Tim Frey of Roberts & Roberts Brokerage is mostly known for his work with activists in the liberty community, but he has recently taken up aquaponics in addition to raised bed gardening and raising chickens for eggs and meat. We get to talk about his foray into aquaponics in the office on a regular basis, and it really is a fascinating development. I got the chance to interview him about the specifics of the operation, and believe this information is very useful to a broader audience, especially those who are looking into becoming more self-sufficient.
How long have you been growing your own food in general?
I started out soil gardening about 6 years ago. I cleared the grass out of a corner of our acre plus subdivision lot and started adding compost and manure to the Florida sand that was there and got started growing. A couple years ago, I shifted to mostly raised bed gardening which cut down a lot on the weeding and some of the other effort. I added chickens two years ago.
What encouraged you to start growing food and raising chickens?
I was encouraged by both the feeling that the skills might become a necessity in the future and the potential to control the quality of the food. I’d have to say though that the quality is why I continue doing it. I was really inspired to take on chickens by my good friend Mark of Green Acres Farm . Our family became somewhat of a test subject for Mark when he started out raising chickens and lambs. I wasn’t much of a chicken eater until I had one of his birds. It was delicious! The appearance, taste, tenderness and structure of the meat were way better than anything I had eaten in a grocery store or restaurant chicken. I bought chickens from Mark for a couple of years and decided to try raising them myself.
After growing food with soil, what made you want to switch to aquaponics?
I’ll probably continue growing in soil using raised beds. Some things like carrots radishes and other root crops aren’t suited for aquaponic or hydroponic growing. So it’s not a complete switch. Aquaponics seems like a clean and efficient way to grow many things. The fact that there are no weeds or soil pests also appeals to me. My understanding is the density of food production is greater even than raised bed gardening. So far, I’ve just completed construction of a basic small system using goldfish on my back porch. The idea is to grow salad greens and herbs were they can be readily harvested just by walking out the back door. If this works well, I plan to scale up and use some form of edible fish and build a green house or Aquadome similar to what Ernie has been working on.
How is your aquaponic system set up?
The system I built is pretty simple. I designed it based on a compilation of information I got watching YouTube videos and reading websites and papers online. The original design was two 3×3 foot grow beds, two 25 gallon water tanks and a “swirl” filter to remove most of the particle solids like fish food or fish waste. The fish live in one tank which is a 25 gallon reservoir tank sold for use in hydroponic systems. Water from that tank flows out to the swirl filter which uses the natural motion of the water to cause most of the fish solids to fall to the bottom of the filter. This filter is a five gallon food grade bucket and some PVC pipe and fittings. That water goes into a second 25 gallon tank called a sump tank. In my original design, this is where the one and only water pump is located. I chose a “Fish First” design, meaning I never wanted a failure in the system to kill the fish. Only “excess” water from the fish tank may be used. If the pump was directly in the fish tank and a leak or blockage developed in the system, the pump could empty the fish tank. So, the water pump moves the water up from the sump tank to the first grow bed. This bed will be used primarily to grow lettuces and other greens in a Styrofoam raft with 25 cutouts with net pots that allow the plant to have both access to the nutrient rich water and air to prevent drowning the root system. As this tank fills, it overflows to a second grow bed that is full of expanded clay pellets and provides nutrient rich water to the plants. The pellets serve as a medium to support the root system of other plants. I’m going to try some herbs (no, not that herb!), beans, spinach, cucumbers, and pepper to start with. This bed is using an “ebb and flow” or “fill and drain” method. Water flows through the lettuce raft bed and into the pellet bed. When the water level reaches a set height, it starts to drain out of the grow bed and down into the fish tank through a bell siphon. A natural siphon or suction is created which almost completely drains the grow bed and gives the plant time to get air to the roots before the cycle starts again. The increased level in the fish tank flows out to the filter, into the sump tank, and the process continues. One water pump, a tiny amount of electrical power and no other mechanical or electrical equipment is needed. It would be very easy to convert the system to run off of one small solar panel and small battery system for night time or cloudy days.
What are the benefits of using aquaponics vs. a soil based method and are there any disadvantages?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping for greater food density and easier maintenance and upkeep. It’s not easy to fight soil insects and since the ground never really freezes here in Florida, they continue year after year. I’ve run out of places to grow some things like zucchini because I know the root bore larvae is in that soil somewhere. I’ll still need to watch for caterpillars and other leaf insects but those are much easier to deal with because you can more readily see them and the damage they are doing. And, of course, there are no weeds! I also want to scale up to edible fish – I haven’t found any good recipes for goldfish.
What problems have you run into as you were trying to get the project started?
One thing I learned was the amount of time and the steps needed to condition the water and make it ready for the fish. There is a definite process to this and it takes some time to do. Even after the system is ready for fish, there is about two weeks before the system is ready for plants. With soil gardening, you prep your soils and sow seeds or plant plants and off you go. Aquaponics takes time to really get established. I’ve also had to make one modification to the system due to the high temperatures here in Florida. Goldfish are not very heat tolerant and I found the water getting dangerously high some days. We had to resort to freezing blocks of ice in plastic bottle and containers and putting them in the sump to bring down the water temperature in the system. I’ve added a 55 gallon food grade drum and buried it in the ground next to the system to add water mass to the system as well as taken advantage of the cooler underground temperatures. I’m hoping that will hold the temperatures down enough. It could also be a useful way to keep temperatures up in the winter since we do see freezing temperatures here in the panhandle fairly frequently a couple months of the year.
The other problem I’ve run into is government regulation. I didn’t originally plan to use goldfish. Probably the best fish for this system is tilapia but those are prohibited in my district by Florida Fish and Wildlife. I may eventually use catfish or some other permitted fish. It would be nice to have something more temperature tolerant and edible.
For people wanting to start aquaponics in this area, what should they know about the solutions to the issues you faced?
There is a ton of information on the internet about both aquaponics and hydroponics. There are also kits being offered for people that don’t want to design and build or tinker with making it all work.
Have you found other people in the area that are creating aquaponic systems or are there resources people can go to for more information?
I haven’t found a lot of people in my area doing aquaponics. I did get some good advice from my local hydroponics supply store. We aren’t a particularly large city but there are two really good suppliers here; Healthy Gardens and Supply and Atlantis Hydroponics. It also recently occurred to me that some of the garden stores or places that deal with ponds might be a good resource of information about fish and water issues. I would also say that the amount of shared information on the internet is amazing. Everything from universities to county agents and tons of backyard enthusiasts have posted all kinds of information online.