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Aquaponics

I have been wanting to do a blog about this  topic since Natalie and I decided we needed to blog. You see in a previous life I worked as a fish facility manager. Once a week there was a farmers market downstairs and outside of our building. I never connected those dots.

When we moved to Iowa I came across a group Coalition to support Iowa Farmers. This group was actively providing educational resources and support for aquaculture in Iowa. They even hosted a conference in 2016 and another in 2017 on the topic. The conference was very informative and the networking was pretty good as well.

I also started paying attention to Practical Farmers of Iowa and looking at the regulatory picture for farms in general, livestock farms, vegetable farms, and organic farms. In a previous blog I mentioned going to events sponsored by these organizations. However there is no organization in Iowa that combines aquaculture and vegetable production. There are a couple of farms that do it.

So why combine them? As I see it you have the ability to produce ( with appropriate planning) enough high quality, organic, nutrient dense and healthy food on a smaller scale and with less environmental impact then traditional row farming. How?

The excrement from the fish becomes the fertilizer for the plants. The plants provide filtration and nutrient removal for the fish.  The end result is a cyclical relationship that poses unique challenges but also uses less resources then growing conventionally.

What do I mean when I say less resources? There are tanks and fish food and water and space. When compared to conventional farming aquaponics uses 85 to 90% less water than growing in ground. The reason is filtration and re circulation. The water from the fish is used to hydrate and to convey nutrients to plants which use very little water when you consider how much water is lost in conventional irrigation. Drip irrigation is more water efficient then overhead or flooding but still less efficient than aquaponics.  You do not need fertilizer as fish waste is converted to fertilizer by microbial action (fish waste is high in ammonia), which is converted to nitrites and then nitrates which are taken up by plants. The ammonia and nitrites are not fish safe so removing them is essential to growing fish. It is an example of one groups waste being another groups raw materials.

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The nature of aquaponics allows you to grow things closer as nutrient competition is removed from the equation and if designed appropriately light and ventilation is adequately addressed. You can grow more plants in a square foot of space than you can in the ground conventionally. Tanks are a cost but are more of a fixed expense than a recurring one. If they become recurring you need to really think about why your fish tanks are being abused so much. Water is an issue as it has to be of appropriate composition and temperature for both fish and plants.

Now that you have plants growing and you have your fish. As you harvest plants you can also cycle your fish and have a more healthy protein source. Tilapia is common but any fish can work as long as it is fresh water and it will grow at a temp appropriate for the plants you want to grow. I have heard people growing colder weather plants with cooler water fish successfully.

We will be constructing a small pilot aquaponics system in the future so stay tuned for that. This blog post is really just a primer for that post.

 

Doug

 

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Think globally act locally

Many years ago I was in my first year in college.  There was an organization on campus that called it’s self “Web of Life”. They were our local eco group. I found it interesting to attend a meeting or two and see what they were all about. I had little or no experience with environmental activism or even environmental issues. This was the fall of 95 and while I was an environmental science student I really had no background in environmental issues. I was very interested in understanding how the environment worked. I am still learning but I can see how interconnected things really are.  I knew that we had some serious issues in this country but I did not know what they really were and what could be done to solve them. I loved nature and it really bothered me when people littered and dumped waste.

Fast forward to 2005 and I was sitting in a interview for a research lab at Washington University in St. Louis. That lab had posters on the wall about recycling tip boxes and cardboard.  I was brought back to the newness of my first semester in college and how I was so excited to learn and do great things. Turns out I got the job and for the next 8 years at Washington University we did great things. The more important lesson I learned was that a group of small dedicated individuals can in fact change the world. I learned how far environmental concerns had come and how industry and academics were coming together to find solutions.

Yesterday I went to a field day hosted by Iowa organic association. The topic was chicken meat processing on the farm. Murray McMurray hatchery then hosted a demonstration on processing meat birds. The presentation and discussion were excellent. The networking was amazing and the organization was well represented. What does this have to do with anything?

Well since we have begun this journey we have realized how difficult it is to do these things without support. Whether it be regulatory assistance, education, networking, or numerous other aspects of agriculture that I never even considered. I have found that every state does have resources available, and people that are extremely willing and wanting to help.  One of the first places that I have found to help in so many aspects of a country transition is your local county extension, since we are in Iowa, Iowa State Extension. They even have other aspects like small acreage, local foods, soil testing, water testing etc etc. If they do not know the regulations they can help put you in contact with those that help.

If you are interested in livestock in Iowa you should get in touch with Coalition to support farmers. If your interested in organics then Iowa organic association is a great resource and if your interested in a pretty amazing farmer community and resource Practical Farmers which have provided field days, networking, education, farminars, webinars, and many others. I will be writing more about the coalition and practical farmers in the future.

Doug

 

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Chicken part 2

So we have built the brooder and we have built our tractor. We need some chickens. Well guess what came 3/15/17? yep 26 birds from the hatchery. 1 is a bonus heritage breed so we will have to see what we got when it gets older. You can see that one in the mass of chickens it appears as a open spot in all the chicken yellow. In reality it is just a dark colored chick.

We got them all set up and a few notes that I feel I need to share. They were super thirsty. I was suprised at all the water they were drinking they really really really seemed like they needed it. So the whole pushing the beak in the water when I unboxed them seemed to really get them in the mood to drink.

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I also used some paper with some food on it as was suggested so they can find it easier. Seemed to really excite them as well. Right after the picture was taken they swarmed all over the paper after the food.

We will be removing the food every night before bed and replacing it in the morning. The insert made this suggestion for the first several weeks in the brooder as they grow so quickly that it really does cause a significant amount of stress on their bodies.

It is exciting to see these guys settleing in. They have found the warm plate (I had to push a couple under for them to figure it out for after that they took a nap and warmed up a bit. Now they come out get a drink get some food and head back under. I guess it does more closely resemble a Hen tending to the brood in that regard.

We will keep you posted as things continue to develop.

 

Doug

 

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How did we get here?

When I was in ST. Louis I worked in a research lab. Every week in the summer we had a farmers market downstairs. I LOVED doing my grocery shopping downstairs. I had a CSA I was a member of. There was a guy who sold the best Yogurt. FYI the best yogurt is windcrest dairy out of Trenton Illinois. Yea I am biased because it is soooooo good. Great people as well. Anyway. I would get enough yogurt for a week and my csa and had no need to really go to the grocery store. I would go to Soulard or my own small garden on occasion if I needed something more but most of my needs were covered.

Then we moved to Iowa. The land of farms with no food to eat. It was amazing how spoiled I had become. You never even think about it. Just go to the grocery store and pick up something which is trucked in from elsewhere. We did not have space to start with but the town we lived in had Community Garden space. You could really rent a plot for the season and it was cheap like $35 for a 20×50 plot. Now think about how much you could grow on something that size? You do not have that space or a community plot near? While we never used this service I did come close two seasons but one we were traveling a lot that summer and the second I was just to “busy”. In reality I did not want to bother with it cause I was still pouting about not having my CSA and Soulard and home garden.

Aerogardens are a good alternative. We bought one for our apt. We could produce about 2 salads a week using all the pods. That was not so bad and to have super fresh salads was awesome. I am not a huge iceburg lettuce fan so the aerogarden was a pretty good option. The down side was the lights were on for 17 hrs and while LED so little energy used it was bit of a light pollution issue in our kitchen at 3 am and bright as day in there.

So we bought our 5 acres. You can see the plot on a previous post. So we started a small 50×100 garden our first year. The sweet corn was pancaked by winds. We did get some but it was all laying down. Our squash did awesome. We had butternut, spaghetti, pie pumpkins, zucchini, summer squash. Our tomatoes did well enough to enjoy and even can some sauce.

The second season our squash did well again but trying a new technique we had significantly reduced yields. Our tomato produced okay but the green house gravel issue reduced those yields and pests got all of our corn. We did get black beans, garlic, potato, and wheat. We have expanded each year with the hopes to eventually provide our own food and sell at market the overage.  We have also begun looking at the legal aspect of farm production for sale. Including training on FSMA (Food Saftey Modernization Act).  Slowly we are meeting fellow producers and learning the market streams and how it all works. We have attended several conferences that I will post about in the future.

In a nut shell that is how we got here.

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Site Selection for green houses

Green houses/ hoop houses are becoming more and more common. You can even qualify for grants to help purchase a hoop house from the government. You have to check with your local NRCS contact EQUIP program and your local extension. I am going to focus on why we chose to build one. Why we chose to build it the way we did and some of the issues we have discovered. In the first year.

To begin with we looked at where we live (south eastern Iowa) so we can have pretty cold and windy conditions. On average we are around a 4 with gusts in the 6/7 range. This would preclude us from being interested in anything that was not anchored well. This would also cause us to consider not having a large vertical face.

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As you can see below we have a .25 mile lane and lots of open spaces around our little oasis. The openness allows for a great unobstructed growing day. However the lack of wind protection is a concern not only for the green house but for growing and living spaces in general. Being surrounded by mono culture crop land we thought may actually increase pest pressure in a PORT affect. Whereby our space can provide habitat for pests that is not available in the surrounding area which could affect our plants both in and outside of the green house.

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Do you need a green house to grow veggies and other produce in our area? The answer is a resounding NO! But, you can grow more longer and higher yields with a protected environment. Elliot Coleman has shown that with appropriate planning you can grow 4 seasons in Maine. Which is further north then we are. As a matter of fact you should take a moment and look at your latitude. We are at 41.3 degrees which is at the same level as Spain, turkey, Greece, Italy (Sardinia) to name a couple. Wiki 41st Parallel Which all have a history of long growing seasons. So without adding lights we can count on being able to produce year round. The concern becomes temperature. We can expect significant more cold then Sardinia for example. However that can be negated with both heated and unheated green houses without additional lighting.

Knowing that we are cold enough to have concerns for year round growing and knowing that we need to be concerned about the materials and shape of any growing structure we utilize. So what are the options for green houses?

The first is a very commonly found at your big box stores. It is made of thin plastic or metal. The panels are  thin and prone to breaking. It is not anchored to the ground. Nor will it hold up to any sort of long term usage you will have minor damage after the first year of regular use in our environment.

The second is a basic hoop house. It most likely has dirt floors and this version does not look to have roll up sides or direct ventilation. Dirt floors are useful for growing a larger variety of produce. Concrete floors allow you to manage weeds and pests easier. It allows for a cleaner work area and with the addition of tables may make for a more ergonomic growing. The main downside to concrete floors is increased costs and increased reliance on artificial media to grow in. NRCS does not allow (as far as I have found) concrete floors in our area you must grow in or on the bare ground. The roof is rounded which helps with shedding rain water but could be problematic in a heavy snow event.

The third is a commercial hoop house. This has roll up sides that allow for more ventilation. A Cathedral roof allows for more snow shedding then a more rounded shape. The floors may or may not be dirt and the structure can be heated or not. This size would allow 4 seasons of production on a market scale.

The forth is a fully commercial greenhouse and as you can see is actually multiple smaller structures joined together. It is most certainly heated and is more certainly concrete floors. The cost of the structure would require it to be built and utilized year round producing high value products that can be grown in various media and technologies think Hydroponic tomato or lettuce.

The fifth is a geodesic dome. Most commercial and hobbyist stay away from it for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the wasted space. There is a lot of vertical space that cannot be used unless you are growing something like trees. The roundness also prohibits you from “stacking” the structures as you can see in number 4. They are efficient in energy usage and resource allocation.

The sixth is a walpini which is what I consider the artisan greenhouse. These are site specific as if you are not careful you can shade your growing area out for most of the year if you are to far north. They have a high thermal mass being most buried and therefore are extremely energy efficient. They are not for the hobbyist as they are labor intensive to construct.

I added the last two so you can see that there are many options to choose from when you picking what you need. So we know that we need something that can be anchored. We want to grow in ground of the cost savings and the ease of technologies for dirt working. We also want it to be structurally robust so no film we want clearn panels. So we decided to take a modify a design similar to the 1st one.

The next blog will show you what we did and describe why we did some of the things we did. Till then…

Doug