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Local Food and Commercial Food

GroceriesHow much of the food in the picture do you think is made or grown locally? None!

Where does your food come from, what is in it, how is it treated before you get it?

My definition of a food chain:
The steps required to convert sunlight into food and transport it to market.

Here is my attempt to sequentially compare the local and commercial food chain. I’ve included some elements to increase perspective.

Local Produce Commercial Produce
Farmer Company
Local farm Business farm
Organic dirt Manufactured dirt
Sun Sun
Water Water
Varieties of plants, Heritage seeds One type plant, manufactured seeds
Natural growing Chemical growing, additives
Replenishes nature Pollutes and destroys nature
Picked when ripe Picked before ripe
Local markets 10-100 miles Distant markets 500-1500 miles
Local distribution promotes less oil abuse Excessive distance promotes more oil drilling
1-2 days old 2-6 weeks old
No treatment, natural Treated during shipment to look ripe
No delay to market Trucked and Warehoused
No delay to market Grocery store handles & stores
Looks natural, some defects, character Looks good
No additives Lots of additives
High food value Low food value
Tastes good Tasteless or little taste
Keeps long Ages quickly
Health benefits Unhealthy after effects
Promotes better local health Promotes poorer local health
Price is average to somewhat higher Price is average
Can know your food producer Cannot know your food producer
Local bond creates trust Distance creates mistrust and low accountability
Helps local economy Helps remote economy
Supports availability of more local food Supports disconnected corporate behavior
Promotes better stewardship of earth Promotes poor stewardship of earth

Vote to improve our planet with your food dollar. Buy Local!

One Barrel System Questions and Answers

One Barrel AP System

Phil emailed after our last class with these questions. Thanks Phil!

Q: “I have checked the pluming and it is leaking from the drain and the inlet”

A small leak won’t matter

If the hole you drilled is a close fit and the surface is smooth on both sides, the small drips may stop as the system ages.

If you drill a 1” hole for the ¾” drain (gray PVP electrical terminal) fitting and a 13/16” hole for the ½” inlet (gray PVC electrical terminal) fitting, the holes will be tight enough to resisting leaking, without using a washer.

Teflon tape keeps threads from leaking and that’s usually not where it leaks. Leaks are often because of holes too large or surfaces not smooth and flat around the hole. The washer I mentioned in class is hard to find and did not work well.

If you want to try a washer you might make one. A sheet of rubber like that for making the pan in a tiled shower could be cut with a sharp screwdriver and hammer but be careful!

Likely easiest fix is to use some silicon filler but you will need to let your system drain and dry. Do this to the fitting that is leaking.

Apply silicon on the male piece where it seats and fill around the threads just where they touch the hole in the barrel, then tighten the female piece and let it dry over night. Add water and test for a while.


Q: “I have heard that a bucket of lake water will shorten the cycling time by allowing the fish to be placed in the tank immediately.”

If you put lake water into your system likely it will have the good bacteria you are looking for, but they won’t be established in your system, just in your water. I.E. there will only be a few. That will make them available to start, but doesn’t assure they will be there when needed as the Nitrogen cycle grows the large amount of bacteria that a system needs.

The Nitrogen cycle is mostly a sequential process

You will need “pure” Ammonia present to start the Nitrogen cycle. Then the Nitrosomonas bacteria need to find it, eat it, and produce Nitrites as waste. Next the Nitrobacteria or Nitrospira bacteria will need to find it and produce Nitrate as waste. Then the plants will need to eat the Nitrate cleaning the water for the fish.

Ways to start a new system

1/ Put some water and media from an operating system into the new system. Water has to be moved quickly to avoid bacteria dying from heat and lack of air. Add 10 small Goldfish and several small plants into the system. You could offer to clean out the sludge from an operational system in return for taking it to use in your new system.

2/ Put 10 small Goldfish and several small plants into the system. Add a cup or two of worm tea, or ½ cup of worm castings. This will introduce the good bacteria into the system and accelerate startup.

3/ Put 10 small Goldfish and several small plants into the system. System will start slower but will work fine.

4/ Put several small plants into the system.

The cycle doesn’t start the instant the tank is set up. An ongoing supply of ammonia must be present for the process to begin. Add enough “pure” Ammonia to get the Ammonia reading up to 5 parts per million. Remember how much Ammonia that took. For example perhaps 2 teaspoons. Then add that amount daily and measure the system cycling. This mimics the fish being in the system adding their Ammonia daily. If you miss a day, your system biology may die, basically starting over. It is easier to just use cheap fish.

5/ Put 10 small Goldfish and several small plants into the system. Add a gallon or two of lake water. This will introduce the good bacteria into the system and accelerate startup. It will also introduce lots of other creatures and bacteria. Sometimes all goes well. Sometimes you get system activity you don’t want. I’d avoid this method while learning.

Feed the fish the maximum they will consume in 30 minutes and remove the rest.

Whichever way you startup your system, you will want to monitor the Ammonia, Nitrites and Nitrates. The Ammonia will start high and there will be no Nitrites and Nitrates.

Then there will be high Ammonia and Nitrites and no or little Nitrates.

Next there will be high Ammonia, Nitrites, and Nitrates.

As all biology is established, there will be Low to no Ammonia, low Nitrites, and medium to high Nitrates.

I would recommend # 3 or #2 for starting your system. Less variables and better environment in which to learn.

Startup Tool

I have constructed a spreadsheet to help you see and track what happens during sthe Nitrogen Startup Cycle.

Look here on
or here on


Your system pH is good to measure as well as it is an indicator of system health. A pH of 7.0 is a good target. Make sure the water you add to your system is de-chlorinated or filtered rainwater. If the pH is above 7, adjust it down with pH down solutions like a mild Phosphoric acid, and add and adjust very slowly.


“I plan to build a greenhouse to try to avoid the hot Texas weather and have it run all year around.”

Greenhouses are great for several reasons. Growing in the summer heat is the least valuable reason. They tend to collect too much heat and ventilating that extra heat is challenging. Make sure you have a ventilation system that is very efficient and automated. Fans can supplement this but there is no better way to vent than having a natural venting process. A ridge row vent and vents near the bottom long walls causes a chimney effect that works well.

Greenhouses are often known as “hot houses”. This is because they collect heat. This is helpful in winter for prolonging the growing season. Also they protect plants from weather damage and many pests. Remember many plants need to be pollinated and greenhouses discourage bees and insects from doing that for you. A wall that opens up to admit pollinators in the spring is a good idea.

One Barrel Aquaponics System Details

One Barrel AP System

This article is the third in a series:

1. One Barrel Aquaponics System

2. One Barrel Aquaponics System Construction

3. One Barrel Aquaponics System Details (this article)


Constructed from one 55 gallon plastic food grade barrel

18 gallon fish tank

12 gallon grow bed media volume

6 gallon grow bed flood and drain volume

Minimum pump is Harbor Freight 158 Gallon per hour. Next larger size is better $12+/-

Timer recommended is Harbor Freight mechanical timer with :15 preset tabs. $10+/-

Cost $70-$100 if  you pay retail for all parts

Weighs about 170 pounds when full of water, media, plants and fish

About 3 cubic feet of grow bed area

6″ of media

4″-5″ of nutrient rich water

Fish tank in the bottom

Quiet to operate, all you hear is a relaxing trickle of water

Attractive, sturdy, water tight, mar resistant polystyrene

Comfort knowing you are reusing vs. purchasing another oil based product

Great for an herb garden!


The system is designed to fill the grow bed with water to about an inch (1”)  under the surface of the media. Then it drains off, both functions time controlled by the timer and drain pipe hole sizes.

The draining water pulls air into the grow bed media for the plants and microbes.

The splashing water from the drain puts air in the water for the fish and plants.

Set the timer to be on 0:15 per hour and off 0:45 minutes, in cooler months.

Set the timer to be on 0:15 and off 0:15 off in warmer months. Warm water holds less oxygen.

Plant Density

Produce 5-26-12

The amount of plants you can grow in the system is about 3-4 times what you could grow in the same size earth bound garden. This is primarily due to the fact that the plants have an abundance of nutrients, air, and water available to them all the time.

Fish Food

AquaMax Product List


Fish Food Pellets

Another important variable is how much food will be put into the system.  Most beginners tend to over feed their fish.  Overfeeding puts extra load on the system and is just a waste of food.

The easiest way to determine feeding density is:

  1. use floating fish food
  2. put in a quantity equally to 1/10th weight of your fish
  3. wait 0:30 and see how much remains
  4. the quantity eaten is the quantity you should feed
  5. repeat every week to determine new quantity fish will eat as they grow

Note: fish can eat food smaller than the size of their eye

Fish Density

Goldfish and Koi

The question most Aquaponic system newbie’s ask is “How many fish can my system support?”

A better way to ask the question is “How many pound of fish can my system support?”

The answer has to be given as a range of pounds, as it changes as the plants get larger. More plant density allows more fish density/weight. When plants are harvested and removed, fish weight should be removed as well.

For the one barrel system I am recommending the following amount of fish.

Start up small plant volume

10 each, 1” gold fish, typically $0.15 each or $1.50 for fish

System heavily loaded with plants

3 each, 5” gold fish

Harvest, 1 or 2 small plants remaining

5-10” each, 1” gold fish, system not in growing season but has seasonal plants that will live

System Start Up; The Nitrogen Cycle

What is it? How does it work? How do you get it started?

2 approaches to starting your system:

1- Follow the recommendations and trust it will work, easiest.

2- Follow the recommendations and take measurements so you can see that it is working.


Tracking your progress, Startup Cycle Data Tracking

Test Strip First Nitrogen

Tracking Your Progress

System Variables

When people ask questions the answer is often, it depends. It’s not a consistent answer as it depends on several things many of which vary over time.

The Fixed System Elements are

  • Grow bed area
  • Water volume in fish tank
  • Amount of oxygen the system puts into the water
  • Fish type. Ex: gold fish and Tilapia grow rapidly and poorly digest their food.
  • Amount of oxygen in the water, varies by temperature and system efficiency/aging.
  • Amount of plant density, small plants, large mature plants, etc.
  • Type plants and if they are growing “fruit”, which consumes more nutrients.
  • System operating temperature. Ex: in hot weather the system can support less fish due to more strain on the plants or plants growing faster and using more system resources – plant dependent.
  • Amount of Algae growing in the system using system resourced.
  • The amount of fish food put into the system and the amount the fish eat and poop.

Some of the Variables are

  • Amount of oxygen in the water, varies by temperature and system efficiency/aging.
  • Amount of plant density, small plants, large mature plants, etc.
  • Type plants and if they are growing “fruit”, which consumes more nutrients.
  • System operating temperature. Ex: in hot weather the system can support less fish due to more strain on the plants or plants growing faster and using more system resources – plant dependent.
  • Amount of Algae growing in the system using system resourced.
  • The amount of fish food put into the system and the amount the fish eat and poop.

Questions Students Ask When Using Their First Barrel System

1. How many fish will the system support?

    1. Up to one pound of fish when heavily loaded with plants.
    2. No fish when there are no plants

2. How many plants will the system grow?

    1. As many as will fit and still get exposed to enough sunshine to grow.
    2. Up to five pounds of produce, like zucchini, tomatoes, etc.

3. How much fish food do I feed?

    1. As much as they will eat.½ as much as they will eat if your plants are nearing maturity

4. How will I know the system is working?

    1. Plants growing, fish growing, system smell is musky not sour

5. How do I know what the microbes are doing?

    1. Measure Nitrites and Nitrates with test strips
    2. Also measure system pH, which is a good system health indicator

6. Will the plants live without fish

    1. As long as there is water, air, fill-and-drain action, and nutrients for the plants. If you start a system with seaweed extract, fish emulsions, or worm casting tea plants will typically live 3-4 weeks.

7. Will the fish live without plants

    1. As long as you feed them and the ammonia doesn’t get too high. Typically about one-two weeks if you  have 10 1’ goldfish

8. How big will the fish grow?

    1. They will get too big. I’ve raised 6-7” goldfish in the Barrel System

9. What do I need to do to start up the system

    1. Plant your system
    2. Add fish
    3. Get the Nitrogen cycle complete

10. What do I need to do to maintain the system

    1. Feed the fish
    2. Remove uneaten fish food after 0:30
    3. Add de-chlorinated water as it evaporates and as plants use it from transpiration
    4. Watch fish to make sure they get enough air. If they gasp at surface for air system air should be increased. Increase water splashing volume or frequency or add a small air pump
    5. Add chelated iron when new leaves turn light green between their veins
    6. Add nutrients and minerals once a month.
    7. Seaweed mineral supplement powder
    8. Fish emollient
    9. Keep pH between 6.8 and 7.5; 6-8 is tolerable but the system is less productive.
    10. Use Phosphoric acid to lower pH
    11. Use calcium carbonate to raise pH (egg shells, chicken scratch is ground sea shells which are calcium carbonate.

Seaweed Nutrient

nitrifying bacteria


11. When will I know I need to adjust the pH?

    1. When the system pH is not between 6.8 and 7.5 pH
    2. Use pH test strips to measure pH
    3. Measure pH weekly to start for first month and measure pH monthly thereafter.

12. How much does it cost to operate a small system?

    1. Measurements for Nitrites, Nitrates, and pH cost the same regardless of system size
    2. Additives like minerals, chelated iron, etc are based on quantity of plants and size of system.
    3. Fish food costs depend on weight of fish in the system.
    4. Electricity cost vary based on size of system pump

13. What feedback is available from those that have gone before?

Lesson learned; Run the system without fish or plants for awhile until it stabilizes and test carefully.

The Story of Stuff

The story of stuff

Very well made video showing the elements of our consumerism system.

The Story of Stuff

You don’t often get access to all of this info put together this well. I highly recommend you watch it.

Become the change you want to see in the world.

Even a small change of  one step in a new direction is a net of two steps away from where you were – the one you took in the right direction and one you did not continue to take in the wrong direction.


Agriculture Depression Proof

The value of a garden

Marjory Wildcraft of shared this with me.

“Did you know that Jim Rogers (the multi-millionaire investor) is highly recommending agriculture as the best investment for the near foreseeable future? Growing food is definitely a depression proof activity.”


Target Improves Food Quality


Looks like our interests in healthier food and our voting with our dollars is paying off. While not ideal, the product moves in the right direction.

Target announced an improved quality food line called Simply Balanced. It is a big step in the right direction toward healthy food with no  artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, and avoids high fructose corn syrup.

Forty percent of the products are organic, with  recognizable ingredients consumers want and a food label we can understand.

Target promises the entire line will be GMO-free by the end of next year.

Image Credit: Target

Mark Shepard Restoration Agriculture

Restoration Agriculture Farm

Aquaponics is a subset of the Permaculture philosophy.

Permaculture philosophy is a subset of restoration agriculture.

Check out Mark Shepard’s video describing his approach to minimum work for maximum productions. Key to his design is using parental plants for producing food, rather than annual plants. This way he plants once and harvest from now on!

Fascinating ideas that he has proven.

The picture above is of Mark’s “farm” and represents the work done on 100 acres over 15 years. I’m excited to think I can use my brain rather than my back to improve nature’s results in my favor!

Destructive Monocrop Farming is failing. Can you see the tractor in the field in this picture

Destructive Monocrop Farming

The farmer has to expose his soil’s healthy eco system annually by tilling the ground, thus destroying the very system that he is trying to maximize. Also, his land sets unproductive 6-9 months out of the year!

Check out the video and then take a look at his book about the subject.

YouTube Video


Restoration Agriculture Book


Singapore Vertical Garden

Singapore Vertical Garden

Singapore is the densest populated city in the world. It has 6 million people and is expected to hit 9 million in 10 years.90% of its food is imported with much of it traveling very long distance. This is not a sustainable model for urban food consumption, due to the costs of transportation -fuel, flavor, and freshness.

Recently,  Singapore has expanded its investment in local urban gardening by investing 28 million dollars for companies that will grow food locally, in the city!

Singapore’s Vertical Garden Sky Greens business is producing local organic vegetables at the same cost as imported food. His 4 story tall elevator of plant troughs runs on just $3.00 a month worth of energy, the equivalent of the power used by a 60 watt light bulb.

Read here for info.

Sky Garden