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Aquaponics – the Automated Ubergarden of the Future

tamaterAn Introduction from MMM:

I was late to the party in learning about aquaponics, but it made a big impression on me when I toured a massively creative food facility two years ago.  

The slightly wild entrepreneurial founder had converted some cheap, remote industrial buildings in Loveland, Colorado into a spectacularly productive indoor farm. Expensive herbs, heirloom tomatoes and fluffy fish were popping out at high speed, with (mostly solar) energy and sparse human labor as the only inputs. With over 40% of the Earth’s land area already converted to farms, I was excited by the idea that someday we may be able to get much more food out of much less land with a lower input of oil and chemicals.

This kicked off a bit of an aquaponics reading binge on my part. And quite coincidentally, a reader named Jeremiah wrote to me towards the end of it to tell me about his own inventions in the field. I was impressed, because he has combined the art and science of Aquaponics with a Mustachian ethos of time and money efficiency. According to Jeremiah, you don’t need to be an advanced entrepreneur or scientist to build up a fancy food factory of your own.

So we collaborated over the past four months to create something worthy of sharing with you. And by “collaboration”, I mean I made the unrealistic demand of a “Zero to Hero” lesson in Aquaponics that would culminate in something readers could actually build, and Mr. Robinson diligently cranked it out with a summer of design and documentation. I am thankful for his generous work on your behalf, and I hope this great article he wrote becomes a primary source on the Internet for learning about the craft. It’s a great read.

High-Tech Gardening and the Kick-Ass ROI
by Jeremiah Robinson

MoneyGroceriesA new gardening technique is about to save you a crap-ton of money on your food bills.

Can you guess what it is?

I’ll give you a hint.

It was invented separately in ancient times by some badass farmers in both China and the Amazon.

In China, it allowed subsistence farmers to survive on plots of mountainside land that no traditional farmer could ever survive on.

It helped the indigenous residents of ancient Bolivia and others the power to develop a wealthy and sophistocated agricultural civilization atop worthless soil for 1000 years.

For the past 2 millenia, these farmers quietly developed the most efficient and sustainable method of growing food known to man.  And nobody noticed.

Rediscovered

Nobody, that is, till 40 years ago the New Alchemists and others put 2 and 2 together.  Their modern methods, combined with the ancient techniques, got rid of most of the work associated with traditional growing (eg. weeding, watering, mulching, soil building, etc…), allowing for much higher production output at a much higher quality.

This ancient-turned-modern method of growing is called aquaponics.

It combines the raising of fish (aquaculture) with the growing of plants in nutrient-rich water (hydroponics).  The fish fertilize the plants, and the plants clean the water.

Hotter than Carhartt, aquaponics is beginning to revolutionize the world of home-grown healthy food.

DesertPonicsNow it’s much easier to grow your own safe, local, healthy food yourself in your own backyard, roof, balcony, or basement.

It doesn’t matter where you live.  It works in the desert.  It works in the tropics.  You can do it urban or rural.  I live in Wisconsin where the polar vortex gave us -25°F (-32°C), and it works here all winter long (actually improves the taste).

For the Zero-to-Hero system I’ll describe later, you just need an area that’s 5′ wide by 14′ long, exposure to either the sun or some fluorescent lights, and a weekend to build it.  To make a smaller system, you just use smaller parts.

The Math

SpinachThe ROI (return on investment) on this thing will kick Warren Buffet’s ass.

I haven’t run the Zero-to-Hero (Z-H) system long enough for good measured data on its output, so I’ll tell you about the larger system I use.  The Z-H system should give proportional results until you decide to upgrade.

My 8’x16′ aquaponics greenhouse (which is about 2x larger than the Z-H system) cost me $3,000 to build, soup-to-nuts.  In one year my system can grow the following fish and better-than-organic produce (local farmers’ market prices in parenthesis):

  • TroutPrices50 lbs of fresh trout fillets ($15/lb)
  • 100 lbs of fresh, cold-finished, food-purged tilapia fillets (Not sold anywhere.  If they were, $10/lb?)
  • Basil Prices75 lbs of pristine basil leaves for pesto ($20/lb)
  • 50 lbs of winter spinach ($5/lb)
  • 40 lbs of fresh unwashed lettuce ($4/lb)

Add all this up and I get a yearly gross output of $3,660, not to mention eating like Louis the XIV.

Here are my yearly costs:

  • Electricity ($0.20/kWh) – $200
  • Fish Feed ($40/bag) – $400
  • 7-8″ Tilapia ($3/fish) – $300
  • 7-8″ Trout ($2/fish) – $100
  • Water ($2.80/1,000 gal) – $15
  • Seeds (prices vary) – $15

Add these up and you’re looking at $1,030/yr.

As a good Mustachian who goes shopping with your middle finger, let’s say that somehow you find a way to pay half the farmers’ market price, or $1,830/yr. Subtracting out the $1,030, you still bank $790, for a simple ROI of 27% or a four-year simple payback, which is very good.

The Z-H system is ¼ the price for ½ the size, so your ROI would be even better.

Objections

System BuildBut, you object, the missing element in my budget is obvious: labor.  So true!  I haven’t included it for three very good reasons:

  1. Building it is fun: With good instructions and ideally with the help of good friends, building an aquaponic system is one of the most fun projects you’ll ever do.  It’s the sort of thing I hope to fill my time with after I quit the rat race.  As MMM says, hard work can be joy-filled and life-giving, especially in small doses.  This past weekend I built a Zero-to-Hero system with a group of 10 people in a few hours at a permaculture workshop.  I’ve rarely had such an enjoyable time!
  2. Checking on my fish is the best part of my day: I love checking on my greenhouse, feeding my fish, and harvesting food, especially when the neighbor kids come and help. You’d have to pay me not to do it.
  3. Nearly zero ongoing labor: This is especially true compared to soil gardening.  Unless you make some dumbass mistakes that you have to fix (which happens while you’re still learning how it works), the only time is daily feeding (5 minutes), weekly water testing (5 minutes), monthly planting (2 hours), twice/year runs to the fish hatchery (3 hours), and harvesting whenever you want to (5-20 minutes—you don’t have to clean your veggies, but you do have to clean your fish).

Another objection you might raise is that you want to visit your long-lost relatives in Azerbaijan, or attend the MMM gathering in Ecuador.  Don’t you have to be home every day to feed your fish, or at least every week to check your water?

Actually, you don’t.

Fish routinely go for 3 to 5 months without eating.  In my area, they do it every winter.  They survive these fluctuations just fine, if a little leaner by the end.  With no food in the system, the water chemistry remains stable as the plants slowly absorb all the excess fertilizer.  So go ahead.  Throw some basil or spinach seedlings in the system and come back in 3 months to full grown plants.  If you want, find a neighbor kid and teach them to how to throw some food in the tank and use the water test kit once per week.

I monitor my system online using an Arduino controller along with Xively.  Incorporate Zapier and you’ll get a text message when there’s a problem.

It’s high-tech, low-maintenance gardening.

The Zero-to-Hero Aquaponic System

SystemDiagramThe Zero-to-Hero system offers you a simple jumping-off point if you’re interested in this kind of growing.  You can buy all the products in an afternoon for about $730, build it in a weekend, and grow a significant portion of the fresh greens and herbs that a family or a frat house can eat.

It will allow you to grow year-round in USDA zone 7 or warmer.  To grow in winter in colder climates (like I do) you’ll need to make some additional improvements, such as a small hoop house to store it in. You can also shut down for the winter, and harvest your fish in October.

While you probably won’t see the kinds of outputs described above in year one, you will see them as you learn to operate your system better, which fish you can find locally, and what plants you eat the most of.

It’s difficult to exaggerate how convenient it is to have mostly maintenance-free and exceptionally fresh / tasty food right at your doorstep.

However, one point worth emphasizing is that while aquaponics is very easy and labor-free to manage once you’ve got it working, the process of making it work is a learning curve. It will take about a year and result in some dead fish, dead plants, and problems you’ve got to solve.  I’ve never met anyone for whom it didn’t, though I’ve also never met an aquapon for whom solving these problems was beyond their reach.

On these occasions, your best resources are the online forums, which are full of helpful people eager to answer your questions.  After that (or if you don’t have time) you can contact most any aquaponics instructor or product seller and they will help you for a reasonable fee.  There are also a number of books that can help you on your journey as well.

Growing this way is a lot of fun, and can be habit-forming—in a good way.

The Zero-to-Hero system plans are available for download free for MMM readers at the page linked to below.  To get them free, type in the coupon code mr_mmm at the checkout page.

Link to Zero-to-Hero system plans.

Aquaponic Farming

Some of you might be thinking the following thought:

If this works so great on the small scale, I’m going to cash out of my bank account, scale up, and start farming!

CommercialFarmIf this is you, I offer this caution: Aquaponic farming is still farming.  Nobody gets rich off it.  If you have the unique combination of skills to make it work it can be profitable.  But you still have to plant, harvest, market, transport, and sell your products, as well as manage employees.  This is hard, challenging, sometimes unrewarding work.  Many aquaponic farms go out of business after a few years.

Because the USDA is behind on their regulations regarding fish, organic certification is hard to get for aquaponic vegetables and nearly impossible for fish, even though any unhealthy fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, or fungicide (even those used on organic farms) would immediately kill all your fish.  This means you have to convince your customers that your products carry a higher value than conventional produce and fish from China, in most cases without organic certification.  This is more difficult than you might think.

Many aquaponic farmers live off grants and free intern labor, while a few market brilliantly and make a profit selling to high-end restaurants and grocers.  If you’re interested in growing commercially, I recommend you do the following:

  • First, build the zero-to-hero system, operate that for a while, read all you can on aquaculture, horticulture, and greenhouse design, visit some farms, and start getting involved in forums.
  • Next, scale up your backyard greenhouse system, trying new designs and keeping up the research and experimentation.
  • Once that’s running smoothly for a couple of years, contact Nelson & PadePentair Aquatic EcosystemsFriendly Aquaponics, and Green Acre Aquaponics, and ask if there are any farms you could contact to inquire about an apprenticeship.
  • Also, make sure you find some farmers that have gone out of business and talk to them about what went wrong, asking them if they think your plans can work when theirs didn’t.

It can be done.  Maybe you’re the one to do it.

Aquaponic Investments

FairOaksThere are a number of existing farms out there that would be happy to accept investment funding to expand their operations.  It will take you a lot of due diligence to ensure that their farm is profitable and likely to remain so because – as I’ve said before – farming is tough!

One interesting investment opportunity I stumbled across this year is Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, a combination farm and tourist destination with a fascinating ownership structure. They are getting a lot of people interested in farming, which is a good thing as most farmers these days are late-middle-age or older. Currently expanding into aquaculture, they are likely to include aquaponics in the next couple of years. Give them a call to talk about investment opportunities if you’d like to invest in this space.

Aquaponic Produce

ASCMagIf you’re not the farming type, aren’t looking for new investments, and can’t find a weekend (or the space) to build a Z-H system, you can still take advantage of aquaponic produce and fish.

Because you and I know that it’s better-than-organic while not actually certified, we can get the high-quality food for a cheaper price.

While there’s no directory of aquaponic farms, you can google “aquaponic farm” in your area and find out where they sell, or if they sell direct.

Give it a shot.  Once you go aquaponic you’ll never go back.

– Jeremiah Robinson
Frosty Fish Aquaponic Systems

 

  • josh October 20, 2014, 6:19 am

    I find it amusing that a blog I frequent for very specific reasons continues to provide content aligning with my hobbies & interests. In other words, interesting people are interesting! Congrats on discovering aquaponics. I’m still waiting to see either DIY solar thermal or DIY PV as a diversified investment in your FI portfolio :) !

    Keep up the great work!

    To stay on topic, I stumbled on Jeremiah’s work some time ago. You picked a great representative. I am really impressed with his cold weather focus. Really amazing demonstration!

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 8:13 am

      Thanks Josh. Nice to see you in a new context :)

      Reply
    • Trifele October 20, 2014, 9:08 am

      Great, great, timely post. I’ve been thinking and reading about aquaponics for about a year, and this article has given me the push I needed. Huge added bonus — Jeremiah and Frosty Fish are just down the road from us here in Wisconsin. It is excellent to read a how-to that takes our winter weather (-25F) into account! I had wondered how a system would work at those temperatures. THANKS, Jeremiah! Hope the added traffic from the Mustachians doesn’t crash your website. :)

      Reply
      • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:17 am

        Hi Trifele, Stop in sometime. I’d love to meet you. Upgraded the site just in case. Should be okay :)

        Reply
    • Free Money Minute October 20, 2014, 11:25 am

      I was thinking the same thing . Must be that people who work hard and are patient and intentional tend to be interested in many of the same things. I might have to try a small scale version of this someday when I have a little more room to work with.

      Reply
  • Melissa October 20, 2014, 6:23 am

    I first learned about this in 2010 from Will Allen’s Growing Power and tried to figure out a way to build it on a small scale. I abandoned the idea, until now. You have just made my dreams come true. THANK YOU!!!

    Reply
  • Rich October 20, 2014, 6:49 am

    Greetings from Hungary!

    Great post. If you want to flex your mustachian muscles even more there is what I call the “caveman-ponics”. I have a family member who builds amazing stuff from the most outrageous things he finds, usually successfully (hence the “caveman”). He managed to build a mini aquaponics system a couple of years ago from 2 old, used bathtubs. You read that right, bathtubs! How preposterous! And it works! He got the fish from the nearby lake for free from some friends who go fishing.

    How about that?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:23 am

      Yeah – right on! Like a man after my own heart.

      Best to keep any pond fish in quarantine for a few weeks to make sure they’re healthy before joining the school.

      Reply
  • ReformedHam October 20, 2014, 6:54 am

    Just finished reading every post yesterday.

    Just started reforming my money management, but I have lived a frugal life in some ways for many years (shockingly wasteful in other ways, however).

    Just started thinking about aquaponics a few months ago.

    And just now came across this post, as my first to comment on. Timely.

    I hope to contribute to the community.

    ReformedHam

    Reply
  • Catherine Marie October 20, 2014, 7:14 am

    Just downloaded the plans for free using the MMM code! Thanks so much for this awesome information, I can’t wait to look it all over.

    Reply
    • Norm October 20, 2014, 2:39 pm

      I can’t figure out how to get the download. I signed up for the blog and still only go to the page http://www.frostyfish.com/blog-signup-form/ , and the download button take me back to the signup page. An endless loop to sign up, but no download.

      Reply
  • BNL October 20, 2014, 7:19 am

    Great stuff! I started my first aquaponics system this year as well. Mine was outdoors without a greenhouse (not enough space), and by the time the water finished cycling and I got enough fish in there it was unfortunately pretty late in the growing season. So I got some lettuce, basil and even a single squash out of it, but nothing more.

    In our next home I’m planning on a very similar system to yours, but hopefully a little bigger. My goal with the AP system and a large hugelkultur is to provide most of the family’s food from our own backyard.

    And I totally agree on discounting the labor. Building the system is fun, educational, and creative. And checking on fish and pulling fresh veggies is my favorite part of the day. It’s also fun to know that my kids might be the only kids in their class that understand the nitrogen cycle.

    Reply
  • Jordan Read October 20, 2014, 7:33 am

    Oh man!! What a great post. Aquaponics is one of the things I’ve done extensive research on, and am still working on the implementation (and whether I want to do it at my current place). MMM, are you planning on getting a system setup at the new place? I remember there was another blog post and there was some discussion in the comments where you said you were interested. I’m definitely going to check out the system, and already grabbed the plans. I have thought about combining an aquaponic system with an earthship-like greenhouse to cut down a bit on electricity consumption, and increase the growing season.

    Awesome post, as usual.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache October 20, 2014, 9:30 am

      Thanks Jordan. Jeremiah’s original email to me was entitled “I’ll design you an Aquaponics system if you’ll build it!”, and the immediate response in my head was, “Oh man, another fun opportunity that I have absolutely no time to do”.

      So the quick answer is no, I won’t be building anything like this just yet, because I still have to work through the pile of construction materials in my yard and finish my house (it turns out that this takes quite a long time when you do almost everything yourself – who knew?!) Then write a book. Then build my detached studio building to make room for more activities.

      After that (2016 perhaps) the door is open for more messy science experiments. Solar electricity and water heat, and advanced gardening – hell yeah!

      Reply
      • Joel October 20, 2014, 12:14 pm

        If you want to do solar (photovoltaic or thermal) then a great resource is http://builditsolar.com/. Lots of do it yourself material there and all free. Wish I could do it myself, but my lot is pretty much fully shaded, and I would have to fight an HOA and my wife to make it happen. Thanks for the article; even if I can’t do it myself, the idea is addictive, and I might have to play around with it when I get a chance instead of attempting another garden which succumbs to low light and local pests!

        Reply
  • Mark Ferguson October 20, 2014, 7:41 am

    Wow, that is really cool. I would seriously consider doing this if our HOA allowed detached buildings. There may be a way around that. I have a pond we filled with feeder goldfish. I wonder if it works to use a fish pond to try to grow vegetables? Our pond plants do awesome.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:03 am

      Hey Mark,

      It sort-of works.

      You need a fairly high concentration of nutrients to grow garden vegetables at a rate that justifies building grow beds. You could stock a pond heavily enough to achieve that concentration, but you’d need some serious bio-filtration and a way to remove solid waste from the bottom.

      That said, if you stocked your pond more heavily than most, and you used a solids lifting pump to water your soil garden with water from the bottom of the pond you’d have a pretty awesome garden.

      Reply
  • Patrick October 20, 2014, 7:48 am

    Interesting, although I’m not sure I’d want to kill, gut and eat fish. I’d have to see if you need a licence to sell fish, otherwise I’d have to barter them off which might not be worth the effort.

    I’ll do the research if I ever decide to own a home. Still waiting for a crash in the Canadian market for that.

    Reply
    • Andrew October 20, 2014, 8:03 am

      Patrick, you don’t have to kill the fish. You can let them live and provide fertilizer to a ripe old age.

      What would also be awesome is a box that automatically lures the biggest fish into it, stuns, kills, and cleans it, so that filets come out on the other end. I’m sure that’s something in the works at a startup somewhere :)

      Reply
      • CTY October 20, 2014, 10:58 am

        That already exists–except it does not put out filets–it’s called a cat.

        Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 8:07 am

      Hi Patrick,

      There are actually a lot of aquaponic vegetarians. If you add a mineralization tank (send me an email to discuss how) you can grow a really remarkable amount of veggies from a few fish. If you’re not going to eat them, you could raise hardy decorative fish like koi.

      States vary in terms of what you need for licensing. If you’re going to sell them live it’s easier. Cleaning fish requires a commercial kitchen and often a license.

      Reply
      • JESSICA October 20, 2014, 11:22 am

        Could you amend the article for non-fish eaters? I’m guessing costs would be significantly lower??

        Reply
        • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 11:37 am

          You’re right – fish is my biggest expense. It would be less expensive to run, though you’d also get less value out of it. The math without eating fish is slightly less favorable, unless you have fish that you can market in other ways.

          If you don’t want fish, though, you can do hydroponics. Also, you can run an “aquaponic” system using your own liquid waste rather than fish waste. Sounds gross, but if you’re healthy and not taking lots of medications it’s actually perfectly safe and mostly sterile. It’s highly diluted and never touches the leaves – just the roots. Hopefully I didn’t just gross everyone out :) A system like this also wouldn’t need soilds filtering.

          Reply
  • Just Jeff October 20, 2014, 7:49 am

    If someone doesn’t eat animals, can they let their trout/tilapia continue to live happily in the symbiotic relationship or would their population outgrow their environment?

    Also, do fish still spawn in these environments? If so, why do you regularly buy more fish?

    Thank you for the very interesting article!

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:09 am

      Hi Jeff,

      Take a look at my response to Patrick’s question for Q#1.

      If you choose a fish that doesn’t grow more than 2 lbs you should be okay in a large freezer. Some fish (like Pacu and catfish) grow huge and probably aren’t appropriate in that situation.

      Some fish will spawn in these environments. Tilapia, for example, spawn absurdly well – to the extent that you have to limit their productivity by adding a carnivorous fish like largemouth bass to eat the fry. Most people use all-male tilapia for this reason, and because they grow faster.

      Yellow perch aren’t hard to spawn. They need a little help, but it’s doable. They’re also the best tasting fish in North America, IMHO. Most others are harder to spawn.

      Fish spawning add a layer of complexity and time. I want to keep it simple, so I just buy fish. Switching from tilapia to trout seasonally and buying juveniles makes the math work out quite favorably for both fish output and heating/cooling.

      Reply
  • insourcelife October 20, 2014, 8:15 am

    Sounds like another fun project to try once we get a chance to shift down from our Full Time Work/Kids gear into something more relaxed that’s conducive to hobbies. Downloading the plans and saving for future reference.

    Reply
  • MTH October 20, 2014, 8:23 am

    If I liked seafood I’d be all over this. If only chickens could live underwater.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:48 am

      Ducks.

      Reply
    • Kenoryn October 20, 2014, 12:58 pm

      Ha ha, me too! The same principle can sort of apply with chickens in soil gardens. Once your plants are big enough not to be destroyed by scratching chickens, let a few chickens roam in the garden and they’ll eat pests, destroy weeds and provide fertilizer. :)

      Reply
  • Tom October 20, 2014, 8:36 am

    It’s like growing money; I’m so down with this!

    I’ve just started my gardening journey, and since I move all around the world, I’ve had to stick to container gardening. It’s somewhat easy with a product like EarthBox, but the normal things like fertilizing, weather, root rot, and my latest nemisis, slugs, continue to occupy my time. I look forward to being able to create a mostly self-sustaining system! I’m curious as to the issues of plant disease and bugs; is that an issue in aquaponics?

    Plans downloaded and I will do this in a few years when I stop travelling. Thanks so much for providing truly helpful and relavent information! This is a money-saver not just in the cost of food, but in healthcare as well. I try to eat a mostly vegan diet, so it’s nice to hear that you can just let the fish grow old and fertilize the plants. I’m sure I’ll manage to eat a few of those fish too, and what a great experience and lifestyle for my children, to be able to go out and take a fish from the pond and see it through to the table. It’s hard to put a price on that kind of lifestyle and education. Thanks again, Jeremiah and MMM! Changing the world (and my family), one blog post at a time.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:15 am

      Hi Tom,

      Yep, diseases and bugs are an issue.

      More-so bugs, actually. I add ladybugs to my greenhouse to help with aphids and thrips, which I get on rare occasions. Never in winter though :)

      Diseases are less of a problem, but still there. Because aquaponics is a diverse microbial ecosystem with every niche occupied, it’s difficult for any one disease to take over. Prevention is the best solution. Just like regular gardening, we use crop rotation and variety. If you do get a disease, it’s near-impossible to treat chemically, which is (depending on your perspective) a downside.

      Reply
    • Joe October 20, 2014, 1:55 pm

      Tom,
      For the slugs, here’s a trick my aunt taught me. Fill a beer cap with some beer in the garden. Slugs go after it and the beer kills them. Sounds weird, but works.

      Reply
  • Eldred October 20, 2014, 8:49 am

    Interesting! I’ve been considering starting a garden for several years, but never got around to it. If this ends up being easier, it might be a good beginning.

    Reply
  • Becky October 20, 2014, 9:17 am

    A few years back, my neighbor (a conventional farmer) converted all his crops to organic, got certified, and started an aquaponic greenhouse. They’re the farmer that has figured out the marketing and their business has taken off. Once s week, they send out emails with the produce that is available. You place an order, and pick it up the next day. It’s by far the best produce I’ve ever eaten. Love me some fish veggies. :)

    Reply
  • Jim October 20, 2014, 9:44 am

    What about hot-weather places, like Florida? Is there an upper temperature?

    Reply
  • interestingreadinglist October 20, 2014, 9:47 am

    It’s incredible the amount of different farming methods available. Specialisation in different parts causes these discoveries which is an further reason to maintain diversities in culture.

    Reply
  • Leisure Freak Tommy October 20, 2014, 10:16 am

    I looked into this because as you have so detailed it is the most productive method to raise food. However I live in an HOA development and the greenhouse is an issue with them. I do see a way around it if I keep it small and unseen by prying eyes so I have been busy growing a yard surrounding canopy of trees and bushes. We actually had a very nice traditional garden this summer that wasn’t too much work. Low pest year for us and with heavy mulching low weed issues so just watering needed. I actually enjoy growing my own food no matter what labor is required. This however would put my gardening at a whole new level if I could pull it off.

    Reply
  • Chris Q October 20, 2014, 10:20 am

    I have not tried this yet, but the zip grow towers these guys sell seem to be a way better way to do aquaponics vs floating bed systems.

    http://brightagrotech.com/

    I plan on trying it in the next couple years.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 4:07 pm

      Hi Chris. I’ve seen those around and been intrigued. The guy who makes them grows in Wyoming, where it gets cold. My concerns are 1) They cost a lot for how many plants you can have and 2) They cost a lot to heat because there’s no easy way to insulate or air seal one. My system type comparison talked about the advantages and disadvantages that I saw. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
      http://www.frostyfish.com/2014/05/20/4-aquaponics-methods-compared-aka-dump-the-sump/

      Reply
      • Chris M. October 21, 2014, 4:37 pm

        Hey Chris and Jeremiah,

        We appreciate the shoutout and would encourage you to dig deeper into aquaponics with both our blog and our new podcast dedicated to helping aquaponic growers find success.

        Our blog: http://brightagrotech.com/blog

        When it comes to growing in the cold, we know something about that.

        I don’t know if you’ve ever visited Wyoming during our 7 months of winter, but here on the high plains of Laramie (7,200 feet in elevation) we get some serious cold temps and brutal Wyoming winds. It’s not unheard of for us to experience weeks in a row below -10 degrees (f) to -40 degrees (f) with wind chills below that. A lot of folks just laugh when we tell them we grow plants (and a lot of them) during those frosty february days, but we do and we feed anywhere from 20-30 people in a year-round community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

        The ONLY way we can do this in our arctic environment is with a vertical approach.

        Why?

        Think about it. If you have a greenhouse, whether a big commercial facility or a small backyard shack, you’re heating (or cooling) that ALL of that space, not just a horizontal row of crops close to the ground. You’re heating it on a volumetric basis but you’re only growing on a planar basis. That’s a huge concern if you’re trying to see any ROI out of those cold months.

        But, what if you could grow on a volumetric scale like you heat?

        What if you could triple your production per square foot?

        Sure makes it a lot easier to justify heating costs in the winter, or cooling costs in the summer for that matter.

        This, along with our Live Sales Model, is one of the reasons we’ve been able to thrive here in Wyoming and why so many of our Upstart Farmers are scaling quicker than any traditional (see: horizontal growing) aquaponic or hydroponic growers out there.

        I’d encourage you to do some digging on our blog or our YouTube channel for more helpful info.

        We love helping people avoid costly mistakes and the frustrations that come with getting started in either hydroponics or aquaponics. We’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past that a lot of folks can learn from.

        You’ll find more info about aquaponics, hydroponics, green walls, and our ZipGrow towers on our website.
        Cheers!

        Reply
        • Jeremiah October 22, 2014, 7:25 pm

          Hey Chris M!

          Glad to finally get the chance to discuss this with you in person :) I noticed that the prices on your towers seem to have come down a bit, which mitigates my critique #1 a bit.

          Here’s one of the videos you were talking about with regard to heating: http://youtu.be/eAyx4djoyDw

          You make a good point about cramming more plants per sq. ft. *IF* you’re going to heat your space, it totally makes sense to pack them in like sardines. However, from my perspective – for the backyard grower at least – that’s a big IF. Here’s a diagram of the different zones in your system that require specific temperatures: http://www.frostyfish.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/single-tank-diagram-v2.jpg

          My philosophy is to separate each of these zones to the extent possible, and handle the needs of each separately. The zone that’s not shown on this diagram is the “humans walking around” zone that doesn’t have to be heated because you’re not there when it gets really cold. From what I can tell, in your system there’s not much separation between the “root zone,” the “leaf zone,” and the “humans walking around” zone.

          Reply
          • Chris M. October 23, 2014, 12:49 pm

            We’re not quite talking about the same thing anymore. Like we discussed yesterday, our equipment is used by increasingly more commercial growers looking to scale quickly and sustainably with hydro/aquaponics, although the ZipGrow towers make just as much sense on a small, backyard scale as well.

            Dividing your system into zones might be useful in some design scenarios true, but by and large you’re trying to meet the needs of your most valuable products, which are typically plants.

            There are a lot of aquaponics system designs out there and we love seeing creativity in design. Folks can design their own backyard systems however they want, but space always costs money, whether it’s outside or not. So you have to balance that against whatever other needs you have. Everyone is completely entitled to their own design philosophy, for sure.

            We have a few extensive podcasts on our design philosophy here:

            Part 1) http://podcast.brightagrotech.com/episode-8-the-fundamentals-of-aquaponics-system-design-part-1/

            Part 2) http://podcast.brightagrotech.com/episode-9-the-fundamentals-of-aquaponics-system-design-part-2/

            In these episodes, Dr. Nate talks about what we consider important in a good, scalable system design, whether running aquaponics or traditional hydroponics.

            Reply
            • Jeremiah October 23, 2014, 1:51 pm

              We could talk about other issues in design, but the one I had brought up is heating. In my latest comment I was responding to the place where you said: “The ONLY way we can do this in our arctic environment is with a vertical approach.”

              Since this has worked for you for several years, clearly it’s one successful way of doing things. Nelson Pade here in Wisconsin grows commercially in a similar climate using a different methodology. Growing Power grows in Milwaukee (slightly warmer than you) using another methodology altogether. I’ve visited their facilities and seen many of your videos. While I do think your idea is superior to theirs because it maximizes space, you have to admit that it’s not the only way.

              Whether it’s the best way is something I’d still like to debate, at least on a backyard scale.

              It’s true that your most valuable products are plants (slightly less so in the backyard) but that doesn’t mean you necessarily mean you have to heat your greenhouse. There are other ways to protect plants, which I (and many other growers around here) use to great effect.

              To summarize the two aquaponics heating philosophies:
              1) You should go to great lengths to separate the various zones within a greenhouse and only provide as much heat to each zone as it requires.
              2) You should heat your greenhouse air, and maximize the plant growing area within that space.

              Does that get to the heart of the question?

              Reply
  • AllieVaulter October 20, 2014, 10:24 am

    Thank you so much for the Z-H plans! My husband and I have been batting the idea of aquaponics around for a while, I’m so excited to try the plans out! Thanks for being so generous to the MMM readers.

    Reply
  • CL October 20, 2014, 10:27 am

    Jeremiah –
    I was intrigued by you being in Wisconsin, and it turns out that you’re in the same city as I am! I haven’t seen you at the Madison MMM Meetups (aka MMMMM), but I’d love to hear more about this stuff, though I’m probably not going to implement it right now. It’s fascinating, and I’m guessing that it could be a great hobby if I had the time and space.
    Thanks for writing a great post.

    Reply
  • Scott October 20, 2014, 10:30 am

    Fascinating! My wife has been wanting chickens in our back yard for quite some time but our urban setting doesn’t allow it. Perhaps this could work for us, although when I extrapolate from the USDA map it looks like it’s even colder than zone 5 here in Montreal (just north of Plattsburgh, NY).

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 12:53 pm

      You know, most municipalities haven’t written any regulations about outdoor fish tanks. They don’t smell, crow, bark, or eat wood siding so fish tend not to bother neighbors as long as you make the system look nice.

      That’s part of the reason I did it. We’re allowed chickens, but not meat chickens (or goats, sheep, cows, meat rabbits, etc…). As a non-vegetarian, it’s my only way to get home-raised meat in the city.

      Reply
  • crazyworld October 20, 2014, 10:41 am

    Since the plants do not grow in the ground outside, do they have all the nutrients that soil and sunlight provide? The fish based eco system is enough for that?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 10:51 am

      They do, for the most part. For some plants you have to add a bit extra to get fast growth. For example basil and spinach like a bit of iron, so I add DTPA chelated iron. I also add potash and calcium, which also helps keep your pH stable.

      Fruiting plants need more things. Tomatoes grow best in larger pots of half-soil, half-gravel, planted in the aquaponics. You add a very small amount of organic hydroponic nutrient solution to the roots occasionally.

      Reply
      • Randy October 20, 2014, 12:22 pm

        Hi Jeremiah,

        Greetings from Minneapolis and “I love this post!”. I have held off from aquaponics in the past because I haven’t yet seen that the quality of produce, measured in terms of nutrient density, has been worth it yet. That being said, I believe it has awesome qualities as a production system.

        I am wondering if you have contacted a lab like http://www.aglabs.com in Fairmont, MN (I have no affiliation) that does nutrient density analysis or have performed any Brix-type testing on your produce. Organic has been the wave crashing over the agricultural world for the past few decades, but I believe the wave of the future will be focusing on the nutrient density of produce. In one light, organic can be seen as just “less bad” than conventional agriculture if the final product was produced in a more sustainable and less harmful manner, but still results in the same dead food that is optimized for shelf life and visual appeal and not nourishment.

        I will also add that the baseline for labor in terms of gardening for small-scale and home production is greatly changing with various permaculture techniques and ramial wood chip gardening where watering, fertilization, and weeding hours are reduced drastically. I have been working with heavy mulching with wood chips for two years and have never watered my garden since with the most juicy tomatoes I have ever grown that don’t need weeding or fertilizer.

        However, even with labor requirements being reduced, I feel your pain on -25F Winter mornings (my chickens survived a -28F reading in the coop this past Winter). This is a great way to extend the growing season when there are no other alternatives in Northern climates.

        Thanks for the great post. Bookmarked!

        Reply
        • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 2:07 pm

          Hey Randy, thanks for the kind words and the bookmark.

          I haven’t engaged a lab yet. I’m small time and aimed at backyard growing, so that’s out of my league. If anybody’s engaged a lab I’ll bet it’s Nelson Pade, Pentair Aquatic Ecosystems, or the University of the Virgin Islands.

          I’ve had similar experiences to you with wood chip rows and heavy mulch in my garden. A couple yards of that every year makes my garden gangbusters. Never believed so many worms could live in every single scoop of soil!

          Reply
          • Randy October 20, 2014, 2:23 pm

            Cool to hear about your garden! I can see the earthworm evidence when I dig and the uber-increase of mole activity in my garden.

            I am small time too (just my own yard) but that won’t stop me from at least doing some Brix testing of my own (you can purchase a refractometer for < $50 on Amazon) and still get a good idea without the full nutrient analysis.

            Still though, a Mustachian could easily demand a premium on their non-organically certified produce if it has proven high nutrient density. Nutrient-dense foods taste the best too, so our taste buds go a long way of determining quality. I have some evidence of a butternut squash with double the nutrients of other, locally-grown organic butternut squash.

            Keep your stick on the ice!

            Reply
            • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 2:34 pm

              Fascinating. I’ll keep that in mind. I’ve got some interest from folks looking into an aquaponic CSA that might find that useful. Thanks!

              Reply
  • Frugal Bazooka October 20, 2014, 10:44 am

    Your creative farming idea comes at a time when I’m once again watching my formerly healthy conventional pumpkin and watermelon garden die a slow and painful death to the scourge of ants and other bugsters. I love backyard farming, and while the amount of labor has been inconsequential the loss of potential harvest has been significant. My guess would be that only about 3% of what I planted ended up on the dinner table. Because the cost was so low, it was still a win from the ROI side, but it’s painful to watch how vulnerable plants are to bugs and how much produce we lost. I used to rail against pesticides being used on farms until I experienced how powerful the “pests” are – they almost always win unless you have a weapon to “deter” them.

    That being said, I’m downloading your generous gift to see if I can make it happen. You alluded to the fact that the first year or so might not produce a bumper crop. Fair enough, but how long do you see it taking to reach your H-Z numbers? You also mentioned aquaponic pests and using lady bugs as a deterrent. I’ve tried that in the conventional garden with zero results. How do I definitively keep out the voracious pests that haunt my garden weekly? If rats and mice are an issue, again how do you stem those attacks?

    Lastly, I grew up with the term “hydroponics” being used mostly to grow certain “herbs” and now the term aquaponics. Are these words interchangeable or is there a major difference between the two? I’m guessing the fish/plant symbiosis is at the root of the difference.

    Thanks for an informative and potentially money saving entry, it’s always nice to see new ideas for old problems!

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 11:04 am

      Hi FB,

      Many large (and good) questions you ask.

      It’s a learning curve, rather than a cliff, unfortunately. It depends how many of your brain cells you devote to it, how much you read on forums, and how careful you are. You can get significant outputs in year one, though you are likely to also kill fish and plants. The outputs I mentioned are for my 2x-size system which also runs in winter. I’ve got plans in the works to winterize the Z-H system but life with an infant is triage so it’ll take a bit to get them ready.

      Shooting from the hip – based on the fact that you have some experience as a gardener – you could approach those numbers in year 3-4 if you stick with it and pay attention. Shit still happens though. This year I lost a lot of seedlings to pythium and damping off, before even putting them in the AP system.

      It’s basically the same as hydroponics except that it’s alive. Hydroponics (at least historially – this is changing) was a sterile system with plants grown using synthetic nutrients. In AP, plants grow at least as fast with a far smaller concentration of the nutrients that we are aware of (we humans know so little about soil and plant growth). Something in the primordial soup is making them grow that fast, but it’s a mystery – at least from everything I’ve read.

      As far as your soil garden goes, can I ask what you’ve tried in terms of pest and disease management?

      Reply
      • Frugal Bazooka October 20, 2014, 11:48 pm

        Thanks for replying Jeremiah.

        I gotta say, I like the concept of AP. It seems the fish and plants interact like CO2 and trees. It seems to have sustainability written all over it.

        As far as my soil garden goes I tried all the different non-lethal methods of spraying such as soap, vinegar and various spices (I suspect there’s a shit load of chili powder and cinnamon being stored by our ants for the winter). From what I can tell every ant for 3 miles around basically moved all their operations right under the garden and feasted on corn, egg plant, lettuce, watermelon and pumpkin plants no matter how much I sprayed them with soap. On the bright side they were the cleanest fucking ants this side of Hollywood.

        Out of sheer frustration I used a chemical based pesticide that cleared the ants out for about a week, but by then the plants have already been shredded. It was more of a revenge spraying since the plants were all well past saving. I never realized how destructive ants were to plants before this. I was always under they impression they were good guys just scavenging around and removing the dead stuff. Turns out they love anything green and delicious that grows out of the ground.

        Any pest degradation suggestions are welcome. I already tried calling the ants assholes to their faces, but they just kept eating my eggplant.

        Reply
        • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 7:25 am

          Interesting – I didn’t consider ants. I’ve had just about every other kind of bug in my soil garden but ants haven’t been a problem.

          Based on this post (below) you may want to try an encouraging, positive message with your ants. http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/10/03/the-practical-benefits-of-outrageous-optimism/

          I’ve also heard good things about baking soda and diatomaceous earth.

          Reply
          • Frugal Bazooka October 21, 2014, 10:35 pm

            lmao…encourage the ants with a positive attitude. It can’t be any worse than the damn soap and vinegar.

            I’ll also try the baking soda and whatever the hell that other word is soil.

            The area is kept relatively wet considering the drought we’re in, but they seem to be swimming not drowning. I must have Atom Ants.

            Reply
        • concojones October 21, 2014, 11:22 am

          Ants HATE water. If you keep the area moist, they will stay away or at least not build nests in the ground.

          Reply
  • Erik Y October 20, 2014, 11:10 am

    Serious question here. Would this system work for growing cannabis? With medical programs in many states and recreational use allowed in two (probably three soon, it looks like Oregon’s legalization will pass next month) this sounds like it would be a good fit for a personal garden.

    Another related question, are there any plants that wouldn’t be a good fit for aquaponic gardening?

    Reply
  • JESSICA October 20, 2014, 11:18 am

    What if you don’t eat fish?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 11:27 am

      Two things:
      1. Check out my reply to Patrick.
      2. It depends why you don’t eat fish. If you let your fish spend their last week in cold water without food, much of the soft texture and fishy flavor/smell that people don’t like goes away. This is one of the reasons people ice-fish.

      Reply
      • cavewoman October 21, 2014, 11:28 am

        I had no idea that there was a “finishing” process to fish to improve taste and texture!

        Another reason someone might not eat fish: creepy farmed salmon fed only corn, or fukushima scariness in the Pacific.

        Awesome that both of those problems are solved (or in your circle of control) by this system. Thanks for the info!

        Reply
  • Cheap Mom October 20, 2014, 11:20 am

    Well done! I took a look at the climatae zone map and I think we’re a few shades too blue to get this to work with the Z-H system. I think my daughter would love helping raise fish though.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 4:03 pm

      It might not be worth running it in winter if you’re in, say, Nunavut. You’d need a greenhouse for sure. However, you can always do it in summer and shut down over winter.

      Reply
  • CTY October 20, 2014, 11:40 am

    Thank you Jeremiah for laying the ground work on this (and MMM for offering the post space). I was thinking about aquaponics for a while now, and it sounds like you scaled it down to doable for me. This would be a good opportunity for me to get started. I was thinking about getting “free” help with maintaining and harvesting all the fish from the local BSA troop (GSA, 4-H, & homeschooling groups might be interested too). Everyone could learn together and it could increase the network for selling the bounty.
    I am forwarding this article to a high school Marine Bio teacher I know– bet he can find a way to get it into the curriculum.
    I doubt I will ever give up dirt gardening, but adding this would balance things nicely.

    Reply
  • Erin Chavez October 20, 2014, 11:54 am

    The Mars Society convention had a professor from Arizona showing his closed-system hydroponics experiments for use in future human settlements of the red planet. He was reducing energy use and growing Kudzu, if I remember correctly, which is supposed to provide good complete nutrition. Hydroponics: farming for the space age.

    Reply
  • Laurel October 20, 2014, 12:43 pm

    I had two friends try this in the past year or two. One had hers in the basement and she said the resulting humidity was awful, and that it drew bugs into the area. Another has hers in a homemade greenhouse and she had never-ending trouble with getting the pH right. I don’t know if she ever got it worked out, but she was planning on growing winter fodder for her Jersey cows. I’ll ask her for an update.

    Is it possible to leave the system for a week or two to have a vacation, or does it need a lot of tending?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 12:58 pm

      Those are great points to bring up.

      On the humidity side of things, a non-air-sealed flood-drain system (the ZH is mostly air sealed and not flood-drain) will release an incredible amount of humidity. This one would release some – enough to be a problem in summer in a humid climate. In Arizona it might be pleasant.

      My post doesn’t discuss management, though it does mention a water test kit. Managing pH is something that newbies tend to have issues with for the first month or two. Once they figure it out it’s really easy. The trick is adding materials that buffer your pH at a stable level. I check my pH once every two weeks. I haven’t added anything to alter it in over 3 months. Fodder systems are a bit different, since you don’t really need nutrients.

      Going away for a week or two (or eight) is not a problem once your system is set up, stabilized, and working properly.

      Reply
  • Hollyluja October 20, 2014, 12:44 pm

    I have a question about the taste. I grew up with carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes grown in dirt, and even the organic versions commercially available just taste like water to me. I assume that is because they are hydroponic? How do you maintain flavor?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 1:45 pm

      Hi Hollyluja. Great question.

      Those specific vegetables aren’t the best things to grow in aquaponics. Greens and herbs do much better.

      Carrots taste best in my experience when they’ve been allowed to experience frost over a couple of months in the ground. Tomatoes seem to depend a great deal on the variety. I’ve had some great sun gold cherry tomatoes in aquaponics. I haven’t tried cucumbers.

      Reply
  • Thegoblinchief October 20, 2014, 2:55 pm

    Another Wisconsinite here. I had no idea aquaponics was possible up here! I definitely don’t have the capital for next gardening year, but looks like I have some reading up to do.

    Rainbow trout are one of my absolute favorite fish, especially when grilled over a wood fire. I’m not a big greens person despite having a huge front yard food garden, so the fish output is more interesting to me :)

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 3:28 pm

      Hi Chief. I really like trout too – I definitely prefer them over most other fish. If you’re ever in town feel free to stop by or come to an event. Love to meet you!

      Reply
  • Randy October 20, 2014, 3:17 pm

    What other fish are possible to use in this system? As an avid Minnesota fisherman, we have all the same species natively that you would in Wisconsin (Walleye, Northern Pike, Bass, Panfish) which are all white-fleshed fish. Could you do something with more of a fatty disposition (like salmon)?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 3:37 pm

      Gosh, you can really raise just about anything that you harvest at 2 lbs or less. The difficult parts are stocking density and feed training.

      Local fish that I know stock to high densities include channel catfish, yellow perch, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, lake salmon, and bluegill. Others may as well, though I don’t have experience with them. Your local hatchery could tell you for sure. I know that walleye and northerns tend to cost more, though I don’t know why. Muskellunge will not work – that I can tell you for sure. Most people don’t use these fish (other than trout) because they grow more slowly. I think perch has a real future in aquaponics due to its amazing taste and relatively strong cold tolerance.

      Reply
      • Randy October 20, 2014, 3:51 pm

        I would imagine salmon stock would be around since it is a commercially farmed fish. Although I assume it would also be spendy. There is also a big market for fermented cod liver oil, so I wonder how cod would do for this as well. It is a wonder fish, makes oil and fast food sandwiches.

        I can tell you that Walleye and Muskie and N Pike are more spendy because the hatch rate is not as high as other species. Plus, with the MN walleye stocking program, walleye fry are in high demand constantly.

        I had a fish ecology grad student friend who I helped stock Muskies while in Illinois. He got fry from hatcheries all over the Midwest and had the hardest time keeping them alive until stocking time.

        Reply
        • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 4:12 pm

          I’ve heard there’s a guy named Kent Nelson who has a hatchery along the Mississippi River. I’ve tried to find a number and reach him but never gotten through. If you do, would you let me know?

          Reply
  • David October 20, 2014, 3:21 pm

    I see an earlier reply about growing in hot/tropical weather in FL with a link to some neat cooling articles.

    However, I’m dealing with a slightly different beast in the Phoenix region. For at least a month or two, “hot” means regular excursions above 110 deg F, and overnight _lows_ spend a good portion of the year in the high 80’s and above (we managed an overnight low of 97 deg F one time). I am in a suburb that is a little cooler, but that’s probably 2-3 deg F off the high and 3-5 deg F below the overnight lows…so nothing significant.

    Is anything going to survive in these conditions? My biggest worry is really the overnight lows; even swimming pools get “piss warm” around here in July and August. Would it be best to park the system for July-September until it starts to cool back down to reasonable temperatures?

    I guess what I’m also asking is if you have a hot-weather counterpart who specializes in helping us idiots who try to grow stuff in the low desert regions. I really enjoy fresh fish, but, you know, unless you go to the mountains and catch it yourself, you really don’t get that here for a reasonable price.

    Thanks for the awesome article! I can’t wait to see if I can make this work.

    Reply
  • LennStar October 20, 2014, 3:31 pm

    A few weeks ago i watched a film about the Berlin “ECKWERK”, an “alternative” Building(complex) in the middle of Berlin, whre the Berlin people succeeded in getting a bit of Berlin for the people and not the investors ;)
    Their motto is “we make it” https://wemakeit.com/users/holzmarkt-genossenschaft and they have made a
    They have made a cooperative and now collectiong money for several projects to improve their part of Berlin.
    One of the visions is… a ~3000m² big Aquaponic System!
    https://wemakeit.com/projects/gemusefischen-aquaponics-at-holzmarkt-berlin?locale=en

    Reply
  • Trouble October 20, 2014, 5:10 pm

    I had to laugh when you mentioned dead fish. My hubby started playing with aquatics this year. His first batch of fish (about 12 Barramundi fingerlings) went belly up when he decided the water was dirty so replaced THE ENTIRE lot of water with fresh tap water and ‘let it sit for half an hour’ (he thought that’s all you needed to do!) before putting the fingerlings back in.
    I’ll send him the link to this article, he has a lot of fun with his system but thorough research has never been his strong point.
    My hubby, 2yo son and I have been enjoying the baby tomatoes, basil, baby spinach and birds eye chillis that have successfully grown. Not so successful were capsicum. And feeding the barramundi is sooooo much fun!

    Reply
  • Lil October 20, 2014, 7:04 pm

    Amazing!!! My hubby is always tinkering with saltwater tanks (crazy fancy hobby). I wonder if he’d switch or take out some tanks and do this instead. We have a small utility room in the basement that currently houses all of that equipment and LED lighting system 4.0 (he’s a tinkerer). I just fear the humidity. I already have a dehumidifier running down there constantly. We also loving fishing and trout fishing is one of our favorites. How awesome would it be to have our own fish! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 7:25 pm

      Hi Lil. Sounds like a hobby meant for you two :) There’s not much you’ll be able to do about humidity. A system like the ZH one will limit evaporation, but there’s nothing you can do about plants transpiring.

      I do know that I found a Therma-Stor (aka Santa Fe) dehumidifier on Craigslist for $250 a couple of years ago and it cut my dehumidifier bill by 2/3.

      Reply
  • Cubic October 20, 2014, 7:29 pm

    I’ve tried hydroponic tomatoes which I assume is the same as aquaponics and I’ve been disappointed every time with the produce. Each time the tomatoes just taste like water, no flavor whatsoever.

    Some of them I bought at a local grocery store and others were bought at our local farmers market. Did I get a bad batch each time?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 8:51 pm

      I’m really not sure on this one, having little experience with growing tomatoes in aquaponics. Anyone else?

      The only thing I can say is that store-bought tomatoes almost universally taste like garbage compared to the tomatoes I grow in my soil garden. I suspect it’s the varieties used in the store, which they breed for fast growth and ship-ability.

      Reply
      • Trouble October 20, 2014, 9:23 pm

        Hubby grows baby tomatoes in our Aquaponics setup and they are a helluva lot more flavoursome than store bought. It’s a huge difference to us!

        Reply
    • Elyse October 21, 2014, 1:27 pm

      The key is to make sure you have the right fish/plant balance. If you don’t have enough fish waste, the plants will only absorb water. If you have too much fish waste, the fish die.

      The right balance makes incredibly tasty food.

      Reply
      • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 6:46 pm

        Thanks Elyse. Very true.

        Tomatoes (and other fruiting plants) also need things that fish waste has difficulty providing. Most people that grow tomatoes in aquaponics add small amounts of supplemental nutrients directly to the roots.

        Fish die from their waste for two reasons. 1) the liquid waste is not being converted from ammonia to nitrate fast enough (usually in new systems or with undersized biofilters) or 2) solid waste has built up to an extent that it absorbs all available oxygen, preventing the fish from breathing. The ZH system removes solids and has a biofilter sized for the recommended fish load.

        Reply
  • wayla500 October 20, 2014, 7:49 pm

    Hi,

    Sorry to pour cold water on this very positive article. However, my experience with aquaponics is that is sounds wonderful at first, but delving down into the details reveals many disadvantages.

    After absorbing all written information I could find, and visiting Friendly Aquaponics on the big island of Hawaii, I was excited enough in 2008 to travel to St. Croix to take the week long workshop in aquaponic farming. http://www.uvi.edu/research/agricultural-experiment-station/aquaculture-home/aquaponics-workshop/default.aspx

    Some of the issues I found:

    Aquaponics further depletes our oceans. The currently available fish food is ground up fish from the ocean. To me this is non-nonsensical. http://theaquaponicsource.com/2010/03/01/aquaponics-and-fish-feed/

    Tilipia are the most commonly raised fish. They grow fast, are mild tasting, and its easy to manipulate gender to males which grow 40% larger.

    Tilapia require warm water. They start dying when the temperature gets into the low 60s. For Optimal growth, the temperature should be in the 80s. Up North this leads to serious heating requirements and associated costs of either ongoing traditional heating or significant capital expenditures for a solar system. I am curious about the $200 annual electricity expenditure in the example. In my scenarios, running a system in the Northeast, the heating costs were much more for a detached system.

    I always thought aquaponics makes the most sense on tropical islands without much arable land where most produce is imported.

    Almost all farm raised tilapia is genitically modified. That’s why I never eat it at a restaurant. When tilapia are first hatched, they are gender-less; neither male nor female. During the first 21 days or so, the amount of estrogen, or testosterone, in their blood stream, will determine whether they develop ovaries or testicles. It is a common practice for tilapia farmers, to feed their tilapia fry (babies) with a food, that has been laced with masculinizing hormones, such as dehydroepiandrosterone or 17a-Methyltestosterone, to ensure that they will develop as males, instead of as females. Male tilapia grow faster than females, which makes them far more desirable as production stock. In addition, an all-male population ends the problems associated with spawning in aquaponic raft systems, and wasted economic resources in aquaculture ponds.
    http://lakewaytilapia.com/Tilapia_Genetics.php

    It all depends upon your view, but:

    Checking your fish may not be the best part of your day if they are sick, a pump broke, DO levels are low, or aphids abound.

    If viewed as a hobby, then the ongoing labor may seem negligible. This may depend on how much free time one has and how enjoyable one finds the endeavor.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:41 pm

      Hi wayla500. I’m really glad you posted. Your concerns are great ones, and I won’t pretend to write or explain them away. Aquaponics has real challenges, both for the individual and for the industry. They should be taken seriously.

      1. Food sources: There’s no way around this one – not yet. Fish feed is made from ocean-caught fish that we won’t eat, such as anchovies and sardines. Many people are working on better solutions, such as converting brewery waste into fish feed (http://nutrinsic.com/). While it seems likely that a sustainable feed will come along eventually – maybe even soon – as currently produced fish feed is fundamentally not sustainable. In the short term, the solution for those with the gumption to do so is to make your own feed using black soldier fly larvae, worms, and duckweed.

      2. Tilapia and Heat: This one is easy. Don’t raise tilapia in winter. If you do, you’ll need a small fusion reactor to heat. $200 would turn into $1000. I raise trout, which grow just as fast as tilapia in much colder water. If you buy 7-8″ stock, you can rotate your fish seasonally and grow them to 2 lbs in 6-7 months.

      3. Tilapia Breeding: I wasn’t aware that farmers pump hormones into their water. That seems like an argument for aquaponics, actually – assuming you can get non-hormone-treated fish. The supplier that I buy from uses a super-male (two male chromosomes) tilapia to produce all-male offspring. While the super-male may require some genetic modification, we don’t ever eat him since he’s uber-expensive to produce through crossbreeding (as your article suggested). His offspring – as far as I’m aware – don’t have any genetically modified genes. Do I understand your concern right? If you wanted to be truly natural, tilapia are *extremely* easy to breed, though (unlike humans) female tilapia mature slower.

      3. Shit Happens: This is a good point. When I’m late for work and a pump or aerator is broken, that’s not the best part of my day. You can minimize the frustration by always having a backup pump on hand and two aerators installed. Using two aerators allows you to keep your fish alive when one breaks (though they usually give you a few days/weeks noisy notice that they’re on their way out). Aphids and thrips also suck. In a greenhouse you can release ladybugs and lacewings to handle them. A small pest-control fabric low tunnel would mostly keep them off your greens in the ZH system. Luckily, aphids and thrips wash off relatively well. While I prefer not to wash my aquaponic greens, when I occasionally have an infestation I have to take that extra step. In a commercial farm washing them off would kill your profits. At home it just takes a few minutes and a salad spinner. Alternately, you can just ignore them. I’ve eaten a lot of aphids out of sheer laziness, to no ill effect.

      Thanks again for the great comment.

      Reply
    • Patrick October 21, 2014, 6:16 am

      I’m not sure that’s what GMO means in the traditional sense. That’s more like exploitation of physiology. As long as those hormones degrade before they make it into the final consumed fish, I see no problem.

      GMO is usually splicing foreign genes into some plant, usually to increase yield or shelf life. I have no issues with this either since my body contains enzymes that destroy consumed DNA and proteins, so it doesn’t really matter unless some mad scientist splices the gene responsible for Nightshade toxin into Soy/Corn.

      I’m sort of annoyed by the fear mongering anti-GMO crowd. Usually they conflate the unethical business practices of Monsanto with scientific advancements to create better crop yields.

      Reply
      • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 7:30 am

        I think it might have something to do with the fact that nearly all GMO crops are GMO’d to tolerate pesticides and herbicides made by the same company. Maybe that’s what you meant by conflating. If someone GMO’d a tomato to taste awesome I might come round.

        In any case, what they’re doing with fish is different than GMO. More like testosterone therapy.

        Reply
  • Roger H October 20, 2014, 8:14 pm

    Are you able to grow grapes for wine making purposes using this approach?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 20, 2014, 9:49 pm

      Technically, yes. I’m not a wine-maker myself so I can only speculate. Does anyone actually know?

      My guess is that it wouldn’t be good. As the French say, “grapes have to suffer to make great wine.” Your aquaponics system has way too many nutrients and too much water for quality suffering.

      Like I said, that’s a guess.

      Reply
  • The Escape Artist October 21, 2014, 1:14 am

    Jeremiah

    Great article. The subject matter is prescient, perfect for the MMM site and your detail is impressive.

    One question from those of us Mustachians here in the UK: I’d love to see this in action by visiting a “farm”. Do you know of any aquaponics “farms” that are open to the public in England?

    Thanks!

    T.E.A.

    Reply
  • Janet October 21, 2014, 1:40 am

    If you were late to the party on aquaponics, then I am still at home putting my make-up on! I had absolutely no idea this was a thing. I knew vaguely about hydroponics and couldn’t see the point, but this… this makes sense. Freshwater trout is my favourite fish and the thought of growing my own blows my mind.

    Coincidentally we just began soil gardening this weekend and I think as novices we’ll see how that goes before investing in aquaponics. Our total outlay for our garden is going to be less than $250 because we’ve found most of our materials on the side of the street so I’m pretty hopeful on the ROI there. Plus we can grow a wider variety of veg in the soil so we need the traditional garden as well I expect.

    Question for Jeremiah – we are in Sydney, Australia and mosquitos thrive where water is standing around, which would make our traditional summer outdoor living very uncomfortable. Do the fish eat the larvae?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 9:35 am

      Hi Janet, Many fish will eat mosquito larvae. It’s a great food source, actually. There are some folks in Perth who were in on the *very* early days of aquaponics. They’re awesome: http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/

      Reply
  • Alex October 21, 2014, 9:34 am

    Neat tech.

    But $1000+ for 150lbs of fish and a couple hundred pounds of veg? How do you eat 75 POUNDS of BASIL? that’s a helluva lot of pesto sauce…

    FYI 11% of Earth’s surface is used for farming (not the crazy 40% MMM states) http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4252e/y4252e06.htm

    Reply
    • Jeremaih October 21, 2014, 9:41 am

      Hi Alex, You make a good point. If you buy your food at Costco and aren’t concerned about organic, local, or fresh you’re not really going to save much using aquapoincs. Many MMM readers are foodies and into organic.

      Here’s a pic. of what I do with 75 lbs of basil. This is one of three canning sessions. We got a total of 13 gallons. http://www.frostyfish.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Pesto-Abundance.jpg

      I think he probably meant “arable land.”

      Reply
    • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 10:51 am

      13 gallons of pesto, actually. Here’s a picture of one of our three cuttings after canning. http://www.frostyfish.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Pesto-Abundance.jpg

      It’s true that if you shop at Costco and you don’t buy organic, fresh, or local aquaponics probably won’t save you money. Many MMMers are foodies, which makes this appealing.

      I think he meant “arable land”

      Reply
      • Grant Q October 22, 2014, 8:44 am

        Many thanks for the post and detailed plans! I’m starting a backyard system using tilapia in IBC tanks in Houston, Texas. One of the things that I’ve wondered is what to do with all the basil….My first thought was pesto as well, but then I read many, many warnings about botulism in home-canned pesto. I came to the conclusion that you need commercial processing equipment to properly preserve it. Have you found a solution to this problem?

        Reply
        • Jeremiah October 22, 2014, 9:03 am

          Hey Grant. Good question, and a good point. I freeze it. 13 gallons takes up a lot of freezer space but it’s so good it’s worth it. If you want to be truly safe you can leave out the garlic and cheese, and add that when you use it.

          Reply
  • Elisabeth October 21, 2014, 10:39 am

    I have found that farm raised trout taste like mud. Is there any way to feed them something that will prevent this?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 10:45 am

      Good question. Do you know what farm your trout came from? Did they come from China?

      My trout taste great. So does the trout from my farmer’s market.

      Reply
  • Tracy October 21, 2014, 1:10 pm

    I can’t tell you how excited I was to visit today and find an article merging gardening and a mustachian lifestyle. I like all your posts, but this one is my fave! My personal anti-mustachian spending habits center entirely around gardening (….well maybe boots too, but I wear boots in the garden). We moved last year to a large yard that didn’t have a garden set up, we had bought some locally milled cedar for raised beds and bought some dirt, just so we could get it up and running ASAP. For my first growing season at our new place, I did pretty well, maybe broke even with the garlic production, but now I have a greenhouse to deal with. Currently just a frame with the plastic removed for the winter, I was about to start building lasagna beds with waste materials to get it going, BUT after a convo with my boss who is a hydroponic master and this very well timed article, I am going to seriously consider the hydroponic set up instead.
    AWESOME!

    Reply
  • Elyse October 21, 2014, 1:21 pm

    General note out there for people: CHECK YOUR LOCAL LAWS BEFORE BUYING TILAPIA!!!

    Tilapia are the best fish for this type of system, but many states in the US label it as an invasive fish. You could face $25,000 + damages for having the fish in an aquarium.

    Trout don’t do well in the southern states. You can raise them, but Tilapia are much more hardy.
    I’m fighting to allow Tilapia in my area. The license is $25,000… They say enough people have asked about aquaponics for them to reevaluate the laws, but for now I have to make due with other fish.

    Reply
  • Matt P. October 21, 2014, 2:03 pm

    Aquaponics is a great way to go if you have the time, resources and physical space to make it work. In my case, I only have a small patio, so I have to take the simpler hydroponics approach. Instead of using fish wastes as the source of plant nutrients, I use fertilizer salts (4-18-38 MasterBlend + calcium nitrate + epsom salt), suspended in water. The system does not involve any pumps or aeration; just suspend the plants in net-cups above the fertilizer solution, and come back in 4-6 weeks to harvest – simple! For leafy greens, you can grow outside, or inside in a sunny window. I have had great success this year growing lettuce, swiss chard, basil, dill, oregano in 5-gallon buckets. I even had success with cherry tomatoes, but since tomatoes use a lot of water, I had to use a 32-gallon trash can. This hydroponic method could be considered a “starter method” for those folks who are interested in starting to grow their own food using a simple hydroponics set-up, but aren’t quite ready to go the full aquaponics route.

    For more info, do an internet search for Kratky, he is the scientist who developed this method. Also check out the MHPGardener channel on YouTube, where the host Bobby shows the Kratky growing methods in action.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 6:40 pm

      Great comment – very true. I started out with hydroponics too, for several years.
      http://www.frostyfish.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/P3080728.jpg

      Reply
      • Rob in Munich October 24, 2014, 2:51 am

        I was just about to ask about this. I live in Germany and in an apartment. Buying fresh herb plants from the local store is really popular, usually last a week or two in the container. This year we realized that if we plant them, we get fresh herbs year round, just a one time cost to buy the plant and that’s it. Can’t believe I spent years finding and buying dried herbs (usually wrapped in heavy plastic).

        So my question is could you do an article on Aquaponics for apartments (flats), I’ve seen them, growing straight up rather than flat.

        Edit: quick google brings up things like Window Farming etc, seems this is big already, just need to find a system that is available in Europe/Germany

        Rob

        Reply
  • Jimbo October 21, 2014, 8:20 pm

    Not to be nitpicky, but I am a math teacher. Your set up is 8×16 or 128 square feet. The plans are for a 4×8 set up at 32 square feet. It is 1/4 the size for 1/4 the price, not 1/2 the size. Otherwise, I look forward to checking it out. Thanks for setting it up.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 21, 2014, 8:55 pm

      Hey Jimbo – the greenhouse is 8×16. The growing area is 70 ft2. Just slightly more than double the ZH.

      BTW, math teachers are awesome.

      Reply
  • Will October 21, 2014, 8:34 pm

    I know quite a few farmers who would disagree with your assertion that you can’t get rich from farming. Worthy read, otherwise.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 22, 2014, 8:58 am

      Hi Will. Looked at your blog. I believe that you do know some rich farmers :)

      The old cliche (“you can make a small fortune farming, as long as you start with a large fortune”) has proven true for every farmer I’ve ever met.

      Care to share anything about what kinds of farmers these are, how they did it, and how one might invest in their work?

      Reply
      • Will October 23, 2014, 8:01 pm

        Farming can ruin a persons finances extremely quickly. My brother was running a combine last year. He forgot to push a button before reversing the feeder house. That mistake cost $700 and hours of our time. Each year farmers around me go bankrupt. It’s all part of the game. But without great risk, there is no great reward.

        I grew up on a farm and just got in from outside when I read this post. The farmers I know have large farms focusing on corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat, etc. Nothing organic. Nothing harmful, either though. :)

        Most large farmers got that way through generations of hard work. But I know one farmer who has gone from bankruptcy to a net worth of somewhere north of $10 million in about 30 years. He did it by getting outside investors (basically rich guys who want to feel cool by owning something tangible like farmland instead of the ‘scary’ stock market. He’s also marketed his commodities well.

        For people like yourself, I’d recommend either trying to become an part investor in a farming operation or you can buy land and cash rent it out. But your easiest option is just to buy farming-centric mutual funds/ETFs. It’ll get you in on the action without much risk. Farming usually has an inverse correlation with equities – so buying up some of those funds would likely compliment what you already have (as a reader of MMM).

        There’s a reason why they call farmland gold with a dividend.

        Reply
  • Catfish October 21, 2014, 9:09 pm

    I ‘ve been researching this method of gardening so this is all great info! I too was worried about leaving the system while on vacation but it sounds like this won’t be a problem once the system is stable. What are your thoughts of connecting a simple solar system primarily as a backup system to cover power outages. Do the pumps draw too many amps?

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 22, 2014, 6:39 pm

      As a backup system a solar panel would work awesome. You’d need a battery in case the need for backup occurred at a non-sunny time. During a power outage, probably the best thing is just to run the aerators and leave the pump off. The system can survive for a while (as long as it’s not 100 degF and dry) without pumping.

      The thing to keep in mind is that humans have a limited number of brain cells. If you try and build and learn to operate this system at the same time you’re exploring solar power you’re likely to give both projects short shrift. I say this as one who’s made this same mistake a dozen times. One thing at a time maximizes your brain cells and improves sanity.

      Reply
  • Andrew October 22, 2014, 8:45 pm

    I’m totally amped about the timing of this article. I’m a mustachian trying to get a small business off the ground (www.smartbarn.co) doing remote wireless monitoring and controls, and I was just thinking the other day, “I wonder if aquaponics needs sensors” and now i’m totally going to build my own aquaponics garden to try it out. But also if MMM or anyone else (Jeremiah/Frostyfish?) wants to eval my sensors for their projects I might be convinced to give you some for FREE. We can sense temperature, humidity, light levels all remotely but I’d love to try things like pH, dissolved gasses, anything you need. I will be emailing frostyfish and MMM too cause i’m all excited about this now.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 23, 2014, 4:39 pm

      There’s a gap in the electronics world at the moment, between expensive and inflexible turnkey controls and start-from-scratch Arduino / RaspberryPI solutions. A modular kit that had all the components in a bag, along with instructions on how to assemble & program them might find a niche.

      I’d be happy to work with you on this.

      Reply
    • Andrew October 23, 2014, 7:55 pm

      Hey Andrew,

      What a great name! ;) The type of sensors I think aquaponics will eventually need (beyond the ones you mentioned) is nitrate, nitrite, and ammonia sensors that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Do you think that can be done affordably?

      Reply
  • Emily H. October 22, 2014, 9:49 pm

    How cool! Read a blog from a guy in Colorado and find someone in my own backyard! I live in Middleton. :-)

    Life as a grad student with 2 roomies in a small apartment doesn’t lend itself to hydroponics or aquaponics, but I may have to come check out your setup sometime for the “future house” file.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 23, 2014, 4:42 pm

      I’ll have something in a few months that you could do in your kitchen. It’s all been tested but still need to write it up and Mustachify (i.e. do it cheaper). Stay tuned.

      Reply
  • Jake October 23, 2014, 5:34 pm

    Long time lurker here…first time poster. I’ve ran an aquaponics system for 1.5 years in my basement. Word of warning…energy costs will eat you alive if you have to run lights to fuel your veggies. It is not worth it unless you harness the power of the sun. After becoming a mustachian, I ran the numbers and eliminated my aquaponics system. My energy costs dropped significantly. I do plan on building it outside eventually.

    Other than that, aquaponics rocks! I’m glad to see my favorite blog promoting this!

    Reply
    • Jeremiah October 23, 2014, 9:18 pm

      Spot on Jake. Great comment. The “kick-ass ROI” can become a money-sucking vampire if you try and do it indoors with lights. This is especially true for fruiting veg like tomatoes. I say “can” because it is possible to grow a small number of lettuce and herbs with a few small fluorescent lights in your kitchen, though hydroponics is much simpler than aquaponics in this situation.

      Outdoors in winter, you still need a couple hours of supplemental fluorescent lighting at sunset if you want to grow when the days are short, but it’s nothing like those 1000 watt stadium lights that folks use indoors.

      Reply
  • Andrew October 23, 2014, 5:47 pm

    so I had a question about Fair Oaks Farms. You mentioned that they have a fascinating ownership structure, where did you find out about the ownership structure? I couldn’t find anything about ownership or investment on their website.

    Reply

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