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

Modern Survivalism 101 – An Introduction

Synaptoman, the blog, has concerned itself with many topics over the years and has, surprisingly, thanks to you, the loyal reader, reached the #7 spot in the News and Politics section of the local South African blog charts. Topics have ranged from Aquaponics to Sustainable Living, Permaculture, Humour and even some local politics. I have carefully charted a course for this blog based on what my readers want to read about and have even had the occasional reader survey, not that I have a particularly democratic personality.

What is clear is that most of my readers come here for the Aquaponics. While I could write indefinitely on this subject, I have put most of what I have learned into my book, Aquaponics – the Synaptoman Way, which you can buy from this website. This little publication sells a considerable number of copies and I am sure ranks as one of the most downloaded eBooks on the subject of Aquaponics worldwide.

What you must bear in mind however, is that Aquaponics is just one small component of the ‘bigger picture” and it is this, that will be the main focus of my blog for the foreseeable future.

Modern Survivalism, as practised by Jack Spirko and the other good ol’ boys at The Survival Podcast represents a 21st Century approach to mankind’s oldest problem that is, how to survive as a family or community when things are going well or even when they go pear-shaped. It is a concept far removed from the wack-job bunkered down in a cellar surrounded by guns and “surviving” on tinned food while the world around him goes to hell in a handbag.

No, Modern Survivalism is a holistic approach to the old Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” and the important thing here is that in your preparations (preps) you should not do anything or spend any money on items that you would not need anyway. In a real “Shit Hit the Fan” (SHTF) situation, your preps should place you and your family in a far safer place than all those around you without unnecessarily attracting any attention to you.

I will spend the next couple of posts dealing with the basic concepts of Modern Survivalism and then outline how I have applied them in my life here at the southern tip of Africa.

Be Prepared

Syanaptoman

Chickens Revisited – Let’s start at the beginning

In a previous post (Aquaponics-101-chicken-sht-and-swimming-pools), I documented an integrated chicken, fish and vegetable system which drew plenty of comment and scepticism. It entailed housing chickens above a Tilapia tank. Their droppings fell into the tank and were greedily eaten by the fish. The fish poop on the other hand provided valuable nutrients for Aquaponic vegetables in a closed loop system. While I was never comfortable with the hygienic elements of this system, the client, to the best of my knowledge, is still using it and hasn’t killed or poisoned anyone yet.

My circumstances having changed somewhat, I now find myself behind a computer terminal programming and my more agricultural pursuits have had to take place after work or over weekends. I also live alone in a small cottage on a wine farm and commute home to the Child Bride and Brat Deluxe in Knysna every 2nd weekend. This did not stop me immediately establishing a very productive little vegetable garden and recently my thoughts wandered back to chickens.

I am currently able to feed myself at least 3 days a week from my garden and the logic behind keeping chickens was to make myself even more self-sufficient. I have been a forum member of backyardchickens.com for a few years and I turned to this site for inspirations for a small chicken tractor (moveable coop) that could provide me with 3-4 eggs a day.

In my research I discovered that a laying hen produces an egg every 26 hours. I would thus need 4 hens and set about designing a coop to fit this bill. Ever on the lookout for integrated systems I also figured that 4 hens would also provide me with plenty of manure for my blossoming garden.

The coop would also have to be neat and well-constructed as I rent the cottage that I live in here in Paarl and try my best to keep my landlords happy. I wanted to design and build a piece of garden furniture and not some cobbled together creation of wood and wire.

This then is what I was aiming for, which I found at backyardchickens.com

The next couple of posts will document the build and my own interpretation of this design.

Enough for now

 

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

Pleased to Mead you.

I may (or may not) have mentioned before on this blog that as part of my sustainable living drive, I decided over a year ago to learn to make some sort of alcoholic beverage in case, one day, we found ourselves cut off from all means of production and living only on what we could grow ourselves, hunt down or forage/steal.

While I hope that this day will never come, I set about collecting as much information as possible (typical Synaptoman, I hear you say). There were basically three choices, brew beer, make wine or, to me, more interestingly, make mead.

What is mead? If you’d like a very detailed explanation, pop over to the best resource on the web for mead production Got Mead. here. For a short and sharp introduction, let me enlighten you.

Mead (or honey wine) is the oldest man-made fermented beverage in the world and pre-dates wine and beer by thousands of years. In its very simplest form, it is made by dissolving honey in water, adding a yeast and allowing the mixture to ferment. Doing it as above will either blind you or make you extremely sick so rather do some decent research or join the above-mentioned forum to learn how to do it properly. Of course, on the other hand, you could just wait for the eBook, Making Mead- The Synaptoman way.

The word “honeymoon” comes from the gift of a months worth of mead given to newlyweds in medieval times, presumably to ensure early conception of offspring during this post-wedding period. 

I started making my first mead over a year ago and a few weekends ago the Child Bride and I set about bottling the resulting product. It has fermented and then matured during this time in a 20L carboy and this particular mead, containing fruit and known as a Melomel, consisted of water, fynbos honey, mango and prickly pear. I used a Sauvignon Blanc yeast and the resulting mead has an alcohol content of 13.4%, is off-dry and tastes like a noble late harvest white dessert wine, but not as sweet.

Here are some action shots of the racking and bottling process.

This is what a carboy looks like.

Here a shot of the Child Bride filling the first bottle.

A case of bottled  mead

And this what the final product, Blombos 2010, looks like

In closing, my “pretty picture” for the day is a shot I took of the Child Bride on a recent weekend away at Langebaan on the West Coast.

Enough for now

Cheers

Synaptoman

Permaculture 101 – Sheet Mulching

In my previous post I mentioned that I would be spending some time on the concept of Permaculture (PC).   A normal person would slowly introduce the concept, the basic principles and other background information before dealing with specific details, Not being normal I intend, after a simple definition of PC, to plunge directly into sheet mulching.

Firstly, what is PC?

The aim of PC is to design ecologically sound, economically prosperous human communities.  It is guided by a set of ethics; caring for the Earth, caring for people and reinvesting the surplus that this care will create.  (Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home Scale Permacuture, Toby Hemenway. ISBN 978-1-60358-029-8)

One of the first tasks in building an ecologically sound (and productive) garden is to build the soil.  I was immediately attracted to the concept of sheet mulching because it was irrelevant what the current condition of your garden is, whether it be sandy, clay soil or even a water-sucking lawn, sheet mulching was guaranteed to work because the soil was built upwards from scratch.

Briefly sheet-mulching entails building a raised bed of compostable material into which one can immediately start planting.  Planned and implemented correctly, it will immediately start breaking down and composting, retain water on an impressive scale and last for many years.  Even when it starts becoming less productive, one just adds compostable material on top to start all over again.

Anyway, here is Sheet Mulching – The Synaptoman way.

The best advice I can give here is to start small.  My first attempt at sheet mulching (SM) was an area of about 4m x 3m and it took a hard day’s slog and plenty of material to complete the job.   You will need the following;

  • Enough cardboard or newspaper to cover the area.
  • Manure (cow manure works the best)
  • Organic material (straw, grass cuttings, bark, almost anything)
  • Weed free compost
  • Mulch

I bought 12 large bags of pine bark chips which would act as my organic material and my mulch, 10 bags of mushroom compost and a pickup load of cow manure and got cracking.

 We had to fetch the manure ourselves, here’s a very rare shot of Brat Deluxe doing some work for a change.

After the manure episode he deserted me and I built the SM bed single-handedly, although I shouldn’t be too harsh on him as he looks after my garden while I’m out “hunting and gathering”, including watering the rapidly expanding fruit orchard, which in his own words is, “no joke”.

First Step is to spread a fine layer of manure over the area.

Water thoroughly and then pack cardboard or newspaper over the area.  This will kill all grass or weeds by depriving them of sunlight.  At every step from now on, water thoroughly.

After this goes the manure.  Aim for about an inch (25mm)

Then we start packing layers of organic material (in my case, the wood chips).  The deeper the better but I managed about 6 inches (150mm).

After that comes the compost. About 1 inch (25mm)

Followed by a final layer of mulch (more wood chips)

It is very important that you water at every stage.  It is absolutely amazing how much water this solid pile of material holds.  It acts as a sponge and I estimate that I added between 500-700L of water to this pile without a drop seeping out of the sides.

Now we wait a few weeks (or the whole of our Winter here in South Africa) and then start planting.

Wish me luck.

*Breaking News*

I have started testing a Forum for Synaptoman where subscribers and regular readers can discuss subjects dealt with in this blog.  I have a rough site working and am busy conducting tests after which I will open it up to subscribers to this blog first and thereafter the general public.  I hope to have this ready by next week and would appreciate any suggestions for Categories.  So far I have Categories with the following headings;

  • Aquaponics (obviously)
  • Permaculture
  • Sustainable Living
  • Alternative Energy

I am also looking for some volunteers to moderate individual categories.  I think it is going to be immensely popular and a lot of fun to have a small focused community where folk with similar interests can throw ideas around outside of the madness that the Internet has become.

Enough for now

Synaptoman