Aquaponics in the Age of the Coronavirus Quarantine
Get invested in Aquaponics so you can relax and be free from complex supply chain stressors and enjoy your own backyard meal in the age of the COVID-19.
My name is Jonathan Reyes and I am a co-founder of Aquaponics AI and Tulua. These two companies, on two separate continents, are doubling down on the power and essential nature of Aquaponics. So when I tell you Aquaponics is absolutely the way to regeneratively farming your future, you can trust I'm not just saying it for kicks.
If you're like me, the coronavirus travel restrictions are preventing or ruining many of your plans. You're seeing massive strain on global trade, imports, and accessibility to many of your store bought items. The good news is you probably have some free time now to start on a little home project (or even a small commercial venture). Investors are even recognizing that agriculture could be the way to invest in this economy.
So let's do this. You'll have a preliminary aquaponics system built in under two weeks (with your free time, maybe quicker). And I trust that you'll be so enthused that you'll just want to expand and enhance. It's wildly addicting.
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a rich ecosystem that produces fish and crops. A well designed system can grow most anything from leafy greens to papaya trees. Its main benefits are higher yield, higher nutrient density, smaller spatial footprint and can be technologically heavy or not. Its primary focus is to harness earth's natural biosphere in a way that supercharges the growth of crops.
Why start during a coronavirus quarantine?
Aquaponics will give you the ability to grow fish and crops to stimulate your own micro-economy by which you could sell to your neighbors, friends, stores, or just use it to sustain your family. It is decentralized farming, giving you more control over your mind, body, and business. It reduces food miles, increases food security, increases nutrient density and even gives you something cool to show off to your quarantined friends via zoom.
How do I get started?
Aquaponics is a widely practiced subject with lots of opinions. You can build a system in many ways, and many of them are valid. My advice below is aimed at a widely applicable solution that can be used anywhere (not just in the USA) and only meant for backyard applications due to the goal of decentralization in the midst of the coronavirus panic.
You should start with a very basic setup. I would recommend looking through the FAO manual and see what setup would work best in your backyard, indoor farm, greenhouse, or office. Here are some other essential names and videos to get you started:
Rob Bob's Aquaponic Videos - Fantastic for visual learners who want a little bit more technical and discussion-based engagement with the author. He's been doing Aquaponics for a long time and has lots of experience.
Dr. James Rakocy's Research at UVI - Dr. Rakocy is one of the most respected names and thought leaders in the Aquaponic industry. His research has furthered Aquaponics in great strides and we have a great debt to his decades of quality research at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Murray Hallam's YouTube Channel - Murray is one of the more contemporary thought leaders for applicable aquaponics. He brings a unique perspective to his videos and makes them accessible for many across the globe.
Nate Story at Bright Agrotech - Nate is an experienced hydroponic farmer who also does aquaponics and is great at explaining scientific concepts in ways we can all understand.
Wilson Lennard's Fact Sheets - Wilson Lennard is a specialized aquaponic scientist who values data driven and science driven aquaponic design. These fact sheets are worth a read.
FAO Manual - This manual is by far one of the best free resources for a general and well-rounded understanding of aquaponics created by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and can be downloaded here.
Aquaponic Gardening - A great book on Aquaponics by Sylvia Bernstein.
Calculators, Fish Library, Crop Library & Disease Library - Get up to speed with Aquaponic terminology, crops, diseases, and all the various calculations using these tools.
You will also find many helpful groups on Facebook that range from organic gardening, to aquaculture, to aquaponics. I recommend engaging with these groups as they are often quite creative and resourceful for backyard systems.
I would suggest using Aquaponics AI which is a cloud-based data and intelligence-driven approach to growing with Aquaponics. You'll literally have your project set up in under two minutes with helpful charts and insights available to you. There is even a project template that has the FAO maintenance schedule which will give you a FAO ready system in a single click. It will tell you what to monitor and what it all means. It will also help you cycle your system (get it ready for fish) and give you access to your data anywhere.
You could also setup your own sensors if you're into that kind of thing (I am). You can use the Blue Lab Guardian if you're wanting a more industrial application, or Atlas Scientific sensors for a more widely available sensor which are still decent quality. You'll definitely need to monitor pH and temperature, but you will also want to think about monitoring dissolved oxygen, EC and more.
Part 1: The Container Setup
Unless you're going small-commercial or larger, you'll essentially want to focus on the following things: a fish tank and growing area. These are the basic components of an Aquaponic system.
If you have room for an IBC tote, then this may be the option for you. They are quite durable and also can be cheap if they're recycled. Just make sure you understand what was in the tote before and how to properly source them. You can also use smaller bins/tubs from home depot to hold the fish.
The most common ways of growing are in grow beds (with some sort of rock or media like hydroton) and deep water culture (DWC). Deep water culture requires slightly more maintenance because it needs to have adequate aeration. If you have grow beds, you don't have to worry about that because the water will fill and empty giving it proper aeration. So a starter kit may consist of just a grow bed with some rocks.
Many people recycle IBC totes to use as grow beds. You can also use the 55 gal blue barrels or your own custom solution. Just make sure the beds are around 30cm deep to allow good root growth.
Part 2: The Pump
The next step is to get the pump. This is the lifesource of the system and I personally always recommend purchasing two of the same pump. If one fails then you can simply switch it out without worrying if it's in stock or will fit the plumbing. For a small system you should get a submersible pump which is properly sized.
Part 3: The Grow Bed
I am a big fan of something called bell siphons. They're rather common and have many applications. One of them is siphoning water out of the grow bed in a non-mechanical manner. This means that once it's working it's not going to fail. Check out the mechanics of a bell siphon and how they work.
Part 4: The Fish
This is probably the most complicated component of setting up an aquaponic system, and it's still fairly simple. First you must figure out which fish to use in your system. You can observe factors like your year round temperatures, hardiness in pH ranges, hardiness to temperature fluctuations, your feed conversion ratio objectives, legality based off of local jurisdiction, etc. These are much more involved subjects of discussion, but I trust you can find a simple fish to put in your system.
Many people use tilapia. Some places it isn't allowed due to their uncanny ability to reproduce. If you're in cold temperatures year round, some have explored using rainbow trout which can handle the cold. We are currently using carp in our systems in Jordan and will switch to Tilapia when it warms up.
Before you add your fish to the system, let's talk about cycling.
Cycling the System
This is critical before you add fish. You want to add pure ammonia to the system so that you can jump start the nitrification processes required to convert ammonia (toxic to the fish) to nitrates (beneficial for the plants). This is a multi-week process depending on the source of your water. If you're lucky enough to have ground water with nitrates already present, then you'll only spend a short time cycling the system.
The software I mentioned above (Aquaponics AI) has a cycling widget which will help you understand more about what to look for and how to track it.
Part 5: Tracking
One of the most important things about an Aquaponic system, especially in the beginning stages, is the data. For example, whenever you ask a question to someone on a forum or chat, they will ask you for water quality parameters (things like dissolved oxygen, ph, nitrate, and nitrite). If you don't have recorded data, then it is very difficult to actually diagnose the issue. So keeping track of these metrics is essential to the health and durability of your system.
Luckily there are many ways to track it. You can use sensors. You can also use a more common approach like the API freshwater test kit. With these numbers recorded you'll have better insight into the inner workings of the system.
Getting Further Experience & Training in Aquaponics
Once you get going, and maybe before you get going, you will want to invest in some formal training. There are some fantastic training opportunities for aquaponics. One of the most detailed and thorough options that I have encountered, while still remaining engaging and applicable, is a training done by Murray Hallam with the Aquaponic Design Course.
Other options that may require a session on-site, but are also very good, include Ouroboros Farms Aquaponics and Education Center (my business partner can vouch for this) and Nelson and Pade (I haven't done this but know they're serious about Aquaponics and have been doing it for a long time).
So go and do some growing. Become more independent and explore how awesome it is to have a separate income growing straight in your backyard.