Backyard aquaponics

Last year I attended a conference here in Panama put on by the pseudonymous Simon Black and the Sovereign Man folks.

If you don’t follow Sovereign Man already you should. Simon is an interesting cat – former West Point grad and clandestine intelligence officer who grew disillusioned with what he termed the U.S.’s “hegemonic might is right” theory, and left the service of Uncle Sam to wander the globe looking for economic opportunities and interesting business ventures in the most unlikely of places — like Mongolia for instance.

One of the presentations that particularly caught my attention at the conference was from Colle Davis, the inventor of Portable Farms Aquaponics Systems an aquaponics business that designs food productions systems for small retail and larger commercial customers.

Aquaponics is essentially a sustainable food production system that joins traditional aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient rich water). In aquaponics theory, effluents (nutrient rich fish crap) accumulate in the water which is then transferred to a hydroponics system for utilization by plants and vegetables, after which the cleansed water is re-circulated back to the fish.

While aquaponics is still in its nascent stages, several companies are cropping up (particularly in Australia) to serve both large commercial customers and backyard gardening hobbyists as well.

Typical aquaponics systems raise freshwater fish such as tilapia, Silver Perch or catfish and grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables – cabbage, basil, okra, tomatoes, bell peppers, cantaloupe, strawberries and onions are all popular.

What really caught my attention, however is that one of Davis’ most popular aquaponics systems is a 10’ x 20’ system (a size that would fit in many backyards) that is capable of producing 1100 vegetables and 400 pounds of fish per year, or roughly 800 4-ounce filets. That’s a lot of food for a system that can fit in your backyard.

Davis says growing vegetables and raising fish in his system is quite simple. Vegetables are grown in a gravel grow tray and fed with warm, nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks that circulates through the vegetable beds at timed intervals.

The fish are raised from 1” fingerlings to harvest size of about 1 ¼ pounds in 6 ½ to 8 months using either a variety of commercial feeds or even duckweed and other vegetable matter, which can even be grown in the aquaponics system itself or in separate duckweed growing areas outside the greenhouse.

“Soup to nuts” costs vary widely depending on the climate in which such a system is installed, whether extra grow lights are needed, and local utility costs, but a typical backyard 10’ x 20’ system starts at around $12,000 for full installation.

Add to that about 14 kw of power per day at roughly $1.50, starter seeds at $1 to $4 per packet, and fish fingerling costs of $.50 to $1.00 per fish, as well as feed costs of $25 for a 50 pound bag of fish food (this assumes you don’t feed with vegetable matter or duckweed from your own system.)

I should note that I haven’t tried such a system personally, and thus can’t attest to either the economics or the relative ease or difficulty of growing vegetables and raising fish through an aquaponics system. Given that it’s a fairly new food production technology, we’ll likely see several additional iterations and innovations in the coming years.

But what’s abundantly evident is that really smart folks like Davis are at the cutting edge of something big: Developing ingenious new ways that harness technology to provide food security using a decentralization model.

We harp on decentralization often here because it is coming whether we like it or not, and because we believe the trend will put back into balance the qualities of self-reliance, resilience and independence that have been neglected because of overdependence on centralized systems – be they governments or corporations.

As Trey wrote yesterday, the key to resilience is not having to rely on fragile centralized systems – food supply chains for instance – and being able to create, grow and build the necessities you need right in your own home.

Local communities and enterprises, and individual ingenuity will increasingly be viewed as more effective, adaptable and responsive than centralized systems in the coming years, and technologies such as aquaponics will be at the forefront in responding to that shift.

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5 Responses to "Backyard aquaponics"

  1. Anne Turner says:

    excellent information, Coley, and very interesting!

  2. Bebe PURE says:

    This idea sounds amazing! Wished I had $12000 to splurge on the system…

  3. esckay says:

    $12,0000 must also include greenhouse etc. it is possible to build a system for as little as $200 i build one with 6 tanks and 8 growbeds base materials came to well under $2000 each tank and grow bed are 1 metre x 1 metre across build using second hand ICB i did more building that the basics though you can have a look at my progress here

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