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

The Highways of the Mind

For us living in the Southern Hemisphere the approach of Spring is clearly evident.  From the geese that have suddenly gone into gang-rape mode to the morning sun which arrives just a minute or two earlier every day.  My Permaculture experiments have proceeded unabated, mostly concentrated at my little cottage on a wine farm in Paarl.  Travelling back last weekend to the now-deserted Knysna house (the Child Bride being in the UK until November and Brat Deluxe in hist first year at University in Cape Town) I was pleasanty surprised to find that the absence of humans had certainly been good for the garden.

This Winter has certainly been one of the wettest in recent years and my very deeply mulched beds and compost heaps had benefited by the regular downpours turning the plentiful organic material into dark rich compost.Image

Meanwhile at my new home in Paarl, the chickens that are now part of my daily life, have revolutionised the way I look at gardening.  Aquaponics first opened my eyes to sustainable living but adding three simple egg-laying hens to the mix has suddenly made the process so much easier.  Their constant digging and rooting for insects in the mulched beds have aerated and turned over the soil.  Their droppings and littler from their coop has fertilised the soil in way that would have cost a load of money using dangerous and unsustaniable chemical fertlisers.

This Winter I experimented with green manure.  This is basically planting a crop in Winter that just covers the soil and is then trimmed down to soil level as Spring arrives.  Nitrogen fixing plants are used and after the plant is cut, the roots rot under the ground providing important elements to the soil and also opening deep channels deep into the soil.  The leaves also provide a handy snack for the chooks.

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On the Aquaponic front I brought a couple of Tilapia and all my Comet Goldfish broodstock to the Paarl Cottage and come Spring I’ll put together a small AP system just to keep my hand in.

As soon as I start my Spring plantings I will have to confine the chickens to a smaller area around their coop as they can cause real damage to new seedlings.  I built a simple fence out of bamboo and will work on a gate this week.  They are going to have to start getting used to a smaller range area but it’s that or a ruined garden.  This is what the fence looks like.  I will probably plant gooseberries and tomatoes up against it.

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I leave you with this quote from Henry David Thoreau whose book, Walden I have kept on my bedside table for years;

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels.  How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”

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Later.

Synaptoman

 

 

 

 

 

Aquaponics as a component of Permaculture

A while ago I conducted a survey on this blog to determine what my readers wanted me to write about.  Predictably, Aquaponics (AP) won hands-down and I attract a regular 200-400 hits a day reading mainly my older AP articles.  This blog has attracted well over a 1/4 of a million hits since its inception and has readers from all corners of the globe, but I mention specifically the USA, Australia and the UK as my most ardent followers.

I am humbled and also slightly intimidated by the 60+ subscribers to this blog who keenly await my next submission, so before I begin this missive let me lay a brief foundation.

I started as a backyard AP fan and rose rapidly through the ranks and found myself eventually designing and physically building backyard as well as commercial AP systems.  I also wrote an eBook on the subject (still available on this site) which still ranks up there with the best available for newcomers to this subject.

What really worried me, however, was the sustainability of AP and where exactly it fitted into the bigger picture.  My research eventually took me into the concept of Survivalism and from there it was relatively easy to work out that AP was actually a key element of Permaculture.

Two factors reinforced this realisation. Firstly, although the income from consulting, designing and building AP systems was good, it wasn’t sufficient to match the income I could earn in my primary profession, which was IT systems design, consulting and programming.  Secondly, despite what was claimed on numerous AP sites, we still had a long way to go insofar as yields and particularly financial viability of AP.

This gave me pause for thought and what I eventually did was to join the “Dark Side”, take a well-paying programming job in a distant town (Paarl) and leave the Child Bride and Brat Deluxe to manage my AP system in my hometown of Knysna, South Africa.  The objective here was to consolidate (which we all need to do at some stage in our lives), accumulate some capital and plan our next step.

My ultimate objective in life is to design, plan, implement, build and eventually live out my last days in an Eco Village.  I dealt with this extensively in my series entitled, Newtopia and only now this whole concept all seems to be taking shape.  So please excuse me while I deviate somewhat from AP for the next month or two and plunge into the subject of Permaculture.

In my next posts I will deal extensively with Permaculture and why we as aspiring AP experts should be embracing the concept.  My next subject is sheet mulching and if you have ever been frustrated by the limitations of AP or the fact that you don’t have “green fingers” read carefully. 

I’d like to end this post by wishing my wife, the world famous Child Bride all the very best for her birthday.

My Wife, my Life, my sole reason for Living.

Cheers for now

Synaptoman

The merits of Animal Husbandry

Animal Husbandry is defined as, ” The branch of agriculture concerned with the care and breeding of domestic animals such as cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses.”  I am sure that it could quite easily be applied to the breeding of fish and in my case, specifically Tilapia.

An interesting definition of Aquaculture on the other hand can be found over at the State of Maine, Department of Marine Resources.  They end their definition with this sentence, “In order to qualify as aquaculture a project must involve affirmative action by the lessee to improve the growth rate or quality of the marine organism.”

Now for my South African readers this reference to “affirmative action” does not mean our quaint local custom of firing perfectly competent white workers and replacing them with random (or politically connected) appointees solely on the basis of their skin colour to earn BEE points, but rather the direct intervention of the aquaculturists to protect, nurture and grow the fish under his care.  This intervention takes the form of feeding, heating/cooling, treating disease and ensuring water quality and filtration.

Another really important form of “affirmative action”  takes place during the breeding process.  Like many other animals, fish do not make particularly good parents.  Or at least they don’t appear to.  It is difficult to judge the actions of  a fish living in a totally artificial environment, so I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.  My experience however, over a five-year period actively breeding Tilapia is that I can achieve survival rates thousands of times more successful than the parents, if left to their own devices.

The intervention in the breeding process of Tilapia entails either stripping eggs from the mouths of the females and then hatching them in an incubator or allowing the female to hatch the eggs and then removing the fry immediately they are free-swimming.  Over the years I have tended towards the latter approach because despite the yield being marginally lower, the effort and cost entailed is substantially less.

Which brings me back to Animal Husbandry and the merits (or demerits) thereof.  Two weekends ago, while cleaning the Tilapia tanks in my home AP system, I had cause to really question the logic behind saving the life of a baby fish when, if no intervention was made, it would have most certainly been eaten by its parents.

To perform my annual “deep clean” of my tanks, I move all the brood fish into one tank, drain the other and then spend 3-4 hours scrubbing the sides and bottom of the tank until it is as clean as new.  Moving brood fish in the middle of breeding season is sure to result in thousands of coughed up fry, egg-sac fry and unhatched eggs.  We have had a particularly good breeding season so I was prepared to make this sacrifice and we save as many of these as we can while the clean takes place.  Once this tank is cleaned, the tank is filled, the fish are all moved to the clean tank and the process is repeated in tank #2.  More eggs and fry are spat out and we get busy with the net again.

I have always told my clients that Tilapia, being vegetarian, are not particularly interested in eating their young.  I have seen a female accidentally “swallow” her entire brood when stressed, but I cannot say that I had seen them actively eat their young.  That was until now.

While busy in the second tank, I peeped over the rim and looked into the clean tank.  A school of a couple of hundred Tilapia fry were swimming around the edge.  The net was nowhere near at hand so I chose just to observe.  A large male of about 800g slowly swam up to the school and gently opened his mouth and “sucked” in about 50 at a time.  He swallowed and then repeated the procedure until there was only about 10 little fish frantically darting out of his reach.  These I rescued later and moved to the fry tank.

Which got me thinking.  These rescued fish were faster and more alert than their eaten siblings.  Had I unwittingly stumbled on a “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” exercise in progress.  By practising Animal Husbandry are we not saving fish and their inferior attributes that would not have stood a chance in nature?  And it’s not just fish.  By feeding, protecting and healing animals,  are we not breeding  progressively weaker and inferior animals? 

It is easy to criticise these “dumb fish” for eating their young, but are they not in fact ensuring that only the fittest, strongest and quickest babies make the next generation and in turn stand a better chance against real predators in nature?

I felt rather humbled by this observation.

Cheers

Synaptoman

Aquaponics 101 – Let the training begin

With the training system at Harkerville, Knysna complete, we are now scheduling our Practical Aquaponics training courses.  This intensive hands-on course includes both theoretical and practical training in all aspects of Aquaponics (AP) from design, building and commissioning a system to day-to-day maintenance and trouble-shooting.

Some topics covered in the course are;

  • An Introduction to AP.
  • A comparison of AP to pure Aquaculture systems
  • A comparison of AP to pure Hydroponic systems.
  • The Fish.
  • The Plants.
  • Planning, site selection and other considerations.
  • The materials list (what you will need).
  • How it all fits together (various basic designs)
  • Costing and Economic considerations.
  • Fish/Plant selection and Marketing Considerations.
  • Troubleshooting.
  • Visits to other local AP sites.

The duration of the course is 2 days and the course fee includes transfers from and back to George Airport, 2 nights accommodation onsite at the Masescha Resort, a visit to other AP sites in the area, all meals (excluding drinks), the course, as well as a free copy of the publication, Aquaponics – The Synaptoman way.

We also have a special accomodation only rate for spouses/children/partners who would like to accompany delegates.

Our January 2010 course is fully-booked but we still have places for our February 2010 course, which runs from 22 February to 24 February 2010.  Places are strictly limited to ensure individual attention to all delegates.

Email me at aquaculture(at)knysna.sa.com * for further details.

Cheers for now


Synaptoman

* (replace the (at) with @ to foil the spammers)

An image of the completed training system, all ready for plants and fish.