcium carbonate in our systems the next time the pH went down to 6, and the pH went up to 7.0, just as it had when we were using the hydroxides.

What surprised us out of our slippers (this is Hawaii, remember?) was that after a month the pH was still 7.0! Even more surprising, it was still 7.0 after THREE months of no calcium carbonate additions! After four months, the pH was down around 6.4 and we added calcium carbonate again. This time it was six months until we saw the pH go below 6.90, and we adjusted when pH hit 6.7 at seven months or so after the last addition. This was the LAST time we adjusted pH in any of our systems, TWO YEARS AGO! The pH has been rock-steady between 6.9 and 7.1 for two years, in all seven of our systems. This was pretty interesting stuff!

Even more interesting is what happened with the nutrients in our systems. Before we went organic, we would get system nitrite measurements ranging from 0.5 to 4 ppm, and nitrates ranging from 20 to 200 ppm. About two months after we went organic, nitrites dropped to almost unmeasurable levels, and nitrates ranged from 3 to 10 ppm! We went into shock for a few days, and only gradually came out as we realized that things were growing as well as they ever had, if not perhaps better.

Two years later, we have one 3,500 square foot system that consistently measures between 1-3 ppm nitrates, and one 860 square foot system (that we have WAY too many fish in) that usually measures between 5-10 ppm nitrates. They BOTH grow vegetables like nobody's business. Now, the hydroponics guys  tell you that you CAN'T grow anything with nitrates below 100 ppm, and the aquaponics consultants tell you you can't grow with nitrates below 60 ppm. Neither of them know anything about organic aquaponic systems.

The ONLY time we ever see nitrite or nitrate measurements higher than these in an organic aquaponic system is during system startup. This fact piqued our interest, and helped us develop our current hypothesis, which may explain the difference between nutrient levels in our organic systems and in chemical-based systems. We think the chemical-based systems show these higher levels of nitrites and nitrates because the repeating applications of caustic chemicals used in them cause repeating die-offs of nitrifying bacteria, which then re-establish themselves in a cycle similar to what happens during system startup. We'd love to try this hypothesis out, but we'd have to run one of our systems as a chemical-based system again to do so, and what would be the point? What farmer wants to get half as much for their non-organic vegetables?

The important thing about our discovery about nutrient levels in organic aquaponics is that it throws much of the conventional wisdom about aquaponics out the window. To be completely clear, we DON'T KNOW exactly what's happening in our systems. We would need a $25,000 spectrometer, a lab, a year or two, and about $120,000 in salaries and costs for lab workers to get a good handle on what the actual processes are at a microbiological level. What we DO understand is that the systems keep growing stuff like crazy even though measurable nutrients are barely measurable. They feed us.

(Next week: "Organic Aquaponics Systems" Part 2, with information on the biological basis of organic aquaponic systems and why this is a good thing for the aquaponic farmer).

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. These workshops start with a one-hour free farm tour from 10-11 am, then the free workshop from 11-12. Sample topics include: "How to grow"; bananas, sweet potatoes, taro, green onions, tomatoes, and so on. Each workshop will cover a different vegetable and include a handout with instructions covering that vegetable for you to take home. Click here for information. See you there!


Taro 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 April 4-7th, 2011 Hawaii Commercial Aquaponics Training OR our March 21-24th 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 Commercial Aquaponics Training

Sign up for Florida Commercial Aquaponics Training

In The Farmily

Emily, our 18-year-old daughter who is an accomplished bluegrass violinist, got an offer to tour Europe with a band this summer, and she came to Hawaii to audition with them over the last week.

The auditions went well, and everyone got excited about that. What we didn't know yet is that meant that the parents (us) had to go into high gear for the next ten days, taking her to practices and gigs with the band, and providing hot food, cold drinks, moral support, and a cheering section. We cheered, we danced to the music, we cooked and ate until we almost exploded, and we had a great week. The ONLY problem was that we still had to work the normal work week on the farm, but got only about half the normal amount of sleep!

So we've been going to bed relatively early for the past few days, trying to get the reserves built back up. This has been complicated by the fact that our Brazilian Jiu Jitsu dojo (what Rose calls "Berjilian Ju Jitsu") has a tournament coming up in another couple weeks, and the practices have been twice as hard as usual to get in shape for the tournament. And, on top of our chronic sleep deficit from the previous week's bacchanalia, we're in there pushing as hard as we can to keep up with the 20-somethings in excellent physical shape who comprise most of the dojos members. Who said martial arts were fun?

The band really fell in love with Emily, so she's going to get the experience of a lifetime, touring Europe in a musical group. The band has done this route for many years, and has friends and acquaintances in many countries. Named "The Durgas", their name means "Peaceful Warriors" in Sanskrit. Their message, delivered in a German-Polish-Reggae style, is that everyone all over the world can live in peace.

If you want to check out their music and see what's captivated our Farmily, you can visit them at this link: "The Durgas", hope you enjoy them, their music, and their message that "peace is possible", as much as we have.

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Honoka'a, Hawaii 96727

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