Aquaponics 101 – Sell the sizzle

An economics lecturer back in the day, once told me, “don’t sell the sausage, sell the sizzle.” How wise these words proved to be.  While our new wired world makes the market for our goods and services many multiples bigger, it also dilutes our influence.

Let me explain it another way.  In the previous business model the market was smaller, but so was the competition.  Nowadays, if you cannot somehow differentiate yourself, your products or services, no matter how good, will not sell.

How then does that affect Aquaponics?  Well, in one way it is good because Aquaponics, being a rather new and novel way of growing fish and vegetable crops, does in fact differentiate us from the other struggling vegetable farmers and aquaculturists.  But this “difference” is also a double-edged sword because the ordinary man in the street has no idea whatsoever what Aquaponics actually means.

So what then is the “sizzle” of Aquaponics?  How about, “better than organic”, “space-age food production”,  “the future of food production” or some other catchy byline?

One of the basics of scaling up to Commercial Aquaponics, as I have said so may times, is a rock-solid marketing campaign.  Don’t even start thinking about the technical or even financial aspects of your new system without first considering the following;

  • Is there a market for my products?
  • Where are my potential customers?
  • What are they willing to pay?
  • Why would they choose me over so many other vendors?

Although you are unlikely to get firm orders without a salable product, this short exercise will keep you grounded when you tackle the other elements of your system design.

As mentioned in a previous post, I have been hard at work on a number of online initiatives, one of which is a Classified Site called landbou.net. This site is specifically targeted at the agricultural sector (landbou meaning agriculture in Afrikaans) and provides a market place for buying and selling products and services relating to farming. Advertisements are free and I have created categories for both fish and vegetables.

Please feel free to register and start placing some ads. It is currently aimed at Southern African countries but if the demand is there, I would be glad to extend it to other countries.

Enough for now.

Synaptoman

butter-lettuce-soil

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Aquaponics and the Meaning of Life

With the first Winter rains now falling in the Western Cape of South Africa and the grapevines almost bare of their Summer plumage, ones thoughts turn to more philosophical directions. I enjoy Winter in the Cape. It offers a time for introspection; re-visiting the successes and failures of the previous growing season and planning for what lies ahead.

Aquaponics (AP) really is a scale model of the workings of the earth and provides a great platform to explain how everything hangs together. I have taken many school groups through my various AP builds over the years and I have found it extremely heartening to see the “light-bulb” moment as a child suddenly sees the point of it all. When he/she realizes that every system (whether organic or mechanical) works exactly the same and that it is infinitely scalable, the impact is huge.

Nature has no waste. Every output from one system is an input for another. Our artificially created, urban living areas “appear” to generate massive waste and seem, on the face of it, to be unbalanced, but in reality nature mops up the waste over time and uses it as an input in another system. What we must realize is that it doesn’t all happen immediately and it may be many, many years before the next system even needs the output from the earlier system.

There are many examples of this. Gold mining is one. The goldfields of South Africa and other gold producing countries are littered with “mine dumps”. These discarded mountains of earth are the by-product of the mining and extraction process. At the time, the cost and availability of technology and the price of gold didn’t make it feasible to process these dumps any further. Now, many years later, it provides a lucrative new source of gold which is extracted from these “dumps”.

Landfills are another example. I predict that in the future these hidden dumps of a civilizations waste will power cities with easily-extractable methane and the solid matter recycled in a multitude of ways.

There is no waste in the long-term.

AP has often been described as a “closed-loop” system; a perpetual motion, organic machine that, once in balance, will sustain itself indefinitely.  In theory this is true, but in practice it is not very long before some or other input is required, the most obvious being food for the fish. Another is an AP systems rapid depletion of iron and other trace elements needed in only small doses, but without which, the system comes crashing down.

The secret of AP and Life itself, is thus BALANCE. Balance is often not apparent in a snapshot, but if you look at the system, in whatever form, over a period of time, it seems to smooth out and settle into a balanced state.

Our lives, in a seemingly meaningless, headlong rush to the grave, also seem out of balance, but below the surface of this raging river is a calm, balanced, REASON for it all.  Sometimes we just have to step back, lift our eyes from our iPhones and other distracting gadgets and realize that this is all part of a bigger plan.

We are just so bogged down by detail and noise and confusion. To truly appreciate the meaning of it all, maybe we should just go out into our gardens and truly OBSERVE the miracle of nature, be it only in a tiny patch of green that we call our own.

Henry David Thoreau, the finest American philosopher who ever lived, said, “Our life is frittered away by detail.

Get out there and appreciate it.

Walden1

Later

Synaptoman

Bitcoins – the missing link?

A concept that has intrigued me for many years, is a lifestyle combining the simplest of permaculture living with the absolute “bleeding” edge of technology. An eco-village (real or virtual) where we grow our own food, generate our own power and educate our children, free from the pressures and interference of big governments and rampant consumerism.

Now its easy to give up the day job, sell the house and cars and buy a piece of land in the country, but where will the money come from to feed, clothe, educate and protect your family? How will you afford healthcare? Many folk like me, with some web-based income, will find it easier to adapt, but what we cannot do without, is high speed Internet connectivity and the ongoing means to sell our wares online.

Once you have an online business up and running, the reality of payment options rears its head. I have fiddled with PayPal, credit cards and direct deposits over the years but the manual interventions required at almost every step makes the income earned not worth all the admininstration involved.

I started researching online virtual currencies a few months ago with a view to adapting my business model to a wholly online experience. With the recent financial upheavals in Europe I realised that governments and banks could not be trusted with our money and although online currencies where fraught with growth pains, they offer a welcome break from the traditional financial model.

Over the next few months I am going to re-visit my dreams of an eco-village, start another web business helping folk earn an income online and move all my payment options to virtual currencies, namely Bitcoin.

My ebooks book can now be paid for with Bitcoins.

Aquaponics – The Synaptoman way

  
If you’d like to trade in virtual currencies, including Bitcoins and SLL (Second Life Lindens) pop over to  VirWoX

To buy or sell Bitcoins, go to Mt.Gox and open an account.

Enough for now.

Synaptoman

Small bites of Synaptoman

Thank you for all your votes on the SA Blog Awards, your support was greatly appreciated. Although I won no awards this year, Synaptoman still maintains a Top 10 position in the News and Politics category in the South African Blogosphere.

The weather here in Paarl has been challenging with regular daytime temperatures of close to 40 deg C. February is normally hotter and we are starting to wonder if 2013 will be another 50 deg year.

The grape harvest has started coming in and we look forward to a great vintage. The Child Bride (back from the UK at last) has started spending more time here in Paarl with me while the Knysna house is being used as a holiday destination. The garden and small fruit orchard looks after itself and we pick fresh produce whenever we go there.

On the Aquaponics and Permacuture fronts the vegetables and fresh eggs flowing from my Paarl garden now form a large part of my daily diet. Those following my Twitter feed will also know that I have been flying my ARDrone 2 on a regulare basis and taking some awesome aerial photos of the Cape Winelands. Bush fires have recently threatened many wine farms in the area and violent labour strikes have also added their share of irritation.

For my US readers, why not pop over to the Aquaponics Store (link on the right)? They have some great aquaponics equipment for us “geek gardeners”.

My Twitter account is slowly gaining traction and a steady stream of Aquaponics, Permaculture, Technology and current affairs tweets have attracted some followers. Have a look around and I promise you won’t be bored.

Well, enough for now. Time to make some delicious Basil Pesto.

Fresh Basil

Chickens Revisited – The Holistic Gardener

A phrase I have read on numerous forums regarding chickens goes as follows, “If I had known how easy and fun it was to keep chickens, I would have done it years ago.”

This is spot on. Chickens, especially a small flock of hens only, are clean, quiet, cheap, productive and a load of fun to have around. Today I’d like to discuss where they fit into my self-sustainability plans.

This has been a long and really interesting journey and probably started with my first interest in Aquaponics almost 5 years ago. I found the concept of a closed-loop food production system intriguing but questioned the blinkered approach of the purists in this industry. Aquaponics, despite being a really cool way to produce food still seemed overly reliant on technology, power and it was also expensive to build and maintain. Also, over time, minute nutrient deficiencies developed and had to be supplemented by artificial inputs.

At this time I really started researching a more holistic approach to home food production and delved into composting, mulching, permaculture, worms, food forests and heirloom seeds. It was only after my chickens had joined the mix that I started getting a really comfortable feeling that, at last, my system was complete.

It was not the first time that I had incorporated chickens. A client, for whom I built a commercial system, suspended his chickens directly over his Tilapia ponds, a practice I subsequently strongly disagreed with. Keeping my own chickens now has enforced this view even more. Not only was it extremely unhealthy and potentially fatal, but also particularly cruel to the chickens, even if they only spent short periods of time over the tanks.

Here is a short description, in point form, of what I believe is an extremely productive, environmentally friendly, sustainable method of producing food on a micro to commercial scale.

  • Extensive soil preparation and conditioning.
  • Zero Till thereafter.
  • Extra deep mulching.
  • Composting, with and without worms.
  • Design using permaculture principles.
  • Chicken kept for litter (mulching), eggs and meat.
  • Aquaponic system used to produce fish and supply nutrients for seedlings and out-of-season vegetables in a greenhouse.
  • Use of heirloom seeds only.
  • Zero pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Companion planting.

I don’t think I have all the answers, but nature itself is teaching me some valuable lessons. When you do something right, you are rewarded with a cheap, bountiful harvest. When you fight against nature, your results are disappointing and expensive.

Cheers

Synaptoman

Could this be the one?

My enthusiasm for, and confidence in Tilapia farming as a sustainable means of producing protein in the 21st Century never wanes. Despite the challenges facing potential investors in this sector, I remain bullish that this is THE species that will provide a large percentage of our protein intake in the future.

I have however, watched in dismay as the industry struggles to find its feet here at the southern tip of Africa.  All that has probably been lacking is a coordinated marketing plan and the resolution of some minor technical issues, the temperature requirement being one.

My promotion, over the years for Aquaponic (AP) farming of Tilapia, is well-documented and not a week goes by without a number of my readers emailing me with questions or advice in this regard from all corners of the world.  While AP is my passion, I also keep my eyes and ears open for any traditional aquaculture systems that seem worthwhile.

Recently I came across a turnkey system locally that really got my attention.  The technical aspects were impressive enough, but when I realised that it was being marketed by David Fincham, who is now at Dicla Farm and Seeds, I really got excited.  David has a wealth of experience in the tilapia industry locally and has served on numerous industry-specific committees.  Dicla on the other hand are a well-respected agricultural supply company with years of experience in the farming sector.

The Dicla Tilapia system can be summarised as follows;

  • Tilapia are stocked in net cages and held for a period of 21days in each net.
  • Every 21 days the Tilapia are carefully transferred to the next cage until after 189 days they are ready for harvest at a weight of 260-350g a healthy plate size fish.
  • All the water is recycled and put through various filtering and cleaning processes to return to the system.
  • Water temperature is maintained by Solar energy from the greenhouse and is retained by the efficient system design so that heat losses between day and night time temperatures are only 1-2 Degrees Celsius.
  • The Dicla Eco Tilapia are fead a well formulated and processed commercial Tilapia Pellet feed.   The Tilapia are hand fed according to a feed table 7-8 times a day.  This hand feeding allows one to monitor the feeding response of the Tilapia, their health and the health of the system.
  • Water quality is constantly monitored and tested on a regular basis to ensure Tilapia health and growth.

I am sure that a couple of vegetable growbeds could easily be bolted onto this system to provide a supplementary crop and assist in the bio-filtration, but I am sure David could answer this question.

If you are looking for a well-designed, turnkey Tilapia system, this could be it.  I was most impressed by the design of the system and the realistic and verifiable production figures given in their promotional material.

Who knows?  This could just be, the one.

You can find Dicla’s website here.

Davids email address is david(at)dicla.com or phone him on + 27116622846.

Be sure to tell them that;

Synaptoman sent me“, and you will be looked after.

Cheers

Synaptoman

Aquaponics 101 – Scaling Down.

With everything in life (including life itself) there is a time for building and a time for breaking down, a time for birth and a time for death, a time for expansion and a time for contraction.

Because of my new challenges in a distant town and the Child Bride moaning about the daily upkeep of our home Aquaponic (AP) system, I recently decided to scale down the home system to a more manageable scale that the Child Bride and Brat Deluxe could manage with ease.

First (unfortunately), the Tilapia brood stock that had served me so well over the years (and put a serious amount of food on the table) had to go.  I sent out 5 emails to  clients in the immediate area and within 2 hours they had been snapped up by a lucky sod just 10 km down the road.  The immediate effect of this is that I will no longer have Tilapia fingerlings for sale from this Spring, but I will merely change the contact details on this blog to route fingerling enquiries to the new hatchery.

After delivering the fish one Saturday morning, the work began.

You may remember my original home system.  It consisted of two 1.7m diameter tanks inside a greenhouse and 10 growbeds outside.  These were fed by gravity.  Later I added more growbeds at a higher level fed by a submersible pump.  These I would be using in my new layout.

Step one was to scale the system down to one tank, so out came the front tank leaving some very useful space in the greenhouse for seedling production.

Then I decided to shorten the back tank so that the Child Bride could easily work with the fish here without climbing up a ladder, so out came the trusty grinder.

I now have a nice short tank with about 50 goldfish (comets) that I bred last Spring.  I will rig up a submersible pump to pump water to the higher level of growbeds, but for Winter I have moved all my plants into my soil (permaculture) garden.

I had a few Tilapia fry (all males) that I have moved into a fish tank in the study to keep the Child Bride amused while I’m out of town.  One can spend hours watching these little critters and it’s fascinating to see them at close hand after all these years just seeing glimpses of them in the big tanks.

And just in closing, a photograph of Jess the greenhouse helper, starting to get cold as Winter approaches.

Enough for now.

Cheers

Synaptoman