As an avid aquaponic gardener I find myself with more waste from trimming, harvesting and ultimately eating my veggies and fruits. Organic waste, as I see it, is in itself a resource that can be used as an input for another cycle in a biosystem so composting was a no brainer. Our composter setup was made using the rejected frame for solar panels, a 55 gallon barrel, and some old longboard trucks and wheels to allow the rotation the compost in the bin. This is all secondary to a few features that let me harvest black soldier flies (BSF). First of all, the 55 gallon barrel has two ~1" diameter holes on the top that allow BSF adults to lay their eggs in the rich compost. After adding some burst cantaloupes and watermelon rinds to the compost I can expect to have about 2 cups of BSF larvae easily picked from the top of the pile in a day or two. There are far easier methods of compost farming BSF on the web that can use the BSF's natural movement to autoharvest bigger quantities, but since I don't need more than 2 cups every other day and don't mind the 10 minutes it takes to pick out the larvae I just work with what I have.
On top of the BSF, which make excellent feed for our fish, a finished batch of compost can be used to make a powerful compost tea foliar spray. Our process consists of taking a 5 gallon bucket, a pillowcase filled with about 1-2 (~1 kg) of finished and mature compost, One ounce of unsulphured organic molasses, and an air compressor with air stones for aeration. We simply steep the compost in the molasses water mixture while adding copious amount of aeration to cultivate beneficial aerobic bacteria and prevent harmful anaerobes from rotting the mixture and causing a stink. The aerobic brewing lasts for 3 days and the final product is filtered through a strainer to be used immediately. The benefits of a compost tea foliar spray are significant. It establishes a healthy bacterial biosphere on the plant to combat bacterial and fungal infections and pests as well as providing a complete nutrient mixture for better growth and flavor.
My favorite part about all of this an overarching principle that the cyclic movement of nutrients and energy is in harmony with nature. Similar to how a dead deer decomposes to feed very grass that sustained its life, it's evident that nature abhors waste so it's in our best interest to follow suite. By constructing systems that use the waste of one process as a resource for another, we can begin to optimize the conservation of nutrients and microbial life all while greatly minimizing waste.
Global climate change and population growth has become the droning broken record of our age. It's a well know prediction that we'll reach almost 10 billion people by 2050, most of which will be living in cities and we have to quickly figure out how to keep everyone fed. The first steps, I believe, are ones of reform. Better legal avenues for food production infrastructure, more agricultural education, and a greater social emphasis on sustainability would help tremendously to kick start the slow migration of food from massive and secluded monoculture farms to the urban centers.
Furthermore, the key to overcoming the high prices of urban real estate would be through the integration of food production within the everyday facets of city life. One of the greatest assets in aquaponics is that the process can be extensively customized. Nutrient rich effluent from fish can be pumped great distances, limited only by the power of the pump so massive circulatory networks can be made to connect high producing grow beds with several fish tanks. This, of course, is a fantastic vision of the many possibilities that aquaponic opens up. Regardless of the method used to produce food one aspect remains the same: to achieve something we do not have, we must do something we haven't done. One of the unfortunate consequences of modern farming is that it removed the product from the consumer. For the most part a consumer is not involved with the production of his or her food, there's no second thought as to how it was grown, transported, sold or even marketed as the world of agriculture as secluded and misunderstood as it is wasteful.
To further prove this point let me describe the gauntlet a head of lettuce has to endure to sit on the shelf of your local grocery store. First, seed suppliers provide proprietary phenotypes of lettuce to the grower/farmer who then grows it out as fast as possible because their life depends on it. If the lettuce is going to be chopped for a salad it must be first sold to a processor as the farmer cannot legally cut it, otherwise it's sold to a distributor. Distributors require the lettuce to meet produce weight and attractiveness standards that cause approximately half of what is grown to the landfills, but if the lettuce is deemed worthy by the distributor it is then packed and shipped once more to retailers who can then sell the lettuce to you. Just as in the natural food chain, there is a loss of resources every time the lettuce exchanges handlers. Petroleum is used to harvest, transport, and refrigerate, the price tag keeps going up to accommodate the profit margins of the middle man, and a compromise in produce quality and nutrition is made in favor of greater shelf life and transportability.
This is all to say that we don't just need a new method of food production, we need a new system. Food can no longer remain an afterthought for the public to take for granted. I believe that reintroducing food production into the spotlight of modern life would have great results as it would instill a sense of respect to food. We cannot afford to continue dumping our food in landfills or sustain massive global food transport.
For transparency's sake I must begin by saying that I have never attended an aquaponics course nor received certification through an agency. That being said, I have delved into the many available courses and guides just to see what is offered in the aquaponics field. The majority of the educational aquaponic services were 3 hour long farm tours for between 50-100 dollars a person and weekend long seminars for home systems for a couple hundred dollars. Few outliers included online seminars or classes that spanned multiple weeks, but those tended to be close to a thousand dollars.
What I mean to emphasize with this observation is that the resources for learning how to run an aquaponic system are limited by the sparse physical locations of aquaponic farms or the high price of online courses. On top of that, the time and material required to cover the intricacies of aquaponics cannot be condensed into short lessons for a weekend.
If aquaponics is truly something that interests you use that curiosity to be proactive about gathering aquaponic knowledge. There is no better way to learn than to get involved, jump in, make mistakes and ask plenty of questions.
There are many people that are interested in aquaponics, but the question I always get asked is "what if I've never taken care of fish or a garden before"? Of course, since people ask in relation to our Kodaponic systems I can point out that we have free aquaponic consulting for our customers, but the answer is more complex for those wanting to start out on their own. In many ways DIY and beginner aquaponics share the same vein, so in this post I'll strictly talk about those who have absolutely no experience in aquaponics.
For those who want to test the waters before committing to many hours of reading and research, my recommendation would be to immerse yourself in the community. Check out http://reddit.com/r/aquaponics, or http://backyardaquaponics.com and ask the community what to expect and other considerations. This will give you several different answers and perspectives and a more complete picture of what lies ahead if you wish to continue. Another benefit to joining these types of forums is the fact that you'll have some support with the problems you'll encounter. However, there are some caveats: all information cannot be assumed correct so it's your responsibility to vet the advice given to you to avoid damage from misinformation.
Cheers and Good Growing!
Anyone who has gardened is painfully acquainted with the destructive powers of pests. The list your enemies goes on and on: crickets, caterpillars, mites, thrips, aphids, fungus, all sorts of miners, cutters and piercers hell bent on devouring your garden.
Much like any other battlefield, success in the fight against pests relies heavily on knowing your enemy and keeping conditions favorable to you. What this means in the world of gardening is Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The goal of IPM is simple. Achieve a balanced system that is designed to have favorable conditions to plants. This entails using cultural (non-chemical) defense tactics such as the use of natural predators, synergistic plant choices, and environmentally-minded garden design. The first step is to always monitor your plant's health and check for pests. Use plants that attract pollinators and beneficial insects in your garden. Natural predators like ladybugs, bacillus thuringiensis, bacillus subtilis, praying mantis, wasps, frogs are indicators of a healthy environment and can be killed by using caustic insecticides, leaving you open for worse insect damage.
The second step would be to keep your plants in their best environmental conditions. The healthier and happier the plant, the more resistant it is to pests. Use good spacing, proper airflow and light and be sure to choose a good variety plants wisely to avoid wide swaths of plant death due to one plant specific infection.
Finally, know when to use your active defenses. Create thresholds of action so as to not expend excess labor and resources on a small issue. Observe your situation and carry your preventative and reactive defenses with exactness.
For more IPM information check out A&Ms IPM program, it's very helpful.
DIY Aquaponic Systems
Do it yourself aquaponics is by far the most common subject of aquaponic discussion across the internet so it's a given that I'd eventually make a comment on that. As of today it's evident that the results of intrepid aquaponic growers vary greatly. I believe it's due to the multifaceted complexity of the aquaponic process that, much like everything else in life, is infinitely easier to overcome with good design, forethought, and experience.
Aquaponics can be simple once considerations are made for water cycling, filtration, temperature, humidity, light, water quality, fish type, feed, nutrient additions, pH management, pest and disease management....you get my point; the list is extensive. What I'm trying to emphasize here is that there is a sizable amount of variables that must be accounted for so many beginners may easily fall into the pitfalls of blissful ignorance. Now I don't say this with any amount of disfavor as everyone, including myself, has been in the same position and I wholeheartedly encourage those who are going through the trials of an aquaponic beginner.
So, my opinion is this: while DIY aquaponics is an amazing hobby, those that do it completely on their own are almost guaranteed to struggle. This of course is an observation based on my experiences, but I've seen too many growers give up so soon because they've run into seemingly insurmountable obstacles and it's always sad to loose a participant in the aquaponic community. A criticism without a solution is generally unhelpful to a beginner so I offer this:
1. Read up! Check out my blog about resources, that's a good start.
2. Don't be discouraged, it may take 2 years to "learn the ropes".
3. Take time to think through designs and all the parameters that your desired grow entails and work with them.
4. Leverage the incredible resource of the internet. Connect with others and discuss your failures and successes.
5. Don't forget to enjoy it. Take it easy and take it slow, be patient with your system and yourself. Good things take time.
DIY Aquaponic Siphons
Siphons are the most pervasive methods of emptying the water from a media bed. Generally, a siphon works by establishing a pressure difference between the water-filled section of the media bed and the end of the siphon tube leading into the reservoir or fish tank. To work properly a siphon must first "engage" which means to fully establish this low pressure vacuum that will suck the water out. A common example of this is to use a tube that's submerged in water so that no air bubbles exist. If you were to take one end of the tube and lower it so that it is lower than the end that serves as the water intake, the water would naturally siphon out, naturally getting pulled by the collective pull of low pressure similar to what happens when you drink through a straw.
There are many configurations of piping that can do this but in my experience the bell siphon is the most popular. Bell siphons have some good benefits. They pull from the bottom of a media bed, ensuring that most of the water is expunged but also they tend to concentrate bottom sludge into one point and get clogged. Bell siphons are great if your input flow rate is very small as you can reduce the bell siphon standpipe quite significantly to work in low flow rates (more than 20 minutes to fill media bed). They're fairly easy to engage with proper diameter-reducing funnels to decrease the amount of water required to fill up the downstem and thus start the pressure differential. They're fairly easy to make. But what if I told you that there's something that's easier.
U-Siphons, as you can now tell, are my favorite way of siphoning media beds. They're much more simple to make, incredibly easy to install and tune, and engage consistently as long as the pump input is less than the siphon output when it still has not quite engaged. U-siphons are also completely external from the media bed so they do not take up valuable growspace and they're very easy to modify and troubleshoot as there is no excavation required if it were to get clogged or needed to be removed for maintenance. Additionally, you have the options of placing it on the side of the bed with a slitted intake pipe that extends the length of the media bed and takes in water from many points, not just one as the bell siphon does.
All in all, each application has it's appropriate solution but next time you find yourself looking for a way to empty your grow beds, consider a U-Siphon.