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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 58
October 17th  2011
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,

Controversy is an interesting social function of human beings. We kind of like it (not just for the sake of controversy) but because a good controversy makes people take out their assumptions and re-examine them to see if they hold water (pun intended!).

Compared to other growing methods, aquaponics is just beginning to develop and grow in all sorts of directions. Our farm has experiments and variations from many interns who shared slightly different visions of what a functional aquaponic environment looks like; some of our most useful improvements came from experiments suggested or worked on by interns. With enough time, imagination or money, there is almost an infinite number of ways to have a successful aquaponic system.

We learned quite early that media-based aquaponics can be expensive to build and to operate for use in commercial aquaponic production. I'm certain I've already ruffled some feathers with this statement, so let me qualify it with some numbers. Our deep water aquaponics troughs cost us $2.34 per square foot for materials to build. For materials to build the same media bed, with the same LDPE liner, but with the top of the media bed 3 feet off the ground so the bell siphon would work, costs $6.24. This is $3.90 more per square foot; and on our farm, with 5,500 square feet of growing area, it would have cost us $21,450 more for materials (if you want to use Hydroton instead of cheap gravel, add $2 more per square foot to this cost).
Dollar amounts are adjusted to show accurate mainland prices.

Both systems require a support mechanism capable of withstanding the weight of tons of water, gravel, rafts and plant material. Our troughs use the ground as their support mechanism, which eliminates a huge cost. To get a media based system off the ground so that the autosiphons will work, be prepared to properly invest in the support structure so you can avoid a collapse down the line. We've built both of these kinds of growbeds; deepwater raft beds on the ground, and media beds raised up off the ground so the autosiphon would work. There may be others who can demonstrate how to build media based systems for comparable prices; we simply don't know how to do it yet.

The businessman in me is saying "well, if there is a significant measurable productivity increase, and/or a significant resulting decrease in labor requirements that derives from using media bed systems, this might be a good thing for the farm, and it might pay for the increased cost, or justify switching from our current method of growing". As we've already noted, the media beds can cost 2.65 times more than the deepwater raft beds. As far as labor goes, you have to WALK down to the end of a 100-foot media bed to plant your seedlings, and THEN have to walk back down there with a harvesting basket to harvest your crop.

In smaller systems, this is not of particular concern, but as you add more and more rows of growing space, more planning becomes essential to seed and harvest effectively. With a little creativity, this is not a big issue, but when compared to our current solutions and systems, there is not a real gain or loss one way or the other. It is just different. We enjoy our deepwater raft systems where we put rafts with new seedlings in at one end of a 100-foot trough, then harvest mature ones out of the other.

If you've planned your trough layout intelligently, your troughs all center on your harvesting area, and then you have a short walk with a full raft to a harvesting table. We harvest standing up and working around a chill table in ONE area on our farm, with the radio on, talking to our friends, and the produce goes directly into ice water five seconds after being cut off its still-living roots.
If you feel you can design a media based system to be just as cost-effective, we suggest you do so first with a SMALL system to minimize the investment required. And when you have a working media bed system that costs the same or LESS to build than the cost we've shared for our raft systems, we would LOVE to hear how you did it.

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. The next training is in Hawaii in October 2011. 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 or IBC totes, 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 also cover how to make aquaponics systems out of weird things like old refrigerators and door frames; this makes aquaponics much more economical to get started in!

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 #58:
A Primer On Aquatic Ecosystems, Part 2

 Last week, we looked at whether or not we could safely bring a new organism into an existing aquatic ecosystem (one of our aquaponics systems), and we used the freshwater prawn, macrobrachium rosenbergii, as an example.

This week, we'll look at another example where a new organism found its way into our systems and flourished. This is gammarus,  also known as "water fleas". After we'd been operating about 15 months, we had gammarus show up in one of the two systems on our farm, with seemingly no discernible transmission vector. We hadn't brought any fish or other living things into our systems from outside the farm in the previous year. We first noticed the gammarus when one of our farm interns came in to the lunch room and said "There are little shrimp crawling all over the plant roots and eating them!". We had the appropriate response: ran screaming around the room, up to the aquaponics, and looked at our new invader.

Susanne went into high gear and "keyed them out", which to a biologist means tracing down the class, order, and species of the living thing in question. She found that they were detrivores (means they eat dead things), and were no threat to the plants growing in the system. In fact, the residence of these little beasties is considered by experts to be an indicator of a high level of health in an aquatic ecosystem. After we got over our initial scare that we had a new system pest to deal with, we were proud of our little gammarus for making it to our farm from somewhere else all on their own. They're also kind of cute.

Soon, we started seeing differences in the net tank in the system they showed up in; first, there was a heck of a lot of
gammarus in the tank. We noticed the net tank wasn't getting filled with fish poop as fast, then noticed it wasn't getting deposits of fish poop at all! It's been three years since the first gammarus colonized that system, and we haven't cleaned the net tank once since!

Even more telling than this was what happened when we transferred the
gammarus to system #2 in an effort to help them colonize it: when we first put the gammarus into the troughs, this system's net tank had a 3-inch thick solid mat of fish poop floating on the top. Over the next month and a half as we watched, the mat of poop gradually disappeared; neither was there any fish poop adhered to the nets in the tank as there always was before gammarus. We did some digging and found the net tank full of gammarus, as if they had decided it was the promised land. As we seeded gammarus into the other systems, they took up residence throughout each system: in all the tanks, in the hydroponics troughs, and in the roots of all the vegetables. The vegetable roots seem to be much cleaner, as the gammarus clean any crud off them that is deposited. We can't help but think that this constant attention to crud on the roots can only benefit our plant growth.

This is an example of how an available niche can be found and filled by an appropriately-adapted organism. There was a ton of detritus throughout our systems: dead roots, bits of coconut coir, a dead mosquito fish here and there, and there was nothing eating this stuff; it just decayed on its own and turned into fertilizer for the plants. The gammarus arrived, somehow, in our systems, and found all this great food with no one already eating it; they also found many places to shelter from mosquito fish among the roots and the inch or so of detritus in the bottom of the troughs. They NEED these places to hide from the mosquito fish, because they're SHRIMP, and everyone loves to eat shrimp!

Gammarus eat little bits of crud. This helps the action of the nitrifying bacteria in the system, because chemical activity loves surface area, and passing through a gammarus' digestive tract turns a single small piece of crud into several hundred smaller pieces with hundreds of times the surface area of the original piece. This breaks down more quickly, turns into ammonia more quickly, and gives the nitrifying bacteria in the system a steady and dependable supply of food.

In fact, gammarus seem to perform exactly the same function in a deepwater raft system that worms perform in a media-based system with them incorporated; except that where there might be hundreds or perhaps thousands of worms in a media system, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of gammarus in our deepwater systems. These numbers are based on counts made on worms in a media-bed system, and the numbers for gammarus are based on extrapolations we've made from actual counts of organisms per unit area in our systems. We had to use extrapolative techniques to count them, because there are some areas in our systems that have thousands of gammarus in a square foot, and we have thousands of square feet in our systems.

(Next week: Part 3 of this).

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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  our October 2011 Hawaii Commercial Aquaponics Training now, and we will email you our Micro System package so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)

More Information on Hawaii Commercial Aquaponics Training

In The Farmily

My wife Susanne had a great idea seven years ago which was to start breeding Shires; these are horses that look similar to the "Budweiser Clydesdales".

They're black and white with "feathers" on their hooves, and look like 2,000 pound quarterhorses; they have a beautiful gait, are super gentle around children; and there were none on our island, which meant we had a corner on the market. We got a lot of inquiries for colts from the Shires, then our stallion got sick.

He didn't die, which was lucky, but unfortunately he lost his eyesight as a result of the illness. Except for this, he's a regular horse. I can put a saddle and bridle on him and he'll do anything from a walk to a gallop for me. But being blind, he's totally dependent on me, AND totally trusting, which is an incredible relationship to have with an animal.

If we go somewhere, I have to tell him what I want him to do all the time; I can't just relax and "let my horse find his own way" as you can with sighted animals. We'd go over the cliff!

In addition to this stallion, Susanne managed to put together a stable of three purebred Shire mares. Although one of the mares is the herd leader, he's the herd stallion (also the ONLY stallion). When he shows an interest in dating one of the "girls", they simply wander a few steps away from him, and he's left holding his flowers and candy and saying "sweetheart, where did you go?".

So, we're investigating artificial you-know-what. But with cheap oil receding in the distance, we're REALLY GLAD we have four of the biggest draft horses in the world on our farm!

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