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.
This article was first published in May 2009. It was reviewed and updated in June 2017.
You’ve indicated that feeding fish bsf larvae doesn’t work because the larvae (mature) just pass through undigested.
Have you tried feeding your fish immature bsf larvae? You’d have to harvest these manually but I have done that and it is not an issue. Simply fill a kitchen collander with cracked corn and they will enter the collander to feed. The holes in the collander do make a difference. I tried it with a bowl and did not have much luck with that. In a short time you will have a collander full of larvae.
Anyway, what are your thoughts on feeding the fish immature larvae?
I am so inspired by your explanation of integration. I’m experimenting with harvesting BSF larvae at the moment, and have been entertaining the idea of having a system where I use chicken manure to produce black soldier flies that will be fed to fish (aquaponics) and use fish manure to produce black soldier flies to be fed back to chickens. Is this a feasible thing to try? I’m not sure fish poop will be plentiful enough, or at least in a physical state that can be utilized by the larvae.
It occured to me after putting kitchen scraps (most of which were purchased at the supermarket) into my biopod, that this system, although more efficient than throwing organic waste in the trash, is completely dependent on an outside input. That’s what led me to think of using just manure from different organisms in a synergistic way.
My other thought is to get some goats; their manure would produce larvae to feed to chickens; chicken manure would produce larvae to feed to fish; my composted humanure (the product of these food sources) would be used to fertilize a series of small-scale pastures by which grasses and legumes would be grown for the goat to eat. Does this sound like a better idea to you than the chicken and fish one?
Mike…….Thank you……no author could expect more. Some species of fish will eat BSF larvae and others won’t …..and, for those who do, the outer skin of the larvae is tough and will survive a trip through a fish’ gut…..and will mess up your fish tank.
These days, we feed our BSF larvae to chickens. If you want larvae to feed to your fish, I’d recommend other fly larvae. Most dedicated fishermen could tell you how to grow them
My candid advice is to keep the humanure for your trees……regardless of what you might read elsewhere.
absolutely fantastic blog by the way.
i’d like to suggest an article. this one treats integration in the abstract with a few concrete examples. i’d like to know about *all* the connections you have actually managed to establish between elements of your system.
maybe then people can add ideas and other possible connections through the comments. it would be a great resource.
thanks again for the great blog.
Polypus……thanks for the kind words.
Your suggested article is in the works (along with several dozen others). We’re about to build our next couple of aquaponics systems and they should tweak your interest if integration excites you. They’ll also feature on my discussion forum at http://www.aquaponicshq.com – so stay tuned.
On the property where I am building at the moment, I am putting in a Biolytix septic, which uses worms (and bacteria) to break down all the waste from our house. This will then irrigate 300 square metres of land in which I plan to plant fruit and nut trees and bushes, and have 6 chooks and a rooster free-range on to help remove fallen fruit and keep down bugs. That way, even our waste grows something that comes back into the cycle on the property.
The integration of all these aspects is what intrigues me (and somewhat baffles me) most. One thing I would like to aim to do is produce all of the food for my livestock, even if it means lowered production rates. Many books on breeding livestock pretty much preach that there is no way other than feeding rations. Then working out effective methods of turning their waste into food for other livestock, and eventually back into food for them and us – well I sometimes go around in circles thinking about it…
Ken……producing all of your own animal rations is a worthwhile (if sometimes difficult) goal. Books recommend feeding commercial rations for the same reason most people do it…..it’s easy! Commercial rations will also be consistent in terms of the vitamin and mineral (and amino acid) balance.
The secret of backyard food production is to look at all of your “wastes” and to combine them (adding purchased ingredients where you have to) to produce a balanced diet for the organism (worm, chicken, plant, fish, etc) to which it is being fed. Think of this as a journey rather than a destination. While we feed out Black Soldier fly larvae, duckweed, kitchen scraps, processing wastes when we have them, we still feed commercial rations to some of our micro-livestock.
The important thing to remember is that; the more organisms you have in your integration, the more “waste” you have (of different types) and the more feed opportunities that you have. Every kilogram (or pound) of food that you provide for yourself (or your livestock) is one less that you have to buy.