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

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

Chickens Revisited – Brass Butt Hinges

As mentioned previously and in keeping with my more obsessive nature, the chicken tractor was designed to be a piece of “garden furniture” rather than a mere chicken coop. Functionality, that is easy access and weather proofing were important features, but it also had to look good. I’m not sure if the chickens would know any better, but I would, so I plodded along in my normal pedantic way. A sip of beer, one screw, stand back, admire, another sip of beer, change the screw. You know what I mean. Here is a shot of the lower door fitted with its shiny brass butt hinges.

As you can see this lower door flaps upwards to change food and water, clean the floor and let the chickens in and out.

The next big job was the roof. With the roof sheets cut to size back in Knysna, I thought that this would be a walk in the park. How wrong I was. With no-one helping and with a gale-force wind blowing I battled and swore for hours until I got all the roof sheets on to my satisfaction. No beer drinking during this stage.

The top of the roof is finished off with a ridge but the one that I had bought would not bend down as far as I needed as my roof pitch was too steep, so it was off to the hardware store to buy a more flexible roof ridge. I have also bought white roof paint which I will apply later. The lighter the colour, the more light (and thus heat) will be reflected off of the roof. Here in Paarl, South Africa, temperatures rise to over 45 deg C in Summer.

Here is a shot of the roof. Not bad, even though I say so myself. This was the stage at which one is supposed to throw a big party and drink champagne, but being alone, I just settled for a Heineken.

With a few more bits and pieces to finish off, it was almost time to move it into position and await the “ladies”. Here’s a shot of the loft apartment where all the eggs were going to get laid. You can also see the top flap-door which opens downwards.

The excitement was mounting and tomorrow was the big day !!

Later

 

Synaptoman

Chickens Revisited – And then we varnished

Like any project, the initial construction is the easy part. Where the real time (and costs) comes, is in the finishing. The frame didn’t take more than an hour to screw together with nice weather-proof brass screws and eventually looked like this;

Then the slog work started. As this is an outside structure, proper weather-proofing is required. The frame needed at least 3 coats of a weather-proof sealer and I decided on an oak colour. Here’s a shot after the first coat;

As mentioned previously, the chicken tractor would have a loft for egg laying. This I constructed and made it removable for cleaning. I also wanted easy access to the run area as well as the loft area for feeding and watering and egg-collecting respectively. I also decided to complete the chicken mesh at this stage. In this shot you can see the mesh on and the lower (run) door finished and the supports for the loft floor;

At this stage I could almost taste the fresh eggs that would soon be flowing from this little egg factory and with the Child Bride in the UK for a month, I could now rush this project along to have it finished by the time she arrived home. I also started making enquiries about some laying hens and located a local chicken farm that would possibly part with a few hens.

I placed my order for a date 2 weeks off which would at least give me a time target to work towards. At this stage I also went shopping for some really cool brass hinges and fittings (dankie Niggie dat jy saam gekom het).

 

This was going to be the most blinged-out chicken tractor in the world.

 

Anyway, enough for now.

 

Synaptoman

Chickens Revisited – Budget? What budget?

I suppose the first step in any project is to compile a list of materials and a rough budget. The Chicken Tractor was “roughly” a $200 project, and with this number in mind, I started with a rough sketch with approximate dimensions and then went shopping.

The design was an A-Frame structure made up of 3 triangles with approximately 2m x 2m x 2m sides. The height would thus be about 1.5m (Mathematics 101) The 3 trusses would be placed about 1m apart giving me a nice square 2m x 2m structure. I used 38mm x 76mm wood for the frame as this would give me enough strength without being too heavy. This would be sufficient space for the 4 ladies. I would then also build a “loft” apartment for egg-laying with a handy little ladder for easy access. They would also need perches for sleeping at night and it would all be covered in a nice waterproof zinc roof.

I purchased the bulk of the materials in Knysna, cut them to size and transported them to Paarl for assembly. This included the wooden frame as well as the roof sheets. The zinc roof sheets were cut to size with an angle grinder and I used a good old-fashioned hand saw for the timber.

With the timber cut to size the frame was assembled in double quick time. I used “gang-nails” to join the timber which is very similar to how roof trusses are constructed.

As you can see, I used bamboo poles to hold the frames in position as I had no-one to help me in this process.

I have been begging the Child Bride for years to let me keep chickens and the objection has always been that they are noisy and dirty and neighbours would complain. Since starting this project I have learned first-hand some fascinating facts about chickens and I’ll share some with you today before signing off;

  • Laying hens are almost totally silent save for a very subdued cackle when an egg is laid.
  • Without a rooster, hens still continually lay (unfertilised) eggs.
  • A laying hen in good health and age will lay an egg every 26 hours. You can thus get an egg a hen most days.
  • Chickens are FAR more intelligent than you imagine and will happily follow commands and learn from normal fear/greed impulses.
  • A chicken can destroy a garden bed in approximately 15 minutes scratching for insects.
  • They love ranging and get pretty bored sitting around all day doing nothing.
  • Chickens are omnivorous (the same as humans and pigs) and will happily eat meat.
  • They need constant access to fresh, cool water, the more so in hot weather.

Anyway, I’d better be off.

 

Later

 

Synaptoman