Aquaponics, Food for a Hungry World

Aquaponics, Food for a Hungry World - I spend a lot of time thinking about this, although I won't be doing anything physical on it until next year. I am not writing this blog for anyone else - just me! I don't mind if no one else reads it at all, but it helps me to keep a record of my progress and my thinking.

But if you do decide to read it, feel free to comment!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

After nearly five years - An Update!

I decided that it was time to get this blog out of mothballs, blow off the dust and bring it up to date.  The fact is that regarding my aquaponics project, which I first started planning seven or eight years ago, that inevitable obstacle of funding delayed any practical moves towards realization.  Hence the sale of my house.

First the refurbishment.

Then the ‘For Sale’ sign.

Then, after a considerable wait, the sale – which rather inconveniently occurred during a long planned visit to Tasmania and New Zealand to visit friends and family.  My visit took place between November 2013 and January 2014, with the house sale being completed in January. Thus, much needed funds were liberated!

Keeping it brief, I was able to come to an agreement with second son, which helped him to buy a large enough property to provide space for me to live, and develop the aquaponics – although the funds necessary to get started were still not immediately available.  There is, however, a large garden, a section of which became mine to deal with – completely overgrown with bramble, nettle, buddleia and convolvulus.  We all took over the property in September 2014.

Next steps:
We refurbished the old static caravan for my accommodation.  New floor, some walls, rebuilt inside to my specification,

and cut back top growth in garden plot (about 35m x 15m).

I couldn’t yet afford the planned insulated greenhouse for the aquaponic system, so work began to get stuff growing in the garden. We cut down some trees, and shifted some earth about with a digger. 
I laid out some beds, using our cardboard removal boxes for weed suppression. Imported about three tonnes of compost from local authority recycled garden waste.  Put up a small greenhouse I brought from the last place.

I refurbished an old cedar greenhouse which had been left derelict for 10 or 15 years – stripping the ivy from inside and out, having new roof vents made, replacing glass which the ivy had broken, and digging out a sycamore tree which had self seeded in front of the door. Total cost for an excellent 8ft x 12ft cedar greenhouse, £600!

I started serious food growing in a small way in 2015, while continuing to break in what was effectively virgin ground (although it had once been a fine productive garden).  It soon became clear that rabbits would be a problem, so rabbit fencing had to be installed round all beds. Rats became very interested in my compost bins!

By spring 2016, I had a proper garden, although brambles, docks and nettles continued to be a nuisance.  Constant strimming of the areas between the beds allowed grass to take over from docks, nettles and brambles. 

 Then came the next step towards the aquaponic project.

I was at last able to release enough money to purchase an 8m x 6m insulated Keder greenhouse. Before its arrival, I had built a sunken sump tank with concrete blocks, setting them on a concrete base about 1m below ground level. 
Then with ongoing help from second son and a hired digger, we prepared the site for the arrival of the installation team.  The greenhouse was installed in a couple of days, at a cost approaching £7000. (You can see why I had to sell my house!)
The greenhouse arrived partly on a pallet, and partly on the roof of the fitters' truck.

It was difficult to envisage a 8m x 6m greenhouse emerging from this lot!

Meanwhile I needed to stay on top of the gardening outside and in the two small greenhouses, and as winter approached and the weather worsened (the site proving pretty windy) I found my desire to continue with outside activities somewhat diminished!

Entering summer 2017, my garden is in reasonable shape.  I am forced to admit that I am no longer able physically to achieve what I might have done even 10 years ago.  

However, the sump tank is insulated, lined with board, and fibre-glassed (this by an expert).  

The fish tank, which used to be the water tank in the roof space of a demolished school, is in place, after some manhandling through the 2m wide entrance.

 It is glass fibre and insulated. It has been filled and tested for leaks, as has the sump tank.  The fish tank will hold in excess of 2000litres of water, and the sump tank more than 1000litres.

I have laid the first of two 3m x 1.2m concrete pads which will be the bases for the grow beds.  I have purchased some IBCs which will be cannibalized to make the grow beds.  I have also purchased six ready-made auto-syphons, for the flood and drain system in the grow beds.

Meanwhile, so that the big greenhouse is starting to earn its keep, I have made a raised bed down one side, where I am growing cherry tomatoes, roccoto chillies, cape gooseberries and Lord Nelson sweet peas (because I like them and they will attract pollinators!)  I also have tubs with more tomatoes, carrots, spring onions, lettuces, parsley and coriander, as well as three citrus fruit trees. Next I must lay the second concrete pad, and build the block piers to support the grow beds.  

Soon I must have second son install mains electricity, and to follow, a heating system for the fish tank, using partially mains supply and partially a solar thermal panel.  The mains supply will eventually be supported by solar PV panels which currently connect to the main house.

I have yet to buy the pump, the heart of the system, and the air pump for the fish tank.

Just to be clear; if this was to be a commercial exercise I would be building a different system which would be designed to produce a large quantity of a few profitable plants – salad leaves and herbs. But I have different goals.  I want to provide a wide variety of food for the family in as sustainable way as possible, and also, perhaps, to demonstrate the possibilities for the system as a community project, as climate change tightens its grip, with an inevitable impact on food production and cost.

So far so good!  I hope to have the system running this year, but without fish while I cycle up the system, developing the bacteria in the grow beds (which convert fish waste, i.e. ammonia, into nitrates which the plants can use) and balancing the pH in the water.  I will be growing plants during this phase and would hope to order fish next year: I will be growing Tilapia, which is the reason for heating the fish tank.  I am hoping that the fish tank and sump totalling about 3000 litres of warm water (about 25 degrees C) in the insulated greenhouse will help me to a longer growing season, particularly if in winter I supplement the natural light with some grow lights.

That’s it – up to date for the moment. More to follow as and when.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Black Soldier Fly Farm Construction

What follows is almost completely based on the instructions written by Jerry in the Black Soldier Fly Blog.

1 x 25 litre lidded bucket with lid £9.99
1 x length 40mm PVC pipe (black is cheaper) (1.5m) £1.64
1 x length 22mm overflow pipe £1.99
1 x ‘T’ joiner £0.99
1 x straight coupler £1.49
2 x 22mm 90deg elbow £1.20
1 x 35cm plant pot saucer £3.49
1 x length 22mm clear Plastic Pipe £3.98
3 x small plastic flower pots (70mm high) £0.18
1 x piece weed suppressing membrane .. .. ..
1 x Water butt tap £3.37
PVC cement, silicone sealant, PVA glue .. .. ..

Total £28.32

Taking my lead from the BSF blog instructions, but with a couple of my own variations, I purchased a 25 litre lidded bucket from Kernow Grow and Brew in Penryn, plumbing bits from Wickes (following the cheapest route), plant pot saucer from The Range, clear plastic tube from Chacewater Aquatics, and the water butt tap from eBay. Everything else comes from my own personal junkyard!

I first cut the 40mm pipe, two pieces for the top of the vent and a short piece to go through the lid, then I used a hole saw on the lid. The straight coupler goes on the underside of the lid, just to secure the vent in the hole. All this is assembled with PVC cement, and that is the lid complete.

Next, I used a small hack saw to trim the saucer to size, so that it sits 70mm from the bottom of the bucket and tight to the sides, with the edge turning upwards to contain soldier grubs and compost away from the edge and for better drainage.

I drilled several holes in the saucer (and caused two or three cracks to appear) and cut a piece of membrane to size. The membrane is glued to the saucer with a number of blobs of PVA glue – I’m not sure how effective this will be – I may have to rethink the filter!

The three flower pots are held in place, upside down at the bottom of the bucket, with silicone, to support the filter.

For the exit point for the mature grubs I drilled a hole for the 90deg elbow, which needed to be 25mm and just under the lip at the top of the bucket. Unfortunately I found drilling a clean hole in the soft plastic of the bucket difficult, so this is a bit of a dog’s dinner. It is held in place with silicone, but not well – but this doesn’t matter as the joint doesn’t need to be watertight. I have connected the other elbow to it outside the bucket with 45mm of 22mm pipe (I had to buy 2 metres!). A second length of the 22mm pipe comes down from the elbow, and will lead into a container for the mature bugs to become flies.
I cut a shovel shape from a milk container to be fixed to the bottom of the escape tube, and have used a piece of the clear plastic to lead the mature grubs to the top of the bucket.

The ventilation slots were cut, as suggested by Jerry, by drilling a hole at each end of each slot, and cutting through with a hacksaw blade. The water butt tap required a 25mm hole to be drilled near the bottom of the bucket, and I fixed the tap on its side, to allow the hole to be as low as possible. Of course I could put the bucket on a stand of some kind and set the tap properly – but it really doesn’t matter!

I await the arrival of my soldier fly larvae (I have ordered 100 small ones) which cost £5.15 including postage.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Great Food Conundrum

If you listen closely to the various pundits on the subject of impending global food shortages, you will be forced to recognise that they all contradict each other!

World population is ever growing – or is it? Several countries are reportedly worried about their falling birth rates, and some say that world population will peak at 9 billion, an increase of less than a third. Bad enough, but manageable!

Global food production will have to double (or treble, or quadruple) to cope with increasing demand – or will it? Some say that the problem is one of distribution and that we already produce enough food worldwide to feed 12 billion people.

It will be necessary to use GMOs to increase productivity or millions will starve – or will they? Just over a year ago a UN report on the right to food made it clear that agroecological farming methods, practised by small scale farmers, particularly in poverty-stricken areas, increased productivity dramatically; and in this context small scale farmers’ organisations should be supported. Amazingly this report doesn’t mention GM crops, but indicates that large monocultural agribusinesses are definitely not the way forward.

The crazy thing is that anyone who takes an interest in food production, or grows their own food, knows all this instinctively. But big business has the big bucks and big bucks buy influence. So even if a few politicians ‘get it’ they are not as powerful as ‘Big Agro’, and can do nothing to redirect food production into more sensible avenues.

But there are more and more individuals and small community organisations that do ‘get it’. People like Tamar Grow Local, for example; a CIC which promotes and supports the growing and sale of local produce in the Tamar Valley. And as fuel and fossil-fuel-based fertiliser gets more expensive, maybe the penny will drop with consumers, who may start to realise that it is local food producers who will be the cheapest, as well as providing local jobs and keeping us healthy. And more and more of us will be growing our own food – provided the right kind of support is given by local authorities and central government.

There are so many great opportunities out there; aquaponics of course, community supported agriculture, allotments, community gardens – not since the war years have so many people started to think for themselves about how to feed themselves and their communities. It will take time for the momentum to build, but build it will!

Monday, 28 May 2012

At Last!

My house renovation is finally finished, and I have a For Sale board outside.

It's true that future projects, and in particular my aquaponics project, depend on finding a buyer, but I am closer to that point than before, with no further obstacles to a sale - and though I say so myself, it is a very pleasant little property!

Now that the hard work is done, I have time to continue researching. If all goes well, I am planning a trip to Australia and New Zealand to visit family and friends before I start building my system, so construction of insulated polytunnel (Keder house), and installation of heated fish tank and growbeds will not start before 2013. Meanwhile, as I follow the activities of practising aquaponics people in America and Australia, my thoughts and ideas continue to mature. (Impatient as I am to get started, until I can move house nothing else can happen!)

Thus it was that I started to look into the possibility of growing mushrooms as part of the project. I spotted a video clip of Will Allen growing mushrooms in his greenhouses, so it is clearly possible - but it is a matter of finding the most appropriate method for my situation which is cost effective and productive in the long term. (A single flush of mushrooms lasting a week or two is no good to me!)

For the moment, though, it is a frustrating waiting game, waiting for that enthusiastic house buyer to knock at my door! Here is a link to my selling agent's details

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Birthday Present for Myself!

I had my birthday on Sunday. Some family members made more of a fuss than I thought was warranted but it was very enjoyable - I was given a very useful digital SLR camera - something I always assumed that I would never be able to afford - and a pleasant lunch and a delicious supper.

But for myself, I bought two books. One was a recipe book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called River Cottage Veg Every Day and consists of recipes which do not include either fish or meat. It is not written specifically for vegetarians; it is simply an attempt to get people eating more vegetables. I can see it becoming my cooking bible once my aquaponic unit is up and running.

The other book I bought was one I pre-ordered months ago: Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein. This has only just come onto the market, and I would consider it essential for anyone interested in the subject but particularly the beginner. It is written in an easy-to-read and entertaining style, which is not in the least patronising, and as far as I can tell so far, covers every aspect of setting up an aquaponic system making due allowance for different climates and for those of us used to working with metric measurements.

Although I don't expect to get started with my set-up until next year, I am finding this book interesting and instructive, and as a result of reading it I expect to be better equipped to get going as soon as I have the premises!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Spreading the word

As you might expect, I have been talking about my plans with some enthusiasm to anyone prepared to listen. My son has had an offer accepted on the house he currently rents, and so we have discussed how to turn the garage into an annex for me to live in, complete with an outside area, where I hope to put up my 4M x 3M Keder greenhouse. There is a slight conflict at the moment because he is hoping to build an extension which could encroach on the greenhouse area - but I hope this can be resolved.

However, assuming that problem can be resolved, the situation looks promising and the deal can go ahead as soon as I have finished renovating my house so it can be sold.

Meanwhile, I went to a conference on renewable energy the other day. There were many presentations, most of which I had heard before, and there were a quantity of exhibition stands, which dealt with wind turbines and PV panels for the most part, with a smattering of solar thermal and biomass products. I saw nothing on wave or tidal energy, which in Cornwall, with sea on three sides, is disappointing. I was interviewed briefly by a couple of 'media' students who were being paid for by the sponsors (the local authority) to gather feedback, and was happy to say that I thought the conference was very worthwhile if only for the opportunity it presented for spreading the word about environmental matters and green energy.

On the matter of spreading the word, I was mentioning my aquaponics plans to a friend and her colleague, who suggested that I should share my ideas with the local Transition group. She and her colleague are both active in the Transition movement, and seemed unconcerned that I have, as yet, no practical experience whatsoever! But I am quite capable of talking about aquaponics at length, and can intersperse my chat with various video clips, so I will be happy to accept the challenge!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

IBC tanks

I have spent a bit of time on line, particularly Ebay, looking for a source for IBCs at a reasonable price, reasonably close by my home, and not contaminated with something nasty. I am planning to build my system on a shoe string, as well as looking for the best use of space in a 4M x 3M Keder house, and I reckon I can use an IBC for the fish tank, a plastic water tank for the sump (planted in the ground and packed in insulation sheets) and five second-hand bath tubs for grow-beds. The sump will be covered so that it can be walked on, thus saving space.

But as for the IBCs, I got sick of looking! I was talking to a friend of mine who processes organic food, and mentioned my frustration - whereupon he said that he gets them all the time, and that his have only been used for sunflower oil. And they are only 5 miles away!

I spoke to my son about all this, and he told me that our local all-purpose hardware store also stocks them, quite cheap!

We are inclined, these days, to assume that the internet provides us with all the answers. Perhaps if we looked closer to home at the outset, fewer small businesses would be going out of business!