Aquaponics - A Primer

SUBHEAD: This new e-book tells you everything you need to know about raising fish and vegetables for the table at home in an ingenious, ecological way. Image above: "Green" house of Aquaranch. See video below for details. From By Mark Anslow on 20 October 2009 in the Ecologist -

Earlier this year, I visited Jimmie Hepburn on his carp fish farm in Devon earlier this year to interview him for the Ecologist’s ‘Visionaries’ issue. Hepburn’s setup involved a series of earth-dug ponds filled with carp, which were fed on a combination of manure (to stimulate algal growth), organic cereals and worms raised on scraps from a local veg-box scheme. ‘Whole system farming’ was what the ecology degree-holding farmer called it. Part of Hepburn’s operation was a consultancy that encouraged people to start farming fish for food at home. I accepted at the time that the concept was possible, but, given the scale (and unfavourable economics) of Hepburn’s own farm, I couldn’t quite see how it could stack up in the suburban back garden. Reading Bevan Suits’ new e-book, The Aquaponics Guidebook, has convinced me otherwise. Proving in a single stroke the relevance, readability and usefulness of the e-book format, Suits’ guide is the ultimate inspiration for anyone interested by the idea of producing vegetables and raising fish on a micro-scale and in a sustainable way. Although the book is intensely practical, the philosophy behind it is very clear. ‘We have only a vague idea what’s in our food, where it comes from, who grows it or who pockets the profits,’ Suits writes. ‘This uncertainty is what drives our interest in creating local, decentralised agricultural economies. We have become a culture of 99 per cent consumption, 1 per cent production when it comes to food. The more we grow our own food, the better it is for everyone.’ And with that, The Aquaponics Guidebook launches into a fascinating world of linking ecosystems, using the nutrients in fish waste to grow plants, which in turn act as a filtration system, cleaning the water.

The fish (Suits recommends tilapia, which are omnivorous, hardy and palatable) can grow from tiny fingerlings to 500g, table-ready specimens in just eight months. At the other end of the ecosystem, with the right amount of light, plants such as basil and lettuce can be grown in the nutrient-rich water. Suits says that they can go from seedlings to harvest-size in six weeks. They are impressive claims, but the book is at pains to stress that aquaponics is a scalable solution – it can go from a setup with a footprint not much bigger than a couple of washing machines to huge, polytunnel enclosed solutions over several acres. ‘Find what works best for you and don’t let all the details and discussions prevent you from getting your hands wet,’ Suits writes. ‘It’s hard to screw up a small system.’ Beyond simply growing food in a local, nutrient-efficient and sustainable way, the book puts forward the idea that farming like this might even be a form of education: ‘Learning aquaponics is really learning to manage an ecosystem. The cycle of life/death/rebirth is right there. Yet it’s not a completely closed loop, as nature is. We still have to maintain it and feed the fish. For children, this is a great lesson in how everything is connected. About 500 schools in the US are using aquaponics or aqua-culture in their curriculum.’ [including Kauai's Island School] The acknowledgement that aquaponics ‘is not a completely closed loop’ is important, and not something Suits tries to hide. Various inputs are required for a successful system, including some form of fish feed (although this can, the book says, involve home-grown duckweed and worms), electricity for pumps, heat, and possibly some supplementary nutrients for the plants (fish waste is high in nitrogen, but can be deficient in potassium and phosphorus). Although no pesticides are used, the system isn’t organic: as it involves no soil, it doesn’t really stand much chance of a Soil Association stamp. Whether it produces plants as nutritious as soil-grown crops is a matter to be decided by plant scientists – time will hopefully tell. Part of the charm of this book lies in Suits’ effortless transitions from grand philosophical visions – ‘we could be inventing a new economy built on fish and vegetables’ – to sage, practical wisdom – ‘Do not give [the fish] names. It’s easier that way at harvest time’. It’s an approach that helps makes this book accessible to all – which is exactly what it needs to be. The future of food will very much be dictated by our attitude to protein: if we continue along the intensively reared, high-meat course set by the West in the last few decades, it’s difficult to see how any serious greenhouse gas reduction targets can be met. If, on the other hand, we are prepared to embrace ecosystem-mimicking attitudes to farming, such as those described by Suits and practised by Hepburn, then there’s just a chance we may be able to have our fish and eat it. Click here to find out how to buy The Aquaponics Guidebook.

What's Good About Aquaponics · Save The Planet: This system uses 70% LESS energy than farming in the ground (either conventional OR organic), to produce an equivalent amount of vegetables. Instead of being petrochemical based, the energy is all electrical, which means it can be run from alternate energy systems such as solar panels, wind turbines, and hydro electric. This is the first and only farming system in the world that doesn't require petrochemical energy. It's also organic. In fact, it doesn't allow the farmer to cheat at all, because any pesticide or chemical applied to the vegetables goes to the fish next and kills them. The fish are the canary in the coal mine and force the farmer to farm organically. · Save The Planet Again: With the addition of a catchment tank and a pump, the system supplies all of its own water in any region with more than 50 inches of rain a year. Even if you don't install the catchment option, the system only uses 1,500 gallons of water for a vegetable production of 1,500 pounds per month. Help conserve valuable water resources. · For Those Of You Who Are Already Farmers: There are no weeds. There are no soil pathogens or pests. There is no: tilling, cultivating, fertilizer spreading, compost shredding, manure spreading, plowing cover crops in, irrigating, or tractor shed required. For that matter, there is no tractor, tiller, fertilizer spreader, compost shredder, etc. There is also no dirt needed: it works just as well on pahoehoe lava graded flat with a D9 as on fertile soil. Seeding and a large part of harvesting labor can be done sitting in the shade, in a Costco tent, or if you prefer, standing and working at waist level. The only consumable inputs to this farming system are fish food, fish fry, seeds, and potting media. · It's Easy and Simple: My wife Susanne and I have never farmed before (only small home gardens), and are now producing 4,200 pounds of vegetables and 600 pounds of fish a month from the three systems we've built in the last year. We've looked for why this is "too good to be true", and in an entire year of operation, haven't found it. This really works. · Movable Feast/ Movable Farm: The whole system can be disassembled and moved to a new location. For the first time ever, the farm is movable and not tied to a specific piece of land. This means you don't need to own the land or even have a traditional long-term lease in order to farm profitably. Although longer term leases are desirable, you could make money even if you had to move the operation every few years. It is much easier to lease a piece of land for 5 years than 25. Owners like to make money off the land, but don't like long leases that won't allow them to sell the land if they need to. The short-term lease will allow them to do this and lease the land to you. And in the meantime, you may earn enough off the farm to buy the land it's on. · It's Fun: We've had the time of our lives planning, building, operating, and talking about our aquaponics systems. They're hip, slick, and cool. They're sustainable. Be the first on your block to have one. Imagine the crowd surrounding you at parties to hear about your cool, sustainable, energy-efficient aquaponics system. And the fish and vegetables you farm and bring to a potluck will disappear before anything else does.

video above: "What is Aquaponics?" film 4:47 minutes featuring Myles Harston's Aquarnach From see also: Ea O Ka Aina: Fish, Worms & Poop 4/15/09

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