Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In which we may start a business... or two

One of the challenges of building your own system (or components) out of food-grade containers is finding said containers at a reasonable price somewhat locally.  I've been searching / researching for several months now with limited success, but then again I haven't been trying all that hard because it was still just preliminary research.  But now that I have a system coming, and it'll need a sump tank immediately and some additional grow beds soon, I got a little more serious.

Luckily, I found a guy right around the corner from work who has a huge supply of them in various sizes.

Business offer #1: He would like me to resell some from my place.

The guy is familiar with aquaponics, and is aware of how his containers can be used to build systems, but doesn't know how to build a system himself and has been looking for someone to partner with who does know how.

Business offer #2: Build and sell small, domestic AP systems.

I've talked to Paul about both ideas and he's in favor.  He'll probably need to be the one building and selling, since I've got a full time job already.  But that's really one of the things we'd planned to break into anyway, so this is just a huge step in that direction.

Opportunities galore, as soon as he can get here!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Maybe it won't be that difficult after all

My boss has our old trailer and he's offered to loan it to me.  My exhusband has a Honda Element that is already set up to tow that trailer, and he said I could borrow it if he has time to fix the broken motor mount.  My local fish guru said it was really important to keep the water level in the transport barrel less than halfway, and that means it will weigh less than 200 lbs instead of the expected 400.  If I'm using the trailer and the Element, I *will* be able to use the cigarette lighter, so I purchased a 12' extension for that (omg cheap for those things) and I'll be able to run the 12 volt bubbler (which the seller is also providing) directly off of that so the fish will be well aerated.  And there are only about 25 fish, so this shouldn't be a huge deal after all. 

What a relief!

While I was talking to my fish guy (at lunchtime today) I also picked up a water mover that he says uses very little power but will help keep the fish happy and healthy, and some small pellet fish food, and a dechlorinator.  I asked him about putting these fish into my local water supply and he said that with this (all natural) dechlorinator, and my white vinegar to bring the pH down to whatever they're living in, and the tank of water sitting overnight right next to the barrel of fish (so the temperatures equalize) I should be fine.

And with only 25 fish, it's not a huge expense to replace them if I do lose them.  I'd hate for that to happen, since I'm responsible for their lives, but it's not devastating financially at least.

My dad has offered to drive out to my house so he can ride to Santa Barbara and back with me (and presumably sharing in the driving).  That's very generous of him.  I'd love to spend the time with him, of course, but that'll be more than 10 hours of car ride in one day for him.  I've got wonderful audiobooks to keep me company, and I don't mind long drives as long as it's not rush hour, so I think I'll just have him come out Sunday and help me set up.  That's going to be the exciting part, after all!

The greenhouse is ordered, and is expected to arrive on Wednesday.  It's just an open-bottomed hoop greenhouse, so it should be very easy for me to set up and move by myself.  I'm not sure if I should set it up ahead of time and lift it over my completed system, or set up the whole system and assemble the greenhouse over the top.  I'm putting it under a large arbor, so I will have limited airspace for lifting it.  But then, I might just need to open up the front wall (doorway) all the way and kind of slide it over.  If so, I think it would be best to have it set up in advance.  I can't pick up the system until after 6 on Saturday, and I expect it'll take a little while to load it and be social to the seller, and then a 4 hour drive home... I won't feel like doing much of anything and I *must* get the tank placed and loaded, and the barrel nearby it.  By the time I'm done with all of that, I won't have any urge to be setting up a greenhouse (and in the dark no less).  Best to have that already done.

Oh! Reminder to self: buy or rent a hand truck.  Now that I'm not renting a truck, I won't already be there to rent the hand truck.

This is becoming less of a panicked clusterfuck and more of a well organized plan.  Not bad progress for 24 hours...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

OMGOMGOMG! A real system - for FREE!

 So today a member of one of the AP message boards posted that he was going to be getting rid of his system.  It's complete - heck, it's up and running with fish and plants - but would anyone like to come pick it up?

I checked to make sure his phone number was in an area code I recognized before I called.

It's a 340 gallon fishtank, an 8'l x 2'w x 12"d raft trough, some 1" - 4" tilapia, and all the plumbing and pumps and everything.  I hadn't been planning a raft system to start, but I can either convert that to gravel or just add on some gravel beds.  He's also including some books, videos, CD's, etc.

For free.

Okay, so how far away IS it?  4 hours.  Each way.  And the tank is too big to fit into a pickup truck, so I'll be renting a moving truck.  And feeding it at 10 MPG.  And hiring day laborers on each end of the drive to do the lifting.  And a hand truck.  So at the end of the day it won't actually be free any more.  But I've priced out what I can, and it's still going to cost less than $400.  ZOMG.

Oh, and I'm not going to be moving the 340 gallon tank when it's full or anything.  He's going to transfer the fish to a 55 gallon drum for transport.  For those of you who don't automatically know what a 55-gallon drum of water weighs, let me help you.  Alton Brown tells me that "A pint's a pound the world around."  There are 2 pints to a quart, and 4 quarts to a gallon.  So a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds.  50 gallons (I'm sure it will have some head space) will therefore weigh 400 pounds.

I'm going to pick it up next Saturday and set everything up on Sunday and actually have a working system *that fast*!

So what's the first thing I did when I got home?  Check the measurements of the components to see if they'll fit into the inexpensive 7'x15' hoop greenhouse I saw (they will) then measure the outside patio to see if that will fit (it will) then order the greenhouse.  It should be here in plenty of time, so my new arrivals will be properly protected from kids, cats, possums, and the dust storms of the gardeners.

I'm going to have a system!  6 months sooner than I expected!  OMG I'm so excited I can barely stand it!

Here she is in her current home:

Monday, September 20, 2010

AP Workshop

Saturday I attended the Aquaponics workshop in Oceanside.  It was Murray Hallam's first US workshop.  It was a very informal event, and the 25 or so of us interrupted constantly with questions, comments, and shared experiences.  Though as Murray said, AP is simple enough that there just isn't 8 hours of information for him to share anyway.  So our questions helped fill in the time profitably.  It was great to be able to ask specific questions about our own systems and get individualized answers and group discussion.  He seemed much more interested in helping us all learn than in selling us anything, and in fact warned against people who wanted to make it all more complicated than it should be.

A system in action
Almost everyone in the room had clearly done their homework before getting there.  But I may have been the only person other than our organizer (Richard) who actually had a system already set up.  In the afternoon we went a few blocks away to Richard's house and got to see his sytem.  It's a full-sized system based around one of Murray's kits: http://www.aquaponics.net.au/aqua1/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=42:balcony&Itemid=54&layout=default
He had about 50 tilapia, some fingerlings and some about mature, and his entire system (excluding an extra duckweed kiddie-pond) was housed in a framed greenhouse that I'd guess was about 8'x10'.  Murray joined us there, which gave us great opportunity to ask questions that were raised by seeing an actual system. 

One of my questions was about various auto-siphons.  I've built a bell-siphon, and it's tempermental enough to worry me.  I'm using a timer-based fill and drain right now, but it has its own risks.  I asked Murray about using a U-siphon and he said that or a loop-siphon would work just fine.  What a relief!

Richard was showing Murray his cucumber plant, and said it had set fruit but the fruits just never matured and Murray said he should hand-polinate.  Luckily (for me) Richard didn't know how, so we got to watch Murray show us.  Fascinating.  You need to pluck a male flower, pull back the petals so the stamen is fully exposed, and rub it against the stamens of all female flowers.  (How do you know if it's a male or female flower?  Because the females have fruit setting below the blossom, and the males just have a skinny stem.)  That only needs to be done if you don't have natural polinators taking care of it, but since it's in a greenhouse it's less likely to get the right flying visitors (even though Richard said he leaves the big door open all day).

Murray said that his fish didn't seem interested in the Black Soldier Fly larvae.  On the other hand, he said at a different time that any time he changes food, the fish ignore it for a while as if they don't recognize it as food (except lettuce, which they always attack).  So I wonder if the problem with the larvae was only that they didn't see it often enough.  He purchased an organic food pellet from Indonesia.  I, of course, would like to try to grow all the food myself.  I'm hoping that a combination of duckweed and larvae, with the occasional lettuce, will be sufficient.  And that I can grow/raise sufficient quantities of them all.  Particularly since I want to feed some of the larvae to the chickens (along with fish scraps - head, bones, skin).  So I'll need a good volume of all of that.  And since the larvae need to be fed vegetation, I have to make sure I'm not putting all of my growing power into feeding the fish, grubs, and chickens.  I want to grow some food for me also! 

I got a chance to ask about feeding frequency, and he said he feeds the fish twice a day in the summer, but only once every 3 or 4 days in the winter.  I'm glad I asked, because I would never have realized that.  And overfeeding can be a serious mistake.

He suggested that for domestic systems, if we're going to do any rafts (or in my case, towers) that we run it off the sump water, since that is already as filtered of solids as possible.  You do NOT want solids in your raft since they'll attach to the roots and kill the plants.  In a growbed, that is handled by worms.  I, of course, don't have worms in my mini-system.  But I'm filtering solids to combat that problem.  Though as he said, that removed some of the very valuable nutrients from the system unless I process the solids I'm filtering out.

I need to research more specifics on how to filter the solids, but he said basically that you put them in a bucket and bubble air through them for several days, and that releases the minerals.  Whatever solids are left over you put into your compost heap.  I need more information than that.  I think perhaps you put them into water, and that the minerals are released into that water which you then strain off the top.  But, again, I'm not sure.

Worms (he said) seem to show up on their own.  He hypothesized that they came from seedlings he'd purchased from the nursery.  But he said you can purchase composting worms (such as red wrigglers).  He also suggested a worm feeding station: one of the heavily drilled baffles like the one around the siphon, set up in the corner of the growbed, and put kitchen veggie scraps in there (though not onion or garlic).

Gravel (3/4") is better than expanded clay if you can find gravel that isn't too high in pH.  It provides better spacing for worms, waterflow, and roots.  With the clay, you'll occasionally need to clean it out.  With the gravel it should maintain good flow.  Though he does periodically run a scraper along the bottom of the beds, under the gravel, to loosen things.  I'm picturing a hoe or similar device.

He recommended the use of bird netting, but NOT mosquito netting, as the smaller insects are quite beneficial to a system.  Some of your plants are going to be eaten.  That's just the price of organic farming.  Though healthier plants are less likely to be bothered than unhealthy ones.  So health and companion planting are the best pest protection.

Jade Perch are much higher in Omega-3 than even atlantic salmon.  I need to see if we can raise those in the US.  Don't mix fish species in one tank, as all fish seem to be prejudiced little buggers.  But if we *can* do jade perch here, I'd like to branch into that after we work the bugs out on the (more forgiving) tilapia.

Misters (in a non-humid area) will lower the temperature in a greenhouse by about 5 degrees C.  That's about 9 degrees F.  I think that's sufficient to handle the summer heat here if the greenhouse is ventilated and shaded.

I'm really leaning toward a CHOP (Constant Height, One Pump) system even though that means we won't be able to bury our tanks for insulation, as we had planned.  Though if we're handling the heat with misters, we really only have to worry about the winter.  And aquarium heaters are very inexpensive.  So with the CHOP system, we'll have the fishtank overflow into the growbeds.  The overflow will use a pipe to pull from the bottom of the fishtank, thereby grabbing the richest water.  (Don't forget to vent the top of the overflow pipe so it doesn't form a siphon!)  The growbeds will drain into the sump tank.  (The sump tank needs to be big enough to hold the complete drain of all growbeds without overflowing.)  The sump tank will pump back to the fishtank, forcing that to overflow and continue the cycle.  (Alternatively, the sump can pump into a raft or tower system which will directly flow into the fishtank - this way the raft/tower is getting the water with the fewest solids.)  Optionally, the sump tank can be fitted with a toilet-tank float valve to force automatic top up if the water level reaches a low point.

Murray cautioned that the hardest part of commercializing is finding your market.  Without that, it won't matter how well your system works.  I did some "field research" at my local farmer's market, and one of the booths was selling small, scrawny bunches of basil for $3 each.  At that price, I could probably retire.  Though I suspect that was too high and they probably didn't sell many.  If I could grow them in towers, I'd like to actually take the towers to the market and sell the plants picked to order.  I think the novelty would bring people to see, and that plus the freshness would be a great selling point.

If my local produce buying club is still around (and they seem very solid) I think that would be another great place to sell to.  Both produce and fish, perhaps.  Plus there is my e-volve ning group.  Of course, making a profit will be secondary to supplying our own household needs.  But if all goes well, I would like to use the excess at first to trade (whether through a direct barter, or by selling and using the funds) for proteins and produce we don't raise ourselves.  In a perfect world, we could then raise enough more than that to actually provide an income.

As always, I'm ready to just jump in and do this.  I'm not sure that the workshop changed that at all, except that it gave me some more reassurance that help is available when I run into trouble.  And it clarified some of the directions I think I want to go... all subject to change as always when I start doing things or I get more information.

But I'm ready!