Integrated Aquaculture

Imagine being able to produce your own freshwater fish and salad – simultaneously – in your own backyard.

Well, you can…..using integrated aquaculture.

The three important elements in any integrated aquaculture system are plants, fish and beneficial microbiology. Put simply, you feed the fish, the microbes turn the fish wastes into plant food and the plants clean the water for the fish.

The best known manifestation of integrated aquaculture is aquaponics – the combination of intensive aquaculture and hydroponics.  Aquaponics is not, however, the only way to integrate the production of fish and plants.

While the fish and plants are the visible elements of the integration, it’s microbiology that makes it all possible.  While this microbiology is very complex, the aquatic nitrogen cycle is easy to understand and is the part that allows for  the conversion of toxic fish wastes into plant food.

Nitrogen Cycle

The waste produced by the fish breaks down to produce ammonia.

When the ammonia levels in the fish tank reach a certain level, bacteria (Nitrosomonas) begin to colonise the system. As the numbers of these bacteria build, the ammonia (NH3) is converted to nitrite (NO2). As the ammonia levels drop, the nitrite levels increase. The nitrites (like ammonia) are toxic to fish.

When the nitrite levels in the water reach a certain point, other bacteria (Nitrobacter/Nitrospira) begin to colonise the system. These bacteria convert nitrites to nitrates (NO3), which are far less harmful to the fish.

While the microbiology associated with aquaculture is complex, the equipment needed is very straightforward.

To produce freshwater fish in your backyard, you’ll need:

  1. A fish tank
  2. A pump and some fittings
  3. Mechanical and biological filtration

That’s it! These three components comprise a basic recirculating aquaculture system. You just add water and some fish……and start doing some water tests.

The first successful closed loop integration of fish and plants was called the Integrated Aqua-Vegeculture System (iAVs).  It was invented by Dr Mark R McMurtry in 1985.

In its simplest iteration, iAVs consists of a fish tank and sand bio-filters. 

Subsequent developments saw the emergence of what became known as aquaponics…the integration of recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics.  

Aquaponics comes in many forms but the dominant systems are:

  • gravel culture – flood and drain aquaponics
  • deep water culture – raft aquaponics

Both recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics create a waste stream.  In a conventional recirculating aquaculture system, nitrates are removed through water replacement where a predetermined volume of water is dumped each day. In a conventional hydroponic system, inorganic salts are used to provide nutrients for plants. Once the nutrient levels drop below a certain level, they are also dumped. In both situations, the wasteful disposal of nutrient-rich effluent creates environmental issues.

When they are integrated, however, the waste streams are reconciled – to the benefit of both fish and plants.

Integrated aquaculture is not limited to iAVs and aquaponics. There are also a number of soil-based options.

Since they all grow plants, the choice of a particular system boils down to personal preferences and the availability of resources.

Regardless of the method used, integrated aquaculture differs from conventional horticulture in a number of important ways.

The first (and most obvious) distinction is the source of nutrients – the fish.  Integrated aquaculture effectively provides two crops – one is fish and the other plants – for the same volume of water that it would otherwise take just to grow the plants.

The other very important difference is that, since chemical herbicides or pesticides are toxic to fish, they cannot be used in recirculating systems.  Clean chemical-free food is the result.

Fish

The list of Australian freshwater fish that can be produced in a backyard includes:

  1. Barramundi
  2. Murray Cod
  3. Silver Perch
  4. Jade Perch
  5. Sleepy Cod
  6. Eel-tailed Catfish

Freshwater crayfish include Yabbies (Cherax Destructor), Redclaw and Marron.

Every region throughout the world has its own freshwater fish species.

Pelletised rations, specially formulated for native freshwater fish, are available from fodder stores.

Plants

Integrated aquaculture lends itself to virtually any plant…particularly food plants.  The specific method will vary according to the type of plants being grown.

I’ve been engaged in integrated aquaculture since 2005…and I’ve written hundreds of articles on the subject.  In fact, I self-published what was arguably the first book on the subject in the world (The Urban Aquaponics Manual) back in 2007.  This material is being reviewed and will be available on this site.

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This article was first written in 2009.  It was reviewed in September 2017.

Duckweed

Duckweed - a must have for Microponicists

Duckweed – a must have for Microponicists

Duckweed is one of the best-kept secrets of Urban Farming.

It is a high quality feedstuff that can be produced in useful quantities at little cost and with little effort. Of equal interest (particularly in an Aquaponics context) is its ability to remove nutrients from water.

We began growing duckweed in 2004. Initially, we used it to supplement the pelletised rations that we fed to our Japanese quail. In more recent times, it has become an important part of the diet that we provide to our Jade Perch.

In the right conditions, this tiny plant can double its mass every 24 – 48 hours. Close control of the production parameters for duckweed is relatively easy in the small ponds and tanks favoured by backyard food producers.

Its explosive growth rate enables you to harvest and feed fresh duckweed on a daily basis.

At 35% to 40%, it has a higher protein level than Soya beans and higher concentrations of the essential amino acids, lysine and methionine than most plant proteins.

The other great news is that growing duckweed is easy.

You can purchase your initial stocks from most aquarium supply shops…or from vendors on Ebay.

You can use any open tank, large tub or in-ground pond. Place smaller containers in semi-shade or somewhere that you are able to shelter them from the worst of the summer heat.

While it is not essential, recirculating water from your fish tank is desirable. Aside from saving you the effort of bucketing water from your fish tank, recirculating the water will ensure that the nutrient levels in your duckweed pond remain at a consistent level.

You should aim for complete and dense cover of duckweed (within the range 0.6kg/m2 – 1.2kg/m2) for backyard farming purposes. Much below this and algal blooms will be an issue and much above it will cause it to self-mulch. Wind or fast-flowing water will also cause diminished production due to self-mulching.

While a variety of organic materials can be used to supply nutrients for duckweed, the logical source for Aquaponicists is their fish tanks. Of particular importance to aquaponicists, is the plant’s nutritional preference for nitrogen in the form of ammonia.

Duckweed is capable of rapid growth in water containing trace elements of nutrients. Interestingly, we almost killed off a batch of duckweed through overdosing it with poultry manure.

Temperature and sunlight are more important growth parameters than nutrient concentrations.

Duckweed grows across a wide temperature range – between 6oC and 33oC – but we’ve determined that it grows best in a range of 18oC to 24oC. We know that growth slows progressively up to 30oC and the plant begins to die off quickly at around 33oC.

While it will live in pH 5 to 9, the optimum pH for growing duckweed is in the range of pH 6.5 to 7.5 – also the preferred range for aquaponics systems.

Feeding out duckweed is as simple as dragging a kitchen sieve through the duckweed tank and placing it into your fish tank.

To avoid the duckweed from being pumped out of the fish tank, we made up an inexpensive duckweed feeder from a bucket with the bottom removed. The bucket is suspended in the water and the duckweed is placed into the bucket. This arrangement allows the fish to access the duckweed without distributing it throughout the tank.

Jade perch waiting for duckweed.

Jade perch waiting for duckweed.

Surplus duckweed can easily be dried and stored for later use. When drying small quantities, we allow the duckweed to drain in a kitchen sieve and then spread it thinly over several thicknesses of newspaper or kitchen towel. Turn it over several times each day for two or three days. Store it in an airtight plastic container.

Freezing is actually our preferred duckweed storage method. We simply gather up the tiny plants in a small kitchen sieve and squeeze the excess water out of them before arranging the mass in a shallow plastic container.

After freezing, we turn it out of the plastic mould and place the duckweed biscuit into a large storage container. Whenever we need duckweed for one of our fish, we select what we need from the storage container in the freezer and float it on the surface of the fish tank.

Frozen duckweed - fast food for fish.

Frozen duckweed – fast food for fish.

To summarise, duckweed is a high quality source of plant protein that grows quickly, costs virtually nothing to produce and requires little labour. It offers the added benefit of being able to remove nutrients from water.

Our first challenge was to learn how to grow duckweed in consistent, predictable quantities.

Our current focus is on the full integration of the plant into an aquaponics system. We want to be able to grow duckweed to remove nutrients, feed fish and other small livestock and to conserve water through reduced evaporation.

Duckweed is a must have for Microponicists.

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This article was first published in May 2009 and reviewed in October 2017. 

Black Soldier Fly Larvae

Animal protein out of thin air!

How would you like to be able to produce large quantities of live animal protein….out of thin air?  

Well, you can!

The Soldier Fly is arguably one of the best kept secrets of sustainable farming.

The larva of the Soldier Fly can be used to convert large quantities of organic wastes (including fruit and vegetable residues, offal and manure), into high quality animal protein that can then be fed directly to chickens and fish.

The good news doesn’t end there. This remarkable creature is genetically programmed to harvest itself. When it reaches maturity, it will climb out of its food source, crawl up a ramp (cleaning itself as it goes) and drop into a container ready for collection.

SF adults do not go into houses or eating places. They do not have functional mouth parts so they do not eat waste and nor can they regurgitate on human food.

They do not bite or sting and they are not associated in any way with the transmission of disease. Not only do they not behave like the irritating flies that afflict humans, Soldier flies actually reduce housefly numbers by 95% – 100%…..by denying the flies access to food.

Soldier Fly larvae are dry to the touch and have no odour.
The only real issue with Soldier Fly larvae is the poor image that attaches to flies in general and larvae in particular.

The mere thought of associating with worms and flies (much less fly larvae) usually fills most people with a sense of revulsion and the notion of close contact with bacteria raises thoughts of pestilence and plague.

The truth is that, not only are there bacteria and flies that are harmless to humans, life as we know it would not be able to exist without bacteria and flies.

The pet industry has overcome the image issue by marketing SF larvae, as live food, to owners of fish, birds, frogs and reptiles, under the more innocuous name of Phoenix Worms.

In the quest for home-grown livestock rations, more robust smallholders have long experimented with earthworms and various types of larvae.

Producing consistent quantities of earthworms requires some skill and takes at least 90 days to produce your first harvest.

Producing consistent quantities of Housefly or Blowfly larvae will happen much faster but harvesting them will put you in direct contact with some of nature’s less endearing disease couriers.

If you want to produce consistent quantities of animal protein with little effort and without getting too hands on, then Soldier Fly larvae are for you.

Waste Conversion

They have attracted the attention of researchers because of their capacity to consume large quantities of organic waste including pig and poultry manure. So voracious are the larvae, and such are their numbers, that they will sometimes displace worms.

Like worms, they will retreat from light. Unlike worms, however, they can tolerate very hot conditions.

When fed fresh manure, SF larvae convert protein and other nutrients in the manure into insect biomass. Aside from reducing manure volume by 50%, the larvae may reduce nutrient levels by 50% – 70%.

Soldier Flies do not limit their interest to livestock manure. They will happily lay their eggs in compost bins. Quite often, the owner of the bin will be oblivious to the fact that it is Soldier Fly larvae (rather than worms) that are consuming their kitchen scraps with such vigour.

SF larvae also handle offal and dairy wastes very effectively. This is a very handy attribute because, when you process a fish, chicken or rabbit for food, about half of the live weight is going to comprise viscera (guts), skin, feathers, scales or other inedible waste that will require disposal.

Soldier Fly larvae will convert this waste to live protein leaving you with compost that has an earthy odour and the texture of ground coffee. Soldier Fly larvae manure is a very useful soil conditioner and it makes excellent worm bedding.

Life Cycle

Adults mature and mate in the wild. Soldier fly adults congregate in small numbers near a secluded bush or tree in order to find and select a mate. After mating, the female searches for a suitable place to lay her eggs. She produces about 900 eggs in her short life of 5 to 8 days.

The male Soldier flies do not make contact with organic waste. To optimise their chances of survival, the females prefer to lay their eggs close to the waste rather than in it. About 100 hours later, the larvae hatch then crawl into the waste, which they begin to consume.

They start out white and gradually change to grey. They have the appearance of large segmented maggots and are often flat on the underside. One end is round and the other end tapers to a point.

Under ideal conditions, the larvae reach maturity in about two weeks In the absence of sufficient food, or in cooler weather, it may take up to six months for them to grow to the pre-pupae stage. SF larvae pass through 5 stages. Upon reaching maturity, pre-pupal larvae are about 25mm long, 6mm in diameter, and they weigh about 0.2 grams.

Pre-pupal SF empty their gut during their last moult and cannot feed thereafter. At this stage, the larva has everything that it needs to sustain it as it changes from pupae to adult fly.

The ability of the Soldier Fly larva to extend its life cycle under conditions of stress is a very important factor in its management for managing wastes and as a food source for poultry pigs and fish.

When the larvae are ready to become adult flies, they clear out their gut and start to look for a safe and private place in which to pupate. Famous for their ability to climb a 45° ramp, the larvae will crawl out of their food source and make their way to a collection point having effectively sorted themselves by size (only those ready to pupate will make this journey) and having cleaned themselves on the way.

The SF larvae’s capacity for self-selection makes them a better choice for small livestock diets than earthworms which still have to be separated from their bedding and sorted by size using manual or mechanical means.

Use of Larvae in Livestock Rations

Producing your own small livestock rations isn’t just a matter of economics; it’s a cornerstone of any attempt to produce clean, fresh food.

Commercial rations may contain preservatives, antibiotics and a host of questionable ingredients. The only way you can be sure that you know what’s in your livestock rations is to mix them yourself.

Dried SF pre-pupae contain up to 42% protein and 35% fat and feature an amino acid and mineral profile which leaves them well suited for use as livestock food.

Feeding studies have identified that SF larvae are suitable for use in poultry, pig and fish rations. Some researchers suggest that SF larvae are the nutritional equivalent of (and a suitable replacement for) fishmeal. This has important implications as wild catch fish stocks continue to dwindle.

Arguably, the biggest issue in using these remarkable creatures for livestock rations is overcoming the negative image that attaches to flies and insects. The simple fact, however, is that left to their own devices, small livestock will eat worms, larvae and insects – very often to the exclusion of expensive commercial rations.

Week old ducks, chickens or quail will hunt and eat flies and most species of fish will (in the wild) eat anything they can get their mouth around.

Sustainability

Any attempt to create sustainability that fails to acknowledge the role of bacteria and insects is doomed from the outset.

Worms, larvae and bacteria transform materials like manure, plant residues and animal processing by-products into more worms and larvae and soil conditioner. The worms and larvae can be combined with other ingredients (like duckweed) to produce rations for quail, chickens, ducks, rabbits and fish and the soil conditioner can be used to enrich your gardens.

Soldier Flies and backyard farming are good for each other, no matter how you cut it.

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Broiler Chickens

Being able to produce chicken meat is an important milestone for aspiring urban farmers.
Day-old Broiler chicks.

Day-old Broiler chicks.

If you believe, as many nutritionists suggest, that we are what we eat, you’ll realise that the big benefit in rearing your own is that you’ll be eating the cleanest and freshest chicken that you have ever had.
Just seven days old - trebled in size.

Just seven days old – trebled in size.

Producing broilers (meat chickens) is a project that will (assuming reasonable management), take up to 8 weeks to conduct. The precise time will depend on how big you want your chickens and what you intend to feed them.
14 days old and eating like crazy.

14 days old and eating like crazy.

Don’t confuse the term broiler with boiler.  The broiler is a 5 – 8 week old tender frying chicken while the boiler is a retired layer or breeder that is likely to be at least 18 months old.  Both are useful sources of food but they are prepared in very different ways. Broilers are what you get when you order chicken and chips (fries) from your local fast food outlet.
7 weeks old - ready for processing

7 weeks old – ready for processing

You can begin harvesting your chickens from about 24 days onwards. Chickens at this age are referred to as Poussins and they make an excellent single-serve dish.
Two kilograms of clean, fresh chicken meat

2kg of clean, fresh chicken meat

At six weeks of age, your chickens will dress out at about 1.5kg or better. If you keep them for up to ten weeks, you’ll get very large chickens indeed.
The important thing to take out of this article are that you can produce clean fresh chicken meat in your own backyard.  
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Muscovies

Muscovies are excellent livestock for urban farming purposes.

While they are often referred to as a duck, they aren’t derived of the Mallard like other domestic duck breeds and scientists regard them as more of a goose than a duck.

Muscovies are much quieter than either ducks or geese – they hiss rather than quack or honk – so they’re less likely to annoy your neighbours.

Muscovies, like geese, are grazers and a large part of their diet can come from good forage. Like ducks, they’ll happily clean up food wasted by other animals and they love live food – like worms, slaters, earwigs, flies and mosquitoes. Ducklings will hunt flies almost as soon as they are hatched.

While they’re generally classified as waterfowl, Muscovies do not require water in which to swim. They do, however, need plenty of fresh water to drink. Ducks often mix food and water together when eating so their waterers need daily scrubbing. The waterers also need to be deep enough to enable them to immerse their eyes to keep them clean.

They have powerful claws that enable them to roost in trees. While they don’t fly far, they can still manage to soar over a fence into the neighbour’s garden. This can be prevented by removing the flight feathers from one wing.

Housing can be fairly basic but it should offer adequate protection from predators and it must be easy to clean if problems with odours (and neighbours) are to be avoided.

Muscovy drakes weigh up to 7kg and ducks weigh 3-4kg. They have a distinctive red caruncle around their face and bill. While they come in a variety of colours, white Muscovies make for a cleaner carcase if you’re keeping them for meat.

Muscovies should be about 7 months of age before commencing breeding. To ensure optimum fertility and hatchability, provide a suitable breeder ration at least a month prior to the commencement of egg production.

Muscovies set clutches of between 8 and 20 eggs and they can do it three or four times per year. Egg production can be extended if an electric incubator is used for hatching. The eggs take 35 days to hatch.

If a duck hatches its own eggs, she’ll also provide the warmth that the ducklings need during the first few weeks. Alternatively, this supplementary warmth can be provided by a small gas or electric brooder.

Small groups of duck eggs can also be hatched and brooded by chicken hens or bantams – assuming you have broody birds available and assuming that they will accept the ‘ring ins.’

Muscovies are usually better mothers than other ducks but it’s best to keep the drakes separate from the ducklings. Their sheer size presents a hazard and they will sometimes trample ducklings. Keeping them confined will also stop cats and crows from getting the ducklings and will prevent the duck from leading her young through wet grass which can chill them.

The ducklings take about 14 – 16 weeks to reach eating size. Day olds can be fed a chick starter ration if duck rations are not available. After 3 weeks, the ducklings can be switched to a chicken grower ration.

Preparing your own inexpensive duck rations is easy and will enable you to impart a unique tastes to the meat.

The Muscovy is highly regarded as a premium table bird by members of our Asian communities. The breast on a Muscovy is large and almost fat-free. Even the skin is less fatty than that of a regular duck.

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Japanese Quail

Quail are tiny when hatched.

Quail are tiny when hatched.

Quail are the quintessential micro-farmer’s livestock…..and they earn the title on the basis of their unrivalled ability to produce meat and eggs faster, and in greater quantity, than anything on two legs.
The ability of a female to reproduce its body weight in any given year is another measure where the quail is without parallel. A cow is able to produce 40% of its own bodyweight per year and a sheep or goat can produce over 100%. A sow can generate in excess of 400% while a rabbit doe is capable of well in excess of 1000%. A productive chicken (and an incubator) might produce over 200 chicks in a year and their progeny could be bred just 24 weeks later.
Quail grow very quickly.

Quail grow very quickly.

Japanese quail leave them all behind. The quail chicks that hatch today will be capable of breeding in just six weeks. You’ll need a spreadsheet to calculate the annual leverage applicable to these amazing birds.

Quail have been domesticated for a very long time. They appear in ancient Egyptian hieroglyph and the first written record of domesticated quail appears in Japan in the twelfth century AD.

These tiny game birds work like a miniature poultry farm producing gourmet meat and eggs in a breeding cycle of just weeks while occupying just a few square metres of floor space.

Quail eggs are delectable snacks, too.

Quail eggs are delectable snacks, too.

They are well suited to anyone who wishes to learn more about how to work with livestock and who would like to experience an entire ‘cradle to the grave’ livestock operation.

Their size ensures that a breeding and growing operation designed to yield 10 quail per week (enough for a meal for a family of four) could be accommodated in a floor space of about 2 – 3 square metres.

Quail are processed quickly and easily.

Quail are processed quickly and easily.

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How Much Is Enough?

Without effective planning, growing your own food can be a crazy mix of feasts and famines. 

The feasts are less problematic than the famines but you can get awfully tired of a steady diet of pumpkin.  While famines can be handy for rapid weight loss, they can be a real nuisance if, like most of us, you’ve got used to eating regularly.

Knowing what to grow is one thing; achieving continuous production is quite another. 

The first step to ensuring that you have continuous food availability is to make up a menu comprising all of the things you and your family are going to eat – three meals a day for at least six to eight weeks.

This period fits in well with many micro-farming cycles.  You can be eating your own salad greens in three to four weeks.  Silver beet and other leafy greens will follow soon after.

Assuming that your new laying pullets are actually 20 weeks when you buy them, you can expect your first eggs about three weeks after they arrive home.  Quail will lay eggs and the birds themselves will be ready for eating at six to seven weeks.  Many of the herbs that you’ll need to enhance your meals including parsley, thyme, coriander and chives will be ready by the time you need them for your chicken dishes.

To avoid sharp production peaks and troughs, plant seeds every week.  Rather than planting a complete punnet of tomato seedlings at the same time, plant one or two every two or three weeks.  Plant six lettuces, or three silver beet seedlings – or whatever you need – each week.  Once you get your parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme established, you’ll be harvesting them the ensuing year.  For continuous coriander production, you’ll need to plant fresh seedlings at fortnightly intervals.

With the best of planning, you’ll produce more than you need.  The surplus can be given away to friends or family or bartered for things you need but don’t have.   Your other option is to take your surplus plants or livestock to your local grower’s market and turn it into cash.

Some people compost surplus vegetables and fruit.  My view is that the best way to compost unwanted food is to put it through the guts of a chicken., worm or Black Soldier Fly larvae first.

Surplus eggs, bread, vegetables and cooked left-overs can also be fed to your poultry.   We always have surplus quail eggs so we hard boil and crush them – and feed them to the chickens…shells and all.

Three good laying pullets will provide 15 to 18 eggs a week for much of the year.  Four Muscovy ducks and a drake will keep the average family in premium duck meat.

Five rabbit does and a buck will provide a meal of rabbit for a family of four every week and starting a dozen day old broiler chickens each month will ensure continuous production of up 4 kg (per week) of the freshest and cleanest chicken meat you’ll ever eat.

Six quail trios and a small incubator will provide you with gourmet meat and eggs as often as you want.

I’d recommend that you construct a raised wicking bed garden if you don’t have experience with soil-based gardening. It’s water-efficient, suitable for all types of fruit and vegetables and easy on your back.

A 1000 litre fish tank, some recycled blue plastic barrels and some DIY grow beds/tanks will enable you to add freshwater fish and even more vegetables to the menu.

Research the growing periods (including the germination times) for your choice of vegetables and herbs and develop your planting schedule accordingly.

Your goal is to ensure that you have a continuous yield of fresh, clean food for you and your family.  Over time, you can expand your repertoire and the knowledge and skills that you will need to make it all happen.

When you reach the point where you are producing most of your own food, you are also saving an amount of money equal to the cost of the food that you would otherwise have to buy.  This saving can be re-invested in other aspects of your self-reliance program like debt retirement, a rainwater tank or some solar panels.

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 This article was originally published in May 2009.  It was reviewed and updated in June 2017.

Why Grow Your Own Food?

Why would anyone want to produce their own food when they can simply drive to the supermarket and buy everything they need?

It’s Fresher

Have you ever reflected on how some words – like ‘love’ or ‘quality’ – mean different things to different people?  The word ‘fresh’ is very much like that.

To a supermarket, fresh may have several dimensions.  For bread and other baked goods, it can mean several days.  For vegetables, it may be anything from a week upwards and for fruit, it will be weeks or months.

Anyone who buys “fresh” fish from a supermarket (and off of many fishing boats for that matter) is buying fish that has been defrosted.  If they are lucky, it will only have been frozen once – if they’re not, it may have been defrosted and re-frozen twice or more.

Referring to the sorry mess behind the chicken counter in most supermarkets as fresh is really playing with the truth.  You won’t need to smell it (although you can) – the stuff just looks stale.

Much of the fruit and vegetables that are sold in supermarkets are imported.  How can something be picked one day, held in cold stores for several days, weeks or months and then be shipped halfway round the world and still be referred to as fresh?

Contrast all of this with the food that we grow.

The lettuce or silver beet we ate for dinner last night was still growing a half an hour earlier.  A fresh egg is one that we removed from the chicken house that morning.  We can catch our fish and eat it within the hour.  Our meat chickens and quail will be in the refrigerator within 30 minutes of leaving their pen and fresh bread is the stuff we baked today.

It’s Cleaner

Your most recent chicken dinner probably got introduced to its first cocktail of chemicals the day it hatched.

Commercial chickens are raised in sheds that contain tens of thousands of birds.   Modern broiler chickens are the product of some very clever genetics – their capacity for growth often exceeds the ability of their legs to sustain such growth.

To offset the likelihood of disease arising from the stress of overcrowding or just trying to drag themselves around, broiler chickens are fed antibiotics.

This practice is one of the reasons why your physician will prescribe increasing amounts of antibiotics when you become ill.  The simple fact is that you’ve been ingesting antibiotics in your chicken meat.

Commercial poultry diets can contain recycled feathers, blood, offal, fish wastes and all manner of things.

Now, all of these ‘by-products’ may be acceptable if they were processed while they are fresh – they are simply recycled protein after all – but they are taken to a place that you can smell long before you can see it, to be converted to the stuff of which livestock feed is made.

These products will be mixed with other questionable ingredients – whatever is cheapest – to become what is laughingly termed a balanced diet.

You may have heard the saying, “You are what you eat”…..and to a greater extent than with most livestock, this is true of chickens.

Even the eggs you had for breakfast will have been tampered with.  Eggs from cage chickens (and so-called ‘barn’ eggs) will have insipid-looking yolks, so feed companies include a special little chemical ingredient to make the yolks in your eggs a nice orange colour. 

Your fruit and vegetables will have been treated with herbicides, pesticides and various other chemicals – many of which would cause you serious concern if you knew more about them.

Now, contrast this with the food that we grow.

We know what our livestock eat because we grow much of it ourselves and we take the time to find out where the rest of it comes from.  Our animals live in conditions that don’t leave them stressed so we don’t need to feed them antibiotics.

We add a little something to our chickens’ rations to make the egg yolks nice and orange, too.  It’s called grass – and they get it as they wander around our backyard.

It’s Cheaper

Supermarkets’ anti-competitive strategies ensure that they buy at the lowest possible price.  Current affairs programs often run stories about the way that supermarkets exploit both farmers and consumers.

Produce is marked up to whatever price the market will bear.  This is evidenced by the fact that people who live in affluent suburbs will pay more for the same goods than people who live in less affluent areas.

We save so much money by growing most of our own food that we can afford to spend a little more to get the best produce from small growers and specialty shops.

If you adopt the concept of Microponics, you’ll find that the food you grow yourself will be a fraction of the price of the store bought equivalent.

There is simply no better investment that you can make in your family’s well being than to feed them fresh, clean food…..at an affordable price.

Of course, there are other less tangible reasons for engaging in Microponics including:

  • Being able to walk out your back door and harvest clean fresh food will underpin your food security and  enhance your self-confidence.
  • It’s an interesting pastime.  If you spend more time growing your own food, and less time walking supermarket aisles, you’ll become healthier while saving money.
  • Done right, it’s sustainable and environmentally-friendly.
  • It’s an invaluable learning resource for the entire family.

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 This article was originally published in May 2009.  It was reviewed and updated June 2017.

Integration

Integration is the secret to sustainable food production.

Integration (in a food production context) provides for an holistic farming system that converts the waste products of one production process into the feedstock for others.

Integration occurs when we combine two or more food production systems to leverage their efficiency.  As such, integrated systems are always more than the sum of their parts.  They’re the agricultural equivalent of 2+2=5 (or more).

Some of the features of an effective integrated food production system include: 

  • a diverse mix of organisms
  • balanced nutrient cycles
  • greater sustainability
  • enhanced productivity/profitability

If you set out to emulate commercial industrial farming (which is generally neither integrated nor sustainable), your home-grown food will always be more expensive than the stuff you buy at the local supermarket; largely due to the ability of large commercial farmers to take advantage of the economies of scale.

If, however, you can source your plant nutrients, livestock fodder, and water at little or no cost, and you provide the labour yourself, you can shift the balance in your favour…and therein lies the key to producing food cheaper than the big players in agriculture.

A truly efficient integration almost conceals the motive for its creation.  For example, the construction of a duckweed pond serves as a nutrient source for a satellite hydroponics unit.  A water storage might also usefully accommodate fish, latent heat and even a water garden if the tank is open at the top.

Living organisms lend themselves to integration, too.  A chicken may provide eggs for you – and body heat and expired CO2 for your plants.  At the same time that this is going on, they also help to control insects and weeds.

Eventually, the chicken becomes meat.  The feathers, blood and bones are good for the compost bin, and freshwater fish will happily consume the viscera (guts).

The point is that, regardless of the initial motivation for the system, the integration of other food production assets simply leverages the value we receive from those same assets.

Integration, in a micro-farming context, is essentially about value creation.  An integrated food production system should provide for better quality, greater quantity, shorter timeframe, lower cost….more for less!

Aquaponics is a useful example of integration on a small scale.  The fish produce waste that is converted to plant nutrients that then produce vegetables and herbs.    

As useful as aquaponics is, however, it still requires external inputs like energy, fish food and (depending on the plants) specific nutrients.  It is still only a single step in a longer journey to create an agri-ecosystem comprising a diverse network of integrations. 

If we extend aquaponics to Microponics, we eat the vegetables, herbs and fish and the wastes from our kitchen go to chickens, worms or soldier fly larvae, which are then mixed with duckweed to become fish food.

And the scope of integration doesn’t stop there.  We can add other small livestock (like rabbits, chickens, quail, ducks, snails and bees) and water gardening (for water chestnuts and kankong, etc).

With Microponics there is no waste in a landfill sense.  The so-called waste product of one organism becomes the feedstock for another.

Each of the organisms or species in Microponics has a food chain connection with the others.  The worms eat the deep litter out of the quail pens and produce an excellent soil conditioner and plant food in the process.  The quail and fish eat the worms and some of the plants.

In this model of integration, we get fish, quail/chicken/duck meat and eggs, worm castings/tea, duckweed, animal protein, vegetables, herbs, rabbits, skins and honey.

The challenge when designing Microponics systems is to see every output as a resource…even waste body heat and expired carbon dioxide.

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 This article was first published in May 2009.  It was reviewed and updated in June 2017.