Friday, February 19, 2010

Aquaponics is dumb.

A reader has recently brought this article to my attention, which discusses a relatively new food production technique called Aquaponics.

I am familiar with this type of thing, and it comes with a frustrating corrolary:

I can't find any information, yet, on good pond management. Our pond is small, approximately 30' in diameter, overgrown with cattails and generally unproductive in my eyes. Don't get me wrong, it is indeed producing life, bugs, cattails (a foragers buffet) and a lot of scum, but I'd like it to produce more food for my table. The previous owners created the pond, which is spring fed from below and has no discernable water movement, in order to swim in. since we have a much larger lake nearby in a state park I'd rather swim there, and I envision an ecosystem of fish, aquatic plants and shoreline plants, some of which can be eaten and all of which will keep each other in check with little maintenance from us.

(the pond is looking a bit dreary today)

From this new movement of local food and sustainable food a lot of exciting ideas have emerged about how to move food production into urban environments. At the same time the free moving information of the internet has not reached the rural people who's land lies fallow and could produce more for them and for others. It's both interesting and depressing that these aquaponers (rhymes with boners) use no soil at all. They're so excited about a system that uses no soil when soil is abundant. Right now I can look out my window and see nothing but soil, much of it only growing lawn even though we're a 3 out of 10 on the rural to urban scale. Can any of us see any synthetic clay pellets out our windows?

This argument runs parallel to Eliot Coleman's ideas on fertilizer. When Eliot began gardening on a large scale he read a study produced by the USDA which concluded that the Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus (NPK) in commercial fertilizer provided the same soil enrichment that animal produced fertilizer (Shit) provides. Eliot was excited to learn this, and proceeded to secure a contract with a local chicken farm to take all of their manure, a service they paid him for. To Eliot this made sense economically, pay for commercial fertilizer or get paid to use animal fertilizer (later on he learned that the USDA study had been done to convince farmers to buy fertilizer, painfully ironic.) In the mean time his plants got the added benefits of all the micronutrients and bacteria, etc. in the manure. Local farmers who'd been at it for decades would stop in and ponder over how the new guy was doing so much better than them.

As I read articles, books and 'blogs about sustainable farm practices many are written from a similar perspective, reconciling the lower production rate of sustainable farming with the lower costs of operating due to less commercial inputs. I assume it's all written this way to try to convince commercial farmers to be more sustainable, but for me anything is better than what I've got now. The aquaponics article has a strong theme of bushels of tomatos and stringers of fish, without even recognizing that an infinitessimal percentage of people raise any of their own food. Why do I have to be wooed into creating my own food sources with promises of bountiful harvests for no labor?

We have 30 acres of weeds and a pond with weeds in it too, if it weren't for neighbors and cars we could let some livestock loose on it and do literally nothing for them and eat them 6 months later, the ones we could find. Add a bit of labor and management and I can put more animals on the same amount of land. Add more labor, some fossil fuel to run my machines and some grain from far away and I can raise as many as there is room to stand. The middle ground seems like the place for us.


  1. My main question is whether the aquaponer (nice coinage, btw) setup above is really a "closed system." Don't you have to run a pump and a heater 24/7? I get the appeal of having it rigged up in your backyard or basement -- just reach in and grab dinner, no fuss, no muss. I'm sure it's not so simple, of course. That said, you seem pissed that anyone would even TRY to grow food out of a fish tank when they could use dirt instead, but I'm not sure why you feel so strongly about it.

  2. The major benefit of aquaponics is that it is self fertilizing, no commercial fertilizer needed as with a bucket garden or something like that. I have no issues with people wanting to grow food in their fish tank either, sounds like a great idea and a small, almost closed ecosystem is efficient and low maintenance. My issue is with the implication that you need space aged materials (synthetic clay pellets) to do it, and the fact that the article writes off how difficult the whole thing probably is. They tout that the greenhouse was only $700, with no mention of the cost of the aquaponic system. Also, I can imagine with that much water that mishaps are more common than they want to talk about. A 55 gallon drum is 500 pounds, but I bet many a beginner just throw that up on a milk crate and fill it. It reminds me in some ways of articles I've read about vegetable oil as a fuel, talking about how much money you can save and not home much work you have to put into it. Now a bunch of people are going to go out and buy some crappy equipment to try to aquapone instead of just trying to grow something in a pot. for most of them it won't work out, they'll be turned off of gardening and never look back.

  3. There seems to be a lot of probablies in your comment. I appreciate that everyone has a right to opinions, but also find it funny that the less people know about a given subject the more opinions, uneductaded, they have about it. First off anyone thats has succeded at anything knows that you can not make a judgement on what they are doing based on reading one or maybe a handfull of resources, it takes a lot more research than that and lots of practice.
    So what you have a spring fed pond, the cat tails mean it is a deep mud pit where they are growing and the slime means it is over laden with nutrients. The nutrients no doubt come from whatever fish are in it and the decomposition of that deep mud. That's all it means, that and that you have not made an effort to manage it! Don't knock a good idea unless you have done the proper research and tried it yourself, both of which you clearly have not done!

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