Lessons in Compromise

From Restlessness to Precarious Liberation— April 19, 2014 to July 13, 2014

Very stupid fish.

Very stupid fish.

How would my life have changed had I caught a fish? I’d spent a small fortune on fishing gear for my girls and myself (mostly for myself). I was a native son, after all— the streams, rivers, and lakes belonged to me, and I’d fished them in my youth. So, I was almost bursting with great expectations when I left the girls to fend for themselves a few hundred yards down the shoreline of the Wachusett Reservoir on that first day of fishing season. Imagine my surprise when little Natasha came running up to me, not 20 minutes later, and announced, “Daddy! Daddy! Mommy got a fish!” Yeah, right, she must have snagged her line, I thought— until I saw her standing there absolutely glowing with pride as she hurried to cast out her lure. That’s when I made a not-so-subtle adjustment to my own pride and convinced myself that her catching a fish was as good as anything that could have happened, including me catching a fish. I couldn’t help commenting though, as I took this photo, in the simple language that we share, “Very stupid fish.” I then headed quickly off to not catch my own fish. She didn’t catch any more fish that day, at least not with her fishing gear, but somehow she convinced an otherwise devout catch-and-release advocate to part with an even bigger specimen. Now that was an unlucky fish, but they both tasted great.

Taking accurate temperature measurements. . . doesn't help.

Taking accurate temperature readings. . . doesn’t help.

How would my life have changed had I made a really great beer, or even one that was moderately palatable? Well, fishing required waking up too early or setting off in the late afternoon which, I was inclined to think, was the time one should begin drinking. It was a fact that Massachusetts was protecting its fish by prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on its public land. And, the one time I was talked into going in the early afternoon, when all the fish should have been sleeping, Natasha’s mom caught another large fish. So, instead, after spending more than a thousand dollars on equipment, I began brewing beer. The scale was a fraction of the scale of the nano-brewery (Bugger All Brewery) I had dreamed of, but that’s all my budget would allow. Though the beer I brewed was mostly crap (I didn’t get a chance to taste some of it), I did learn that making beer, although quite difficult, is really fun, especially while you are drinking a good store-bought beer—the two don’t mix well, however, as I discovered the hard way by often forgetting to add ingredients and burning myself on several occasions.

The photo above was taken roughly one week before I flew to Shanghai to meet my boss and attend a supplier meeting. For those of you who may have forgotten, I do have a job. When I departed, I had precisely nothing to my name except some fishing gear in storage and some shiny beer making equipment in my dad’s garage (not to mention no small amount of debt). In an email before departing, my boss had hinted that he may have something enticing up his sleeve to offer me– some means of bettering my shabby financial circumstances. Actually, I’m still not convinced that my boss and the other executives at my company, who all seemed to be in agreement, hadn’t had their drinking water tampered with. They’d decided that they were not going to renew the contract with our guy in Geneva, Switzerland, which was a nice way of saying that they were going to sack him. I was to become sales representative for the entire world, excluding Japan, and I’d get a suitable “package” to go along with the position. Although I thought they were as mad as hatters to shoulder me with such responsibility and great expectations, I kept my mouth shut.

It’s more than a 13-hour flight from Shanghai back to the East Coast of the US. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t even turn on the inflight entertainment. I schemed, but in the grinning, hopeful kind of way I’m known to do before I do something stupid. I wanted out. Out of the country in which, it was claimed, I appeared socially dysfunctional even at family gatherings (especially at family gatherings). My boss left Shanghai thinking that I’d be carrying out my new responsibilities from the US. But, frankly, assuming that I’d ever been adjusted to it, I was definitely having trouble getting readjusted. My company’s customer base, outside of Japan, is in Europe, and they were going to sack the guy there, so it made perfect sense for me to pack up my two girls and our paltry belongings and, as a first step, park them safely back in Vientiane. And so it was that my sojourn on American soil ended. We arrived back in Vientiane on July 13, 2014, and I began plotting my next series of moves.

Selling the Move to Europe

Another Asian delight.

A classic recipe– moonshine and goat semen in a PET bottle.

What better way to get prepared for a move to Europe than by making use of a drinking vessel fashioned, although hastily and with little skill, from the horn of a goat. Drinking horns have been used there at least from Classical Antiquity. And what better beverage could one be offered than locally produced moonshine that’s had the recently dispatched goat’s semen soaking in it. We’d been away from Vientiane for a total of just less than 9 months, and I’d already forgotten that such delights could be found there.

The dilemma I faced with going to Europe was that I had to pretend that I didn’t really want to go there. You see, corporations have an inherent disdain for paying someone well for doing something they like, especially where they want to do it. You can usually find this stated in a sub-article somewhere in a company’s Articles of Incorporation. I’d returned to Vientiane at precisely the time when they were mulling over what my future “package” would be, so it created a bit of a fuss. In fact, I could easily do my work just as well from Vientiane as I could from Venice or some other European city, but since they thought I wanted to be back in Vientiane, I had to get my butt out of there. The truth is, until I can afford a house of my own in Vientiane, staying there is very close to being unbearable. Who knows when they’d slaughter another goat and serve up the semen with a splash of moonshine in a recycled PET bottle.

There was an undeniably good argument for being based in Europe, however, so to discuss this, and for more mundane reasons, I flew to Japan. This was less than two weeks after getting back to Vientiane.

Fast Forwarding to the Present

Ever since I began my gradual but persistent abandonment of Japan in the late ’90s, I’ve been what’s known as a perpetual traveler. Although it may sound romantic, it mostly just involves making frequent visa runs and having to buy all sorts of stuff in somebody else’s name. Some rich people become perpetual travelers for tax-related reasons that, for the record, I know nothing about. What is clear, however, is that almost all countries welcome travelers (aka tourists) with open arms while shackling their residents and citizenry with the burden of their Sovereign debt.

City of Split, Croatia, with the forest park, Marjan, in the background (photo borrowed from here).

City of Split, Croatia, with the forest park, Marjan, in the background (photo borrowed from here).

It’s now the fourth week of my third sojourn in Split, Croatia. My first trip here was for just over three weeks and began almost exactly a month after leaving the US. My research had paid off. I loved the place. In another classic case of having far too much time on my hands, I had narrowed down the entire westernmost peninsula of Eurasia to this little 100m² sliver of real estate on the eastern slope of Marjan to be my temporary home. Marjan, at an elevation of 178m, was one of my main reasons for choosing Split. The entire peninsula upon which it rises has been used as a park by the citizens of Split since the 3rd century. A brisk trot to the top and back, with brief pauses to admire the spectacular views, takes about 35 minutes– a nice bit of minimum daily exercise which would be better done daily.

A corner of my cozy little apartment.

A corner of my cozy little apartment.

I found an apartment right in the center of the sliver I mentioned above. It makes me wonder if there isn’t something to this concept of divine intervention that the Roman Catholic population here believes in so feverishly. The owner (my landlady) is like no landlady ever portrayed in any movie or characterized in any book. She’s absolutely delightful. The apartment is cozy, and the neighbors are helpful and friendly. The Roman palace of Emperor Diocletian is just minutes away on foot.

Little Natasha and I can come here on our US passports for 90 days in any given 180 day period, but despite her country’s former status as a second-world nation aligned with the Soviet block, and with little if any guilt for sitting around doing nothing while the US illegally bombed her mother’s country to smithereens [from Irish smidiríní, diminutive form of smiodar (fragment), in case you were wondering], Croatia, once part of Yugoslavia, made her mother go to their embassy in Beijing, China, to get a tourist visa. The distance from Vientiane to Beijing is 2,775km, and the distance between Vientiane and Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, is 8,325km, so she had to travel exactly one third of that distance to get her visa. She couldn’t do that, however, until she first got a visa to go to China. But we looked at it as an opportunity to admire one of the world’s smoggiest cities.

State-of-the-art electrically assisted bicycles

State-of-the-art electrically assisted bicycles

My second and so far longest sojourn in Split began, with Natasha and her mom in tow, on September 28, 2014. We were Europeans now, and what could be more European than buying a pair of outrageously expensive e-bikes? The weather was still warm, Natasha liked the English language kindergarten that she was attending three times a week, and her mom, a fanatic when it comes to consuming strangely-shaped aquatic creatures, couldn’t get enough of the fresh seafood market in the old part of the city. Our apartment is actually located within a compound of sorts where the kids play freely without traffic or intruders to worry about– we were all welcomed into this slice of a neighborhood to the point where it became difficult to get Natasha to come back home in the evenings.

Don't worry, Lao people eat dogs, not cats.

Don’t worry, Lao people eat dogs, not cats.

As reasons for making this city our temporary home, I had many, but not all of them were particularly flattering. One was the difficulty and obscurity of the language spoken here. Utter anything sounding almost fluent and the locals will be tipping off of their scooters and tripping down their staircases. They don’t expect you to even try learning their language, and they think it would be impossible for you even if you did. When Natasha asked me why the other kids in the compound speak “Blah, blah, blah,” I made her think about how she spoke differently to her grandmother in Laos and to her grandfather in the US. I wouldn’t mind if her little spongy mind was inclined to learn Croatian, so I took that opportunity to explain to her about how Croatian is a South Slavic language that has, like most other Slavic languages, an extensive system of inflection. . . and she went running out the door.

Tits up: same same "catsup" but tastier

Tits up: same same “catsup” but tastier

So, even as the temperatures began to fall, the little ones were content and it was decided that we would apply for temporary stay permits which would allow us to stay longer than the prescribed 90 days in any given 180 day period. I had every reason to believe, or so I thought, that it would be something one could accomplish before having breakfast, as the Japanese say. The officials here seemed to think so, too, and we visited them on several occasions while we worked on our applications and showed them our supporting documentation. Then, in an incident that was very awkward for all of us, it was discovered in some fine print of some legal immigration-related text that Natasha and I, as carriers of US passports, could apply for our temporary stay permits here in Split, but her mom would have to f**k off back to her crappy little country and apply for it at the Croatian embassy in Beijing, which, I remind you, is 2,775km from Vientiane (and in the wrong direction, no less). Curious about the origin of the expression “gone tits up,” I discovered that there is no consensus. One person suggests that it’s “Like ‘catsup’ only tastier.”

Natasha's 5th birthday

Natasha’s 5th birthday

And so it was that we all had to leave the speakers of blah blah blah behind because they insisted on kicking Natasha’s mom out. Actually, it wasn’t really like that. We just had to leave as scheduled on December 14, 2014. Natasha’s mom had to have a round-trip ticket to come to Croatia, and her visa was tied to it. Natasha had her 5th birthday in Vientiane, and I ended up with a few weeks to once again consider my next moves. Despite the fact that my butt was now entirely in the wrong place again, my company allowed it because, by some twist of fate, it saved them some money. It was a busy few weeks. We bought an aunt’s parcel of land across from the family house and decided to build, someday, our permanent home there (above a pizza restaurant, of course). I decided that the piece of land that we already had would make a great site for my aquaponics adventure– the rooms of our partially-built house there will make great fish tanks. We did the 1,500km round trip to the Bolaven Plateau to pick up some stuff and tell Billy that compromise, in this case, meant kissing the whole coffee plantation and Wrong Way Farm Stay goodbye– until I could afford a helicopter, anyway. I didn’t get back to this part of the Eurasian peninsula until January 27, 2015, and I did it by going the wrong way (via Japan) and ended up on the wrong side of the Adriatic Sea– in a place called Italy.

My new master plan for the future involves Italian water buffaloes– or, more precisely, it involves the cheese made from their milk, mozzarella di bufala. It’s one of those things that you have to taste where it’s made because even refrigeration is said to change its subtle characteristics. So, when I realized that I’d already stayed 90 days out of the given 180-day period that I was permitted to stay in Croatia, and since my new “package” had just  kicked in, I decided to splurge a little bit by having what turned out to be a very brief affaire de coeur with Italy. My butt had to be elsewhere, after all, and we even had a customer in Italy.

Yes, things can get exponentially worse-- note courtesy of the Italian police

Yes, things can get exponentially worse– note courtesy of the Italian police

I entered into a 6 week rental agreement for an apartment in the beautiful countryside of Rome. But there’s a perfectly good reason why people don’t go to Italy in the middle of winter. It was precisely such weather that I had locked myself into just minutes after receiving the key to my drafty apartment. . . by locking myself out. Italy is a country clearly focused on perplexing us. The hot water tap is marked with a C. There’s a strange porcelain fixture next to the toilet, and it’s not a bathtub. All men must have to sit down to pee because I never noticed any urinals in the public toilets (or had I been misguidedly using the ladies’ room?). And all apartment entry doors, I was later told, are self-locking. It had been suggested by the owner, who was by then returning to central Rome, that I put the internet WiFi device in the outside letter box (of course!). So, without any proper footwear or warm clothing, I stepped out to do just that, closing the door behind me. Having accomplished this task, and as I gripped and tried turning the reluctant knob, first I felt disbelief, then a sense of  utter helplessness. . . What the f**k! Why was the door doing this to me? Here in Split, Croatia, where everything makes sense, the doors do not lock you out, they merely remind you that you’ve forgotten your key when you fish through your pockets and don’t find one. Eventually it becomes a funny little routine. There’s nothing funny, though, about being locked out of your abode when it’s located in a mid-evil hilltop town whose inhabitants have been suspicious of strangers for centuries– especially if you are walking around in socks and assorted light clothing even though it’s close to freezing outside. A few days later, confident that nothing worse could happen to me, my wallet was deftly picked from my pocket on the subway in Rome. The police affixed a note to my forehead explaining that I should be allowed to use the public toilets without paying as I was a stupid American who had just been robbed. Evidently, they are so busy writing such notes that they have no time to police the subways.

From Ancona to Split by international ferry

From Ancona to Split by international ferry. Image found here.

I decided to cut my losses and return to Split as soon as doing so was legal. That was on February 17, 2015. First, on the 16th, I took a train to the coastal city of Ancona. During the 3 weeks I stayed in Italy, I’d been adhering to a diet comprised of one low-carbohydrate meal a day preceded with and followed by as much red wine as I wanted; and, with the help of some exercise, I’d lost 5kg and was feeling good. At the train station in Ancona an apparently intoxicated railway worker rewarded me by shouting, “Hello Richard Gere!” When I boarded the ferry I tried not to look down into the water for fear that I might see Venetian or other turds floating there. In my studies of the Adriatic Sea, I’d learned that the currents flow counter-clockwise– the clean sea water enters from the Albanian side of the Ionian Sea, makes its way up the coast of Montenegro and Croatia, and finally spins around Venice and down the eastern shores of Italy, carrying with it all the turds that have been discharged into it along the way. The ferry operator was Croatian, so even while at port in Ancona, I felt like I was back in Croatia, except that everything was overpriced.

Got my red wine, my e-bike, but where's my family?

Got my red wine, my e-bike, but where’s my family?

This is, as I stated 10 paragraphs before, my third sojourn in Split, and it has carried on for almost a month. I’m getting kind of tired of it, actually. “Sojourn” is the most accurate word there is, as it means “a temporary stay.” And a one-year temporary stay permit is exactly what I’ve applied for. Perpetual travelers who are applying as such are expected to stay in facilities that are registered and certified tourist-ready. Amongst other things, there must be, on the premises when inspected, a bag of some sort to put your dirty laundry in. The owner came to my rescue and got it all sorted within just two weeks. In Croatia, where they still use sun dials to tell the time and letters are hand-carried by postmen between cities, that was a remarkable achievement. My application for temporary stay was accepted (but not yet approved) on March 2, 2015. A few days later I submitted a document that was given to me to HZZO, the Croatian Health Insurance Fund, so now I’m a perpetual traveler with health insurance. All I have to do now is continue waiting. Luckily, to help me through this process, I discovered 5-liter jugs of good table wine for as little as 45 kunas (US$6.19). I’m going to build a raft with the empties and go fishing.

The question foremost in my mind is “How much longer do I have to do my own dishes?” I have a very reliable dishwasher in Vientiane. The problem is, she’s applying for the same temporary stay permit but in her case it is to “reunite” with family in Croatia (me). Natasha can come on her passport and apply when she gets here. So, to speed things up, I confirmed with the embassy in Beijing that the application could be sent to them by post. So I filled out her application and sent it to her to sign. She just needs to add a few documents and send it to Beijing. I used Hrvatska posta, priority, registered. That was on March 4, 2015. According to the tracking feature on their website, it made it to Zagreb, the capital, the next day– in record time. It only had 8,325km more distance to cover to Vientiane. According to the description of events, 5 minutes after “Receive item at office of exchange” in Zagreb, the next major event was “Insert item into bag.” By now I was on the edge of my seat. The plot thickened with the announcement of another remarkable event, “Remove item from bag,” only 12 minutes later. Then, at first I couldn’t believe it, just 2 minutes after that, with hardly time for the suspense to build, the most significant event in the history of postal services occurred: “Insert item into bag.” And there have been bugger all events since (10 days now). A few days ago I emailed their customer service people inquiring why my very important document was spending so much time in a bag in Zagreb. Does “priority” mail mean something different here? The reply was delightful:

Dear Sir,

we would like to inform you that item RB975448494HR has left Croatia 5.3.2015.
In postal terminology term ‘Insert item into bag’  means that the  item has left the country.

Now that was really illuminating. But it makes me wonder, where did it go? Outer space? Does the tracking feature cease to function after an item has been placed into a bag?

To be continued. . .

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The Autumn of 16,647 Kilometers of Lateral Drift

That’s the distance we traveled to return, in my case, to my native state of Massachusetts. Arlo Guthrie, the singer/songwriter, lives here, and he wrote a song by the same name. Throughout the 4 flights we endured to get here, I tried to focus on the bit of the chorus that I could remember:

Now if you could only see
I know you would agree
There ain’t nowhere else to be
Like Massachusetts

But focusing wasn’t easy. My little Lao Helper and our Little One had both only been at such an altitude twice before, and those were short flights. Twice is also the number of times that our Little One had been strapped firmly to a seat, and she expressed her resentment with a mighty fury– for 36 hours. So, the good parent that I am, I tuned her out and watched a lot of movies.

Speaking of enduring, for those of you who endured all of my “lunatic farmer” articles, I’m sorry to say that lunacy can only be overcome by drugs or an honest evaluation of reality, and I’ve chosen to do neither. It’s not entirely my fault, though. There’s a conspiracy brewing, unknowingly led by two Aussies, Ross and Pat, and exacerbated by my darling sister-in-law, Kirsten, who gave me a hallucinogenic sachet for Christmas with a note:

This is a dream pillow for Richard, the Dreamer
It has Mugwort, I harvested on the new moon to stimulate creative energy
It has aromatic herbs mixed in for relaxation
Put it near your pillow to stimulate dreams

Well, I’m not sure if it works, but in the last week since Christmas, I’ve certainly added to the complexity of what would appear to others to be certain and extravagant folly.

The plan– as of January 1, 2014

I know that to a lot of you my sudden and potentially long-term retreat from Southeast Asia may appear as if I’ve pulled up stakes completely, but that’s not the case. While I’m tempted to change the name of my website from Wrong Way Home to Almost Home, I believe that home is actually where my dog is, so until I have a dog, I’m still veering to the left and right of it. I have, however, decided to hesitantly embrace some of the more mundane facts of life, such as getting my tax situation sorted out and beginning to pay into the social security scheme here which is, to my surprise, an obligation, not an option. Meanwhile, I intend to enjoy such extravagances as drinking raw milk, brewing my own beer, and playing with fish and vegetables. After a few years of skill acquisition here where the materials to do so are readily available, I shall pursue the bound-to-be elusive goal of having the best of both worlds by spending half my time in Laos on my coffee plantation and half my time here where, as Arlo suggested, “There ain’t nowhere else to be.”

To the rescue, as usual– beer

Some of you may recall my having mentioned the possibility of brewing beer in conjunction with my aquaponics project on the Bolaven Plateau in Laos. This is because I’ve known for quite some time about the nutritional value of spent grains (a brewing byproduct) as a feed source. Only a lunatic, however, would build a brewery just to feed his fish, but at the time that sounded a lot like something I should do. In Laos, unfortunately, it would be problematic– while getting a permit would be a simple matter of bribing the right official, there is a lack of raw materials available, so I’d spent a lot of time thinking about growing wheat and barley and malting these myself. If I could manage a brew, I’d schemed, I’d give it a coffee twist and sell it at great profit to the Thai tourists who have begun to plague the Plateau.

Here in New England, however, as I look out the window at the cars in the parking lot (we’re renting an apartment) all dusted with snow, it’s damned cold during the winter (in fact, it’s -7C outside right now, which is kind of funny because heat is included in our rental fee so I’m bare chested, almost sweating as I write, just like when I was in Vientiane). This makes utilization of another brewing byproduct, namely, heat, a second compelling reason to mix brewing beer with aquaponics because during the winter a rather tremendous amount of heat is required to keep the fish and plants warm and cozy. Brewing for personal consumption is legal in the USA (it’s definitely illegal in Thailand and a dodgy matter in Laos even though every village has its unregulated distillery). Massachusetts is an especially fine state, however, particularly because in addition to the 760 liters a year that you can brew for yourself here (assuming there are two of you), it offers the wayward citizen a “farmer-brewery” license. I almost fell off my chair when I discovered that. When I was studying what’s required to set up a “nanobrewery” (one step up from the ordinary home brewery), I stumbled upon the fact that a nanobrewery license is unnecessary in Massachusetts as long as it has its farmer-brewery license which allows one to self-distribute the beer you’ve brewed and sell to the public at the brewery. There’s even an unlimited number of “pouring” licenses available for farmer-brewers which I assume means I can pretend to be a pub owner again without the pretense of having a pub. The State hopes that this will encourage farmers to use ingredients grown in Massachusetts. And, to my delight, I discovered that there’s even a maltster here, Valley Malt, so I’ll have a source of locally grown wheat and barley malted by professionals. Maybe all those courses I took at the Siebel Institute of Technology (the oldest brewing school in the States) back in the ’90s will begin to pay off (if I could only remember any of it– they had a free “tasting bar” during breaks between classes).

So, what’s going on with the lunatic farmer and his aquaponics thing in the underutilized greenhouse thing during the frigid New England winter thing, you may wonder? Well, you know, some people just don’t recognize a good idea when they see it (or I’m just useless when it comes to making a good presentation). I’m convinced that the recipe for a successful year-round aquaponics venture for the small Massachusetts farmer (or aspiring farmer) involves a mighty glob of heat generated through the process of composting, a smidgen of passive solar heating, and a dash of beer brewing which, depending on how one utilizes the byproducts, provides all the feed for the fish and contributes immensely if not entirely to the home-sweet-home sensation that these living things require. It appears, though, that I’m going to need my own greenhouse to do it in.

What I can’t afford to do this winter

A pretty nifty aquaponic system that would have been fun to build is only I could afford to.

A pretty nifty aquaponic system that would have been fun to build if only I could afford to.

Darned bank account. . . This is the prototype system that I wanted to set up in one of the greenhouses my bother isn’t using this winter. It represents the greatest extent to which he might have grudgingly let me mess around in there, but I guess I’ll never know. Instead, I’ll just be setting up a small experimental system barren of fish and plants so that I can monitor water temperature and such (see below). What irks me about this is that it’s essentially what he suggested I do in the first place, so it’s an irrational younger-brother older-brother thing. If everything had gone perfectly, I would have stocked the 1,000 liter tank with 150 tilapia or koi fingerlings two weeks from now and by the beginning of April when their farm stand opens for the season, I’d be providing them with 10kg a week of gourmet lettuce mixes. They don’t have their field-grown lettuce until around the middle of May. It wouldn’t have been big business by any stretch of the imagination, but it might have covered some of the basic costs associated with getting it set up. Anyway, the design took months of refinement and I’m kind of fond of it, so any comments that lack sufficient praise will be deleted without mercy.

What I can afford to do this winter

There are plenty of useful experiments pertaining to cold-season aquaponics that can be done.

There are plenty of useful experiments pertaining to cold-season aquaponics that can be done.

Okay, no fish or plants, but plenty of opportunities to experiment. The water will simply flow by gravity from the fish tank to the deep water culture trough from where it will be pumped through 30 meters of 19mm diameter tubing imbedded in the compost heap back to the fish tank. There will be a false bottom under the compost heap from which I want to try extracting the warm, CO2-rich air pulled down through it. I’ve no idea about the size of the extraction fan I’ll need. This method of pulling (or forcing) air through a compost heap is done commercially to cool the compost. I just want enough flow to keep the aerobic bacteria happy and utilize the CO2 they expel. The temperature of that air, the temperature of the system water, etc., are all variables that I want to measure. The whole thing will be inside a greenhouse so there will be a big day/night temperature variation. How will that effect system water temperature? What happens to the temperature in the area that the plants will some day be in when supplemental lighting is used? Really a lot of fun things to learn that will hopefully be useful in future designs.

A highly efficient heat exchange unit. Works great for cooling wort (beer), too.

A highly efficient heat exchange unit. Works great for cooling wort (beer), too.

I also want to find out how much energy (electricity) is required to keep this volume of water (about 1,800 liters) at a temperature between 24 and 26C when the compost is doing its job and maybe even when it isn’t. For this, I’ll use an insulated stainless steel vessel that holds about 50 liters of liquid which will be heated with the same kind of heating element that’s used in electric home water heaters. System water would be heated by cycling it through copper tubing such as that which is shown here, immersed in the hot liquid. The system water would cycle through the copper tubing continuously. When the system water reaches 26C the heating element would turn off. Likewise, when the temperature dropped to 24C it would turn on. Easy stuff. Since I’ve done it once I can say WE home brewers use the same contraption to cool the wort (yet-to-be fermented beer) which, after being held at a boil for about an hour, needs to be chilled very quickly in order to avoid contamination. Connect the dots, and you’d find that cooling a 38 liter batch of beer from from 100C down to 24C would increase the temperature of the system water (1,800 liters) from 24C to 25.57C. So, every time I want to adjust the temperature, all I have to do is brew 38 liters of beer! Easy stuff (joking, of course).

Beware of vicious tilapia!

TILAPIA!!!!!

TILAPIA!!!!!

The vicious nature of tilapia is just one of several reasons I have to move the whole shebang to my dad’s barn/shed thing, if he’ll let me (I’ll pay rent!). It’s not exactly “underutilized” since it is in fact storing numerous piles of crap, but he admitted that the only time he ever uses the electricity in there is when he charges the battery of his little tractor/lawn mower. Anyway, tilapia must be vicious because the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife classify them as a Type C Fish Species. There are only 3 other fish species in this classification. These species require a facility in which they are separated physically and biologically from the aquatic resources of Massachusetts. This facility cannot be located in the 100 year flood plain. It also has to be located within a secure, permanent, and enclosed building. I can only presume that this is to protect innocent passersby from attack because tilapia are a tropical fish and couldn’t survive for a moment outside in a Massachusetts winter (it’s -27C out there now). Okay, in case anyone from the Division is reading this, I’m just joking. I’m sure you have an excellent reason for your requirements and I’m simply too obtuse to figure it out.

The world’s first zero discharge brewery?– introducing Bugger All Brewery

Now it’s time for aquaponics to take its turn at providing a service. I mean, the brewery (even if it’s only going to be a tiny one) can provide much of the fish feed (nutrient source) and heat as a byproduct, so, in return, why not have the aquaponics component treat the waste water? For every barrel of beer that a major producer brews, roughly 7 barrels are discharged into the environment. I read that smaller, craft brewers can manage to discharge only about 3 barrels for each barrel produced. Home brewing aside, if I obtain a license some day to be a farmer-brewer, the only thing that will be discharged into the environment will be CO2 into the air. This can be achieved through the greywater treatment process known as evapotranspiration.

Future site of the Bugger All Brewery

Future site of the Bugger All Brewery

Before I get into this sexy subject in more detail, take a look at where I’m hoping to keep my fish prisoner and brew some beer using Massachusetts produce. Obviously, the big breweries have nothing to fear. I’m well aware that nobody can leave their day job by running a nanobrewery, and I like my non-intensive, well-paying day job, anyway. While I’m tinkering around getting my fish settled in and doing the occasional home brew (most of 2014), I’ll just get the lion’s share of the water I need using a garden hose pulled from my dad’s garage just up the hill a bit and let any greywater from rinsing pots and cleaning bottles run off. But I’ll have to meet certain codes when I’m a full-fledged farmer-brewer, so that’s part of the reason why I’ll harvest rainwater and use evapotranspiration to treat brewery waste water.

Since I’ll be harvesting rainwater, I’ll have to be especially careful about conserving it. The nano-brewer, despite his inability to benefit from economies of scale, has certain advantages. One is being in complete control of the cleaning agents he uses. Few commercial breweries could manage their cleaning needs solely on vinegar and baking soda. This means that after solids are removed from the waste water after cleaning up (these go to compost), only the pH of the water needs to be adjusted. The pH of the water in an aquaponics system tends to gradually go down due to nitrification, so upward pH adjustment (using calcium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide) is part of the fun, anyway. Another advantage of a nano-scale farmer brewery is where that Aussie conspirator, Pat, comes in. Although they don’t attribute the invention of BIAB to him, he was paramount in its dissemination (everyone thought he was a, well, a lunatic). BIAB means Brew in a Bag. You see, when the all-grain home brewing movement began, it was simply assumed that you had to make little tiny versions of large-scale breweries. This investment in shiny, stainless steel or copper equipment, is perhaps the greatest proof that economies of scale really sucks. What they didn’t realize, however, is that we can do some things on a small scale that the big breweries can’t, like put all our ground malt in a bag in 1 vessel, brew it (it’s called a “mash” at this point), then remove them and carry on with the boil. Okay, I’m being overly simplistic here, but, in a nutshell, up to about 1 barrel batches, this will work with one vessel just as well as using the standard 3 vessels, which means less equipment to clean up and a much lower initial investment. Thank you, Pat.

Lacking economies of scale, let’s take advantage of economies of scope

This is about as big as the system will grow by the end of this year.

This is about as big as the system will grow by the end of this year.

It’ll probably take weeks to clean the crap out of my dad’s barn/shed thing. I’ll move my experiment from my brother’s greenhouse up to my dad’s place in March and, in the meantime, I’ll set up my home brew system with brewery codes in mind (the same codes apply, the scale is just smaller). I’ll also obtain, hopefully, an aquaculture license and get some tilapia. If I can’t, I’ll just get some ornamental koi which are considered an aquarium trade fish and don’t require a license. Their poop is as good as any. The system will gradually expand until it looks something like what’s shown here by around the end of 2014.

By the time it starts getting pretty chilly, I’ll have a big pile of bark chips (mulch) mixed with a dash of horse poop for good measure steaming away somewhere undecided at the moment. Heating with compost isn’t anything new, but a French guy who went mostly unnoticed because he wrote his ideas and findings down in the wrong language developed a method of composting wherein high-carbon, low-nitrogen woody biomass (bark chips and such) becomes a balanced, complete compost by way of the bacteria pulling nitrogen out of the air and into the material (also known as “nitrogen fixing”). For more about this, see the organization called Compost Power. During the six months that the woody biomass spends turning into salable compost, it will provide most if not all of the water heating I will require. I’ll have a better idea of the pile size I need after my experiment.

The fish will be arranged in groups of 4 tanks. This is exactly the way the University of the Virgin Islands does it, just at a fraction of the scale. Each tank holds fish at a different stage of growth (cohorts) such that every 6 weeks one tank can be harvested and a fresh cohort of fingerlings can be stocked. The advantage here is that the fish can grow from fingerling stage to tasty adulthood in a dedicated tank without suffering the stress of being moved from one tank to the other. It’s not the most efficient method, but I’m looking at maximizing the chances that the fish make it to the table, and making them the best darned tasting fish when do. I’m looking at a stocking density of a maximum of 40kg per cubic meter of tank water which is very reasonable in comparison to most commercial recirculating aquaculture facilities. With two such systems of the size shown I’ll be harvesting either 40kg of fish every 3 weeks or 80kg of fish every 6 weeks. Nothing particularly exciting.

Plant production at this point is a little more exciting than fish production, but it always will be– somewhere around 50kg a week, using lettuce as an example. I’ll probably focus on lettuces during the cold season and specialized Asian veggies during the warm season (things that would complement my brother’s business).

Assuming Bugger All Brewery can get a farmer-brewer license, it will produce as much beer as the aquaponics component can treat. Since water will be precious hence used sparingly, and because BIAB brewing means I only have one vessel to clean up, I think I’ll be able to manage with 2 barrels of water for every 1 barrel that I produce. The system at the size shown will lose about an average of 1.5% of its volume to evaporation and transpiration a day. That’s about 260 liters of water, so I can brew a maximum of 130 liters of beer a day. A barrel of beer is about 118 liters, and since I never intend, at this location, anyway, to brew more than a barrel a day, that means the aquaponics system is of sufficient size to treat all the water the Bugger uses. At first, of course, I won’t be brewing more than I can drink myself, but that’s not a quantity to be taken lightly. I’ve calculated that that quantity alone will produce enough spent grain to feed the fish (I’ll write about black soldier flies and frass in a later article). If I were to produce a barrel of beer a day as a farmer-brewer, I’d have to get about six pigs to eat the extra spent grains.

So, on a pretty small footprint, and with zero discharge, I’ll be producing fish, vegetables, beer, and compost. That’s got some scope to it.

I guess that’s it for now. Time to find that hallucinogenic sachet and get back to dreamland.

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Trading Rainbow Trout for a Better Mousetrap

I’d dreamed of having the first rainbow trout farm in Laos. That’s part of the reason I chose to lease my little coffee plantation with the waterfall on the Bolaven Plateau at 1,200 meters above sea level. So, it’s hard for me to give them up in this unrelated yet still sort of related project I’m considering in frozen New England. But trout are troublesome. The determining factor was water temperature and its relationship with microorganisms. The latter just won’t be as happy as the trout at 16 to 18C (60 to 65F). Swallow hard and accept that, then all sorts of possibilities come up. I was lucky to get advice from a professor at the University of Hawaii. He suggested the cold-tolerant blue tilapia. Cool, I thought, I just killed 750 of their relatives, the more common Nile tilapia.

Blue tilapia will survive in far worse water conditions than rainbow trout

This photo, courtesy of Aquaponics USA, reveals the blue tilapia to be a hardy-looking if not attractive fish. Blue tilapia are mouth-brooders, meaning the females keep their eggs and fry in their mouth until they are able to take care of themselves. And they are essentially fry producing machines. I already know a lot about tilapia, especially how to kill them, so I’m now very comfortable with this decision (I mean to raise them, not kill them prematurely). This means I can bring the system water temperature up to 21 to 24C (70 to 75F). Sure, this will require more propane, but I’ve come up with some additional ideas on insulation and the design of passive solar water heating/solids settling tanks.

With blue tilapia, I don't need to worry about accidentally overheating the system water

To ease the expansion of the system in the fall and the ultimate dismantling of it in the spring, I’ve decided on maintaining a series of independent aquaponic production lines. Each would have a fish tank holding about 1,000 liters (260 gallons), a hydroponic trough of about 5.6 square meters (60 square feet), and a passive solar heating/solids settling component holding about 500 liters (130 gallons) now located outside of the enclosure in its own insulated box. I would stock the first tank with 50 blue tilapia fingerlings and wait for them to create more fry (about 1 month). I would divide these fry into two cohorts in the second and third tank. At that point, so as not to be up to my ears in tilapia fry, all the tanks would get a false bottom, a screen, to prevent the female tilapia from picking up their eggs off the bottom. They could then concentrate on growing (the main reason why female tilapia grow more slowly than male tilapia is due to all the time they spend mouth-brooding and not eating).

With three production lines up, I would focus on keeping track of the water heating costs and the environmental conditions inside the enclosure throughout the winter. I’ve estimated the costs for this system as follows:

  • Fish tanks– Used 275 gallon (1,045 liter) IBC @ $105 x 3 = $315
  • Solids settling/passive solar component– Recycled closed head steel drums @ $16 x 9 = $144
  • Wood for ceiling panels– 2 x 4 x 8′ pressure treated lumber @ $2.77 x 72 = $200
  • Rigid insulation board for ceiling panels– 12 sheets @ $10 = $120
  • Posts for ceiling support– 2 x 4 x 8′ pressure treated lumber @ $2.77 x 9 = $25
  • Burlap roll– $65
  • Wood for hydroponic troughs– 2 x 4 x 8′ pressure treated lumber @ 2.77 x 36 = $100
  • Wood for hydroponic troughs– 4′ x 8′ pressure treated plywood @ $27 x 5 = $135
  • Wood for sumps– 2 x 6 x 8′ pressure treated lumber @ $5 x 6 = $30
  • Bathroom exhaust fan– $14 x 3 = $42
  • Greenhouse plastic– $98
  • Assorted plumbing materials– $100
  • Pumps– Laguna Max Flo 600 (about 1,000 LPM at 90cm head) @ $82 x 3 = $246
  • Aeration– Hydrofarm AAPA45L 20-Watt 45-LPM @ $38 x 6 = $228
  • Raft material– Dow Styrofoam 1.5″ blueboard @ $30 x 6 = $180
  • Straw bales– 160 @ $2 = $320
  • Tankless water heater– EZ101 = $145
  • Propane regulator– $25
  • EZ sediment filter– $25
  • EZ service valves– $135
  • Propane tanks– @ $30 x 2 = $60

A total of eight 3-trough systems could fit in my brother's greenhouse for 1,440 square feet of raft area

The total is $2,738 not including fish, crayfish, lettuce seeds, etc. An excellent source of information about year-round aquaponics in a greenhouse (in their case, a renovated one) is Colorado Aquaponics. Their system is a community-scale one which provides consumers in their otherwise “food desert” with fresh produce all year. They have 1,200 square feet of deep water culture rafts which could produce more than 20,000 pounds of lettuce per year. That’s 16.66 pounds per square foot. That means the system shown above can produce more than 3,000 pounds of lettuce per year, or about 60 pounds per week. If production in the system were geared towards mesclun and spring mixes, according to a Vermont study comparing retail prices at farmers’ markets and grocery stores, a pound of produce is worth between $5.83 and $9.64. Taking the median of $7.74 per pound, that’s $464 per week. Essentially, the above costs would be paid for after 6 weeks of full production. I could carry on counting the proverbial chickens, but I think it’s clear that there is a fairly robust potential return on investment. If one were to really count his chickens before they’ve hatched, consider how many of these systems would fit into my brother’s greenhouse. Yup, 8 systems. That would produce 480 pounds of mesclun a week worth $3,715. That’s close to $200,000 a year. And, by the way, since we’re using blue tilapia instead of rainbow trout, the whole thing could be easily moved outdoors while the existing greenhouse is doing its thing. I’d say that’s a fair trade for the rainbow trout.

 

 

 

Posted in Aquaponics, Construction, Rainbow Trout, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cold Season Aquaponics in Underutilized Greenhouses– How to Improve the Livelihood of the Family Farmer

Now that I’m dealing with agriculture and aquaculture extension people and the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program, I’ve decided to remove “Lunatic Farmer” from my article titles. For my regular readers (all three of you), I promise that this will be my last “thinking out loud” article. You will soon be rewarded for your loyalty with the gut-wrenching story of my involvement in the demise of 750 baby tilapia. But, first, I need somewhere that I can point people to.

Living in one of the world’s least developed countries, it’s been difficult to get used to the idea of potentially doing things in a mostly developed country like the USA. At first I thought I’d just heat water by filling a used steel barrel and building a fire under it, just like they do here.  Anyway, as this has evolved, and with the modest chance of the US taxpayer footing part of the bill, I’ve come up with some common-sense changes and improvements which I’ll discuss below. But it doesn’t have to be expensive. The coordinator for a project in Hawaii (a professor at the University of Hawaii) confirmed this via a personal communication I received from him:

. . . Please note that when most people build aquaponics systems they want one or two more bells and whistles than someone else has.  We started off on a different foot.  We started off from the point of view of the farmer where capital costs and operating costs must be subtracted from gross sales. Our system is 4-8 times cheaper than other systems around here.

Statement of Purpose (Modified)

Underutilized greenhouse in Massachusetts-- look at all that space!

The importance of local, family farms such as Applefield Farm can be likened to the importance of local farmers’ markets. They are not only places where people stop by on their way home from work to pick up fresh, safe produce for their dinner table, they are also meeting places, of sorts, for like-minded community members. By supporting these farmers, the community is getting more value for their “food dollar” and helping to circulate the money within the community rather than sending it to distant places. Applefield Farm is currently open from April until late October. For the next five months the community must rely on supermarkets and their questionable produce which, it is often said, travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there. By utilizing a temporary aquaponics system in a greenhouse enclosure within their 12,000 square foot existing greenhouse, Applefield Farm could stay open longer in the fall and open earlier in the spring—in fact, they could probably open a few days a week in the winter to provide fresh, healthy produce to the determined locavores in the community year round.

The possibility of increasing gross earnings through aquaponics for family farms is not limited to those with existing greenhouses such as my brother. In fact, it may be the deciding factor in a farmer’s decision to build a greenhouse in the first place. I suspect my brother spent many sleepless nights wondering if he was doing the right thing by making such a heavy investment. But if it can be shown that with a little ingenuity a greenhouse in a cold climate could function as a multipurpose facility, improving the family farmer’s livelihood, then it should be taken into consideration.

Indeed, this could be of benefit to both the family farm and the nerdy aquaponics enthusiast in town with the small backyard. The aspiring non-traditional farmer could inquire about the possibility of renting some area in the conventional farmer’s greenhouse while he’s not using it, promising not to break anything, of course. What is there to lose for either of them? Could this be the start of a new cottage industry of nerds producing local, fresh crops for us in the cold season?

This is a proposal for a low-cost prototype system which would aid greatly in determining the potential and limitations of such a venture.

Why Aquaponics?

Both aquaponics and hydroponics are proven methods for high density production of plants in enclosures. Startup and running costs are the limiting factors, especially for year-round production. Hydroponics is by far the more mainstream method, but aquaponics is catching up quickly. Aquaponics is the natural choice for a family farmer who believes in the concept of organic farming whether certified or not. It is organic be default. A myriad of microorganisms form a symbiotic army tasked with converting fish waste and excess feed into the nutrients that the plants require while making the system water safe for its return to the fish. Hydroponics is sterile. The nutrients are produced in factories and transported to the farm in trucks, whereas in aquaponics they are produced on site within the system itself. Also, an aquaponics system does not need to have its system water changed; just top it off now and then when it starts getting low. With hydroponics, system water must periodically be completely discharged and replaced because of the build up of salts. Lastly, studies have shown that aquaponics is significantly more productive than inorganic hydroponics for production of food plants in greenhouses.

Summary of System Modifications

  • Heat source– At first I considered an inexpensive wood-fired spa heater, but since this project can now be loosely defined as a scientific experiment, I’ve decided to use a tankless “on-demand” liquid propane water heater. The EZ101 is rated at 42,000 btu and at $145 it seems like a good deal. Liquid propane is considered a “green” alternative energy source. Unlike wood, it would allow us to keep track of how much heat energy is put into the system by keeping records of usage.
  • Fish tanks– Although fabricating one big rectangular one out of plywood and framing materials and lining it with greenhouse plastic would work, I don’t think it’s wise to skimp in this area. First of all, two is better than one in terms of redundancy. That’s why each circular, fiberglass tank will have its own pump. If one pump fails, stop feeding the fish and alternate flow with one pump until a replacement is found. Also, circular tanks are, to a degree, self-cleaning, and solids are more easily removed. Plus, a modest current can be generated and rainbow trout are said to appreciate that. The tanks are small enough that they could be moved out of the greenhouse when the space becomes needed.
  • Insulation for fish tanks and hydroponic troughs– Shredded newspaper was a pretty crappy idea. It would turn to mush with the slightest condensation. I was very pleasantly surprised to learn about sheep wool insulation. I didn’t even know it existed. Not only does it absorb and buffer moisture, it releases heat as it does so. The 4″ (10cm) thick material has an R-value of 13. Presto, potential condensation problems mostly solved.
  • Insulation board for the enclosure– beefier, r-5, 1-inch boards, painted white on the inside to reflect and diffuse natural light. Update: See “The Straw Bale Solution,” below.
  • Enclosure for the barrel clarifiers/passive solar heating units– Shiny, corrugated aluminum or steel partial enclosure with clear plastic cover. Still working on the design here.
  • Hydroponic trough water depth– stopped trying to fix things that aren’t broken by lowering the water depth from 50cm to the more commonplace 30cm. Still plenty of head room for the Australian red claw crayfish.
  • Sump water depth– lowered to 15cm, still plenty of volume.
  • 2013/14 winter experiment– it would be extremely useful to remotely monitor and record the relevant environmental conditions (air temps, water temp, humidity, natural light, etc.) that occur in a mini-prototype before the bigger one is build for winter 2014/15 (no fish or plants).
  • Update: Contingency plan– It’s been pointed out that trout are tricky, so I’ve added a contingency plan in case I kill them all. I’ve also decided to increase the capacity of the fish tanks in order to lower the stocking density.

Modified System Overview (Update: See “The Straw Bale Solution,” below)

Aquaponics system showing enclosure and stages of expansion

Nothing much has changed here except improvements to maintain water temperature in the various vessels. Fish tank water is pushed up from the bottom of the center of the tanks and flows by gravity into a 4″ PVC pipe. Not shown, a serviceable manifold will be designed from which 1 flexible hose of suitable diameter will supply, by gravity, the first barrel of each clarifier unit. The system water will pass through the barrels consecutively and spill from the third barrel into the hydroponic trough. The barrels will be equipped with baffles as in sewer systems. Each barrel will have a tap at the bottom for removal of settled solids. From the hydroponic troughs, water will flow by gravity to the sump. From the sump, two pumps, each capable of exchanging one fish tank’s water volume per hour, will return system water to the respective tanks.

  • Fish tanks– 2 cylindrical fiberglass tanks with a capacity of about 2,300 3,000 liters (605 790 gallons) each for a total volume of 4,300 6,000 liters (1,210 1,580 gallons)
  • Pumps– 2 pumps each capable of pumping 2,300 3,000 liters (605 790 gallons)
  • Aeration– A 70 LPM air pump for each fish tank and hydroponic trough
  • Hydroponic component– 5 to 7 (only 5 shown above) troughs with a water depth of 30cm (12 inches) and surface area of 5.6 square meters (60 square feet) each.
  • Total clarifier volume– 3,830 liters (1,008 gallons) @ 7 troughs
  • Sump– 450 liters (118 gallons)
  • Total system water–  approximately 20 21.4 cubic meters (5,250 5,630 gallons) @ 7 troughs

The Straw Bale Solution (New!)

Straw bales for the enclosure-- why did it take me so long to think of that?

If I were doing this in Laos, I would use woven polypropylene “rice bags” with rice husks for insulated walls wherever they would not block the sun. I’ve kind of envied the Western permaculture folks with their straw-bale homes and such, so now’s my chance. Using straw bales is such a good idea for this purpose that I’m surprised how long it took me to think of it. First of all, they are something a family farm can easily obtain if they don’t have a source already. Secondly, compared to 1″ thick rigid insulation board with an R-value of 5, these things rock. And, lastly, they should work well in this application for the very same reasons that they are not recommended for humid locations. Here I’m taking a giant leap of faith in saying that they will have a huge buffering effect to control humidity (my second-most worrisome issue after temperature). A natural material just like the sheep wool insulation mentioned above, if they absorb a lot of moisture from the humid environment, they will deal with it and release heat.

I like the idea so much I've added another view

A stack of 5 bales would give a ceiling height of about 205cm (6’9″). With some buttresses built in here and there, the whole thing could go up an a matter of hours with a small crew and plenty of cold beer. I can almost feel the underside of my forearms itching already. Before establishing Applefield Farm in 1981, my brother, Steve, used to cut people’s hay and I, a teenager at the time, sometimes helped out. Using straw bales would kind of bring things full circle. I suspect that after a season of intense humidity buffering, the straw bales would be getting a bit “mature” with a good bit of aerobic decomposition in progress. But, if they are intended to be used as mulch, they will have actually increased in value.

With such robust insulation for walls, I couldn’t resist upgrading the ceiling insulation to 4″ sheep wool insulation.

Fabrication and Underlying Principles

Except for the 2 fiberglass fish tanks which are small enough to be moved without the use of any heavy equipment, all components will be designed such that they can simply be placed upon the existing greenhouse’s concrete floor and bolted together. The hydroponic troughs and sump will be lined with 2 layers of greenhouse plastic. All water holding vessels will be insulated with condensation-proof sheep wool insulation held in place by breathable agriculture grade burlap. The system and its enclosure will be designed for quick and easy assembly in the fall and dismantling in the spring. It will grow (expand) as the fish consume more and more feed until it reaches an equilibrium. It is difficult to predict how quickly this will happen and how many hydroponic troughs the fish will be able to support. Indeed, discerning this is one of the purposes of the experiment. However, certain broad assumptions may be made based on what is known about rainbow trout growth and feed rates. And, it has been established that 60 to 100g of feed put into the system daily can support 1 square meter of growing plants in deep channel culture. From this, we can anticipate something like the following scenario.

Stage I

It is estimated that it will take 8 months from receipt of 1,000 eyed rainbow trout eggs (minimum order quantity) to fully pan-size, 275g (10oz) fish. That means getting started in mid-July if the entire system is to be dismantled and removed from the greenhouse by mid-March. For the first 2 months, only space for 1 fish tank is required. During this period, no system enclosure is necessary; the existing, permanent greenhouse will do the job. In fact, in order to maintain water temperature at between 16 and 18C (60 to 65F), shade cloth during the day and the addition of 8.5C (47F) groundwater may be required. Since the one fish tank will be well insulated and shaded, and will have a volume of about 2,300 3,000 liters (605 790 gallons), any temperature changes would not be sudden and could be corrected accordingly. The first hydroponic trough could be added to the fledgling system any time there is space. The sooner the better, because naturally forming bacteria will begin to colonize and multiply on its surfaces (a good thing). The troughs will also contain substrate (hiding places for the Australian red claw crayfish in the form of PVC pipe cutoffs) which will increase the surface area for the microorganisms. In principle, deep water culture (raft) aquaponics does not need a separate bio-filtration unit. Depending on the feed consumption of the fish, the first 4′ x 4′ raft (Dow blue board) may be set afloat on the first hydroponic trough as early as the 1st of September.

Stages II through V to VII

The existing greenhouse will probably provide enough of a greenhouse effect until mid- to late-fall. Daily replenishment of system water losses through transpiration and evaporation (and solids removal), estimated at 1 to 2% per day, with heated groundwater may be sufficient to keep the system water at the target temperature. When this is no longer sufficient, it would probably be about the time that the temporary enclosure should go up. The decision when to begin putting it up should be based on observation and common sense. It should be fabricated and ready to be put in place well in advance.

It’s impossible to estimate accurately when the system will be at or exceeding Stage V. What we do know, however, is that when the fish reach an average weight of about 140g (5oz), the system will likely be maxed out. It is possible, however, that the fish could by then be supporting a Stage VI or even VII. But, regardless of how much the hydroponic component has expanded, the fish will simply be running out of room. The stocking density will be approximately 60 46kg per cubic meter (1/2 1/3 pound per gallon). In the worst case scenario, we could begin eating them.

I will know in more detail when I get information from the eyed egg supplier about the growth rate of their rainbow trout at 17C. It’s unusual to have a controlled water temperature, a luxury reserved for recirculating (RAD) systems. Regardless, I think it is entirely likely that the system will be supporting 5 to 7 hydroponic troughs growing lettuce by mid-November to mid-December.

Heating and Ventilation– Why It Will Work

Twenty 21.4 cubic meters (5,250 5,630 gallons) of insulated warm water in an enclosure covering 190 square meters (2,024 square feet) is a significant, if not tremendous, heat sink, as is the exposed concrete floor. But the ingenious, if I may say so myself, component in this design is the passive solar barrel heaters that also function as solids settling tanks. Admittedly, a better, more efficient design may be called for. The contribution that this component will make to heating and environmental conditions within an enclosure will be studied over the winter of 2013/14. See “The Mini-Experiment” below.

Additional water heating will, however, be required, and, tentatively, I believe a liquid propane “on-demand” tankless water heater is the way to go. The one I’m considering would be installed just outside the system enclosure and would be controlled by a thermostat to heat water to a certain temperature at night. Likewise, its venting duct will be enclosed in a box made of metal or other suitable material so that the dry heat that it radiates can be injected into the enclosure (a large computer fan should be sufficient.

As for ventilation, since the system must facilitate growth (expansion), extraction fans will have to be mounted on each 8′ x 8′ lightweight panel that serves as the back wall of the enclosure. (Nope, better to stack straw bales for the walls and put the extraction fans in the ceiling panels). These would be controlled such that they turn on at a certain air temperature or humidity level within the system enclosure. In extreme situations, the clear plastic at the front of the enclosure could be manually rolled up to allow maximum relief. Cold nighttime temperatures will not harm the plants as their roots will be comfortable, but humidity and overheating might.

The Living Components

Eyed eggs ship well and are free of pathogens-- they are also all females, which means they grow faster and taste better (photo courtesy of Dabie Fish Hatchery)

Rainbow trout have been chosen over tilapia for the obvious reason that they thrive at cooler water temperatures. I was also pleasantly surprised to read in the literature available that even at a pan size of 275g (10oz), at 16 to 18C (60 to 65F), they can consume as much as 1.9% of their body weight per day. Ideally, eyed eggs that are certified free from listed pathogens should be sought out and hatched out oneself. If this were done in one of the two fish tanks, the natural microorganisms would begin to colonize the system earlier. A simple biofilter could be added to aid in the process. By stocking twice as many fish as the system can handle at full capacity, production of food plants can begin twice as quickly and the system will reach its full potential twice as fast.

With deep water culture aquaponics lettuce grows faster and at greater densities that in the field

The aim of this experiment is to reach and maintain a system water temperature of 16 to 18C (about 60 to 65F) even in the dead of winter and ascertain whether or not this is feasible. Rainbow trout grow quickly at this temperature. There are many cool climate plants that would also do well with a root zone temperature in this area. Watercress is just one of them. West Virginia University did a study on which plants do well in a flow-through aquaponic system using 12C (53.6F) trout effluent water and published a long list of suitable ornamental plants and vegetables including many lettuces. Based solely on lettuce production, and obviously counting chickens before they’ve hatched, the system is capable of producing over 10,000 heads of lettuce before it is dismantled in the spring.

These fellows are not just tasty, they will clean the hydroponic troughs

One more objective is to create a simulated ecosystem with more complete cycling of nutrients and more effective biological controls through the incorporation of more species and phyla– biodiversity. Crayfish and freshwater prawns have been successfully introduced into hydroponic troughs in aquaponic systems at low densities. Stick-Fins Fish Farm in Florida has been breeding Australian red claw crayfish that can reproduce at lower water temperatures which are roughly in the range that this system will be using. They provide “small breeders” that ship 6 males and 12 females to the box. One box will be stocked in each hydroponic trough. Their job will be to consume the fish waste and uneaten feed that does not get removed by the clarifiers; and, hopefully, they will reproduce. If this were the case, they could be reared in ponds outside over late spring and summer and harvested in the fall, and the process could be repeated.

Contingency Plan– What if I Kill the Rainbow Trout?

A professor at the University of Hawaii and grantee of the same grant that I’m likely to apply for commented that “. . . rainbow trout are notorious for being sensitive to less than pristine water quality.  You may have trouble keeping your fish alive if you use trout.  I would suggest cold tolerant tilapia, Oreochromis aureus, the so called blue tilapia.” This is sound advice. I’m determined, however, to give rainbows a try, but I realize the need for a contingency plan in case I send them to their maker before their time. The role of the fish is to metabolize feed and supply the nutrients to the plants via the plethora of microorganisms in the system. For this, any fish will do. If I kill the rainbows at an early stage, I could perhaps invite the fish in my brother’s backyard pond inside for the winter, or I could buy some koi. Koi seem like a good choice. In such a case I’d raise the water temperature to 24C (75F). The Australian red claw crayfish would be happier. It is hoped, however, that the fish harvest will offset the additional propane and electricity costs associated with cold season production, so a pricier fish that requires less water heating is preferred.

The Mini-Experiment (Also See Mini-Experiment II, below)

Let's get an idea what conditions would be in there over the winter of 2013/14

Having a good idea beforehand of roughly what it will be like inside the “greenhouse within the greenhouse” before the bigger project goes ahead over the winter of 2014/15 would be tremendously helpful. As such, I’m considering setting up an experimental hydroponic trough, passive solar barrel array, and enclosure. Remote climate monitoring equipment isn’t that expensive these days. I’d like to know what the temperature is outside, inside the existing greenhouse, and inside the enclosure. Of course, it would also be prudent to monitor the water temperature (it would be circulated with an aquarium pump), humidity, and the quality and quantity of natural light over the winter of 2013/2014. Incidentally, the red shafts in the sketch represent the elevation of the sun at noontime in mid-fall and mid-winter.

Mini-Experiment II– with Modified Passive Solar Component

Mini-Experiment with (possibly) improved passive solar component design

Google Sketchup is an excellent tool for playing around with designs, and it’s free. It let’s you design things that Sir Issac Newton would balk at, though. For those of you who have been wondering why the ceiling appears to be defying gravity, it’s just that I couldn’t be bothered showing it either (a) suspended from the existing structure’s robust steel framework or (b) using simple wooden posts attached where necessary to the hydroponic troughs. Anyway, as I was turning the mini-experiment into one that incorporates straw bales, I also hit on what may be an improved passive solar component design. For all apparent unenclosed areas, imagine battens and draped greenhouse plastic.

Conclusion and Discussion

Both the rainbow trout and the cool climate plants can tolerate periods of very low temperatures. The red claw crayfish, however, will likely die at water temperatures of 10C (50F) or less. It would not, therefore, be a catastrophe if water temperatures cannot be maintained at 16 to 18C (about 60 to 65F). The fish would simply eat less, grow more slowly, and provide fewer nutrients to the hydroponic component. The plants would grow more slowly. The availability of light is certainly an issue.

Based on information kindly provided to me, the “consumables” involved in aquaponic lettuce production (seeds, Oasis cubes, etc.) cost about $0.12 per head of lettuce. Considering the retail price of lettuce in the winter, at about 10,000 heads, that would leave a lot of room for propane, labor, and electricity. I suspect the estimated value of the fish ($3,250) would cover the cost of propane and electricity, leaving a healthy reward for the family farmer’s efforts.

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Revised Lunatic Farmer’s Guide to Aquaponics over the Frigid New England Winter

My recent article about this was basically a “thinking out loud” kind of thing which my readers are used to and have hence by now almost entirely stopped reading my blog. I think I’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of coming up with a prototype that is neither too large nor too small and more efficient, as well. I’ve even priced it out.

Statement of Purpose

Underutilized greenhouse in Massachusetts-- look at all that space

The importance of local, family operated farms such as Applefield Farm can be likened to the importance of local farmers’ markets. They are not only places where people stop by on their way home from work to pick up fresh, safe produce for their dinner table, they are also meeting places, of sorts, for like-minded community members. By supporting these farmers, the community is getting more value for their “food dollar” and helping to circulate the money within the community rather than sending it to distant places. Applefield Farm is currently open from April until late October. For the next five months the community must rely on supermarkets and their questionable produce which, it is often said, travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there. By utilizing a temporary aquaponics system in a greenhouse enclosure within their 12,000 square foot existing greenhouse, Applefield Farm could stay open longer in the fall and open earlier in the spring—in fact, they could probably open a few days a week in the winter to provide fresh, healthy produce to the determined locavores in the community year-round. This is a proposal for a low-cost prototype system which would aid greatly in determining the limitations and potential of such a venture.

Prototype Overview

A partially-insulated enclosure within the existing greenhouse

The prototype shown here would temporarily occupy approximately 1,550 square feet (144 square meters), or roughly 13% of the existing greenhouse floor area. Since the enclosure is protected from the wind and other elements, it can be made of lightweight materials. In this prototype, the enclosure is designed using simple 8′ x 8′ panels made from 8-foot lengths of 1 x 3 furring strip boards to which 4′ x 8′ sheets of insulation board are applied. The wall panels would be bolted together and the ceiling panels would be suspended from the existing structure, resting also on the top edges of the wall panels. The fish tank, 5 hydroponic troughs, and sump would be framed using 8-foot lengths of 2 x 4 lumber. The panels that form these vessels would have plywood applied only to the inside, enabling one to bolt the panels together for ease of assembly and disassembly. The vessels would be wrapped in agricultural grade burlap to hold shredded newspaper or another such insulation material in the voids between the studs. Solar energy would be captured passively using the fifteen 52-gallon barrels which also serve as solids settling tanks (clarifiers). Additional water heating will be supplied as necessary by a wood-fired 35,000 BTU outdoor water heater.

Aquaponic System Overview

Maximizing the "KISS" principle

The objective here is not to explore the limits of commercial aquaponics, but to have a simple system that is inexpensive to set up and run by a conventional farmer who’s just getting his feet wet, so to speak, in aquaponics. The stocking density maximum, at 23kg (51lbs) fish per cubic meter (264 gallons), will be a little less than 30% of the 80kg (176lbs) that a commercial recirculating operation would try to achieve. That’s 500 fish at an average plate-size weight of 250 to 300g (9 to 11 ounces). Water in the system shown here is lifted only once, about 3′ (90cm). All further movement is courtesy of gravity. The only plumbing necessary is from the water pumps located in the sump to the adjacent fish tank and from there to the solids settling barrels (clarifiers). The 150 gallon (570 liter) combined capacity of the three barrels is a fairly robust volume of water. The choice of 3 barrels per trough instead of two was driven by a desire to maximize the capture of solar energy. I actually want some solids to make it into the troughs as that will be the sole source of feed for the red claw crayfish that will be stocked there. Water from the troughs will simply spill over into, in the case of the first trough, the sump, or into a gutter that feeds the sump in the case of the other four. This will be facilitated by simply draping the plastic liner material over the spill-side edge. As this is a prototype, ordinary greenhouse plastic will line all water-holding vessels, but a better removable liner solution should be sought in the future if the project shows prospect. Here is some basic system information:

  • Fish tank water volume = 6 cubic meters (1,579 gallons)
  • Hydroponic component = 5 troughs with an area of 5.6 square meters (60 square feet) each. The water depth is 50cm (19.5 inches).
  • Total clarifier volume = 2.85 cubic meters (750 gallons)
  • Total system volume = approximately 24 cubic meters (6,340 gallons)
  • Flow rate = 2,850 LPH (750 GPH) per pump (2 pumps, so about 1 fish tank water exchange per hour is possible)

Eyed eggs ship well and are free of pathogens-- they are also all females, which means they grow faster and taste better

Ideally, rainbow trout eyed eggs that are certified free of listed pathogens should be obtained from a reliable supplier such as Troutlodge and Dabie Fish Hatchery (who generously provided this photo) in early August, hatched out, and reared in a small flow-through system for a month or two before the fingerlings are stocked in the aquaponic system. This would require little space and the groundwater in Massachusetts is cold enough to make this feasible without a negative impact on the environment. For purposes of this experiment, however, fingerlings will likely need to be purchased from a hatchery. When they reach plate-size, about an average of 275g (10 ounces), the system  should be able to support 500 fish consuming 1.9% of their body weight per day. With 28 square meters (300 square feet) of hydroponic grow area, that will put the amount of feed consumed each day at just under 100g per square meter of grow area. My strategy would be to stock twice that number, 1,000 fingerlings, so as to halve the time it takes for the system to begin producing greens. It will also halve the time it takes to get all the hydroponic troughs producing. When the 1,000 fish reach a weight of about 140g (5 ounces) they will have to be removed, gradually, keeping the system feed rate at about 2.8kg (a little over 6 pounds) per day. This system can be on the high side of the feed/area ratio because the stocking density will be lower and the hydroponic troughs are deeper than in most deep water culture aquaponic systems (i.e. a greater total system water volume). Total fish production is estimated to be between 200 and 250kg (440 to 550 pounds).

With deep water culture aquaponics lettuce grows faster and at greater densities than in the field

The aim of this experiment is to reach and maintain a system water temperature of 16 to 18C (about 60 to 65F) even in the dead of winter. Rainbow trout grow quickly at this temperature. There are many cool climate plants that would also do well with a root zone temperature in this area. Watercress is just one of them. West Virginia University did a study on which plants do well in a flow-through aquaponic system using 12C (53.6F) trout effluent water and published a long list of suitable ornamental plants and vegetables including many lettuces. Four of the hydroponic troughs will be devoted to lettuce varieties as these can be considered the cash crop, and the 5th will be a test area for a variety of other plants.  Based solely on lettuce production, the hydroponic component of this system, assuming 1 to 2 weeks for seedling production in trays with artificial lighting, 4 weeks on the water with 4 hours of supplemental lighting a day, and 6 crops during a growing season, has a production potential of 7,680 heads.

These fellows are not just tasty, they will clean the hydroponic troughs

One more objective is to create a simulated ecosystem with more complete cycling of nutrients and more effective biological controls through the incorporation of more species and phyla– biodiversity. Crayfish and freshwater prawns have been successfully introduced into hydroponic troughs in aquaponic systems at low densities. Stick-Fins Fish Farm in Florida has been breeding Australian red claw crayfish that can reproduce at lower water temperatures which are roughly in the range that this system will be using. They provide “small breeders” that ship 6 males and 12 females to the box. One box will be stocked in each hydroponic trough. Their job will be to consume the fish waste and uneaten feed that does not get removed by the clarifiers, and, hopefully, to reproduce.

Startup Costs

The costs listed below are by no means all of the costs associated with fabricating and stocking the prototype system. I suspect there are “hidden” costs in excess of 20% of the total shown below. In the pursuit for financial assistance in the form of a grant of some kind, this is the amount to be used. It is hoped that other costs are recouped through the sale of produce.

Enclosure:

  • 151 lengths of 1 x 3 furring strip boards, 8′ in length @ $1.53 = $231
  • 44 sheets of 4′ x 8′ insulation board @ $10 = $440
  • Miscellaneous hardware = $50

Aquaponic system:

  • 163 lengths of 2 x 4 lumber, 8′ lengths @ $2.84 = $463
  • 20 sheets of 4′ x 8′ plywood @ $21 = $420
  • 1 roll agriculture grade burlap = $65
  • 15 used 55-gallon drums @ $15 = $225
  • Miscellaneous hardware = $50
  • 2 Laguna 900 GPH pumps @ $110 = $220
  • 4 Hydrofarm 70 LPM air pumps @ $53 = $212
  • Miscellaneous hoses, water test kit, etc. = $50
  • 10 sheets 4′ x 8′ Dow Styrofoam 1.5″ Blueboard @ $30 = $300

Other:

  • 14 T5 HO fluorescent lights @ $138 = $1,932
  • 1 Chofu wood-fired water heater = $863
  • Greenhouse plastic = $200
  • Labor for construction = $2,240

Total = $7,961

Conclusion and Discussion

Both the rainbow trout and the cool climate plants can tolerate periods of very low temperatures. The red claw crayfish, however, will likely die at water temperatures of 10C (50F) or less. It would not, therefore, be a catastrophe if water temperatures cannot be maintained at 16 to 18C (about 60 to 65F). The fish would simply eat less, grow more slowly, and provide fewer nutrients to the hydroponic component. The plants would grow more slowly. I am confident, however, that with the large passive solar component for daytime water heating (if only maintaining the morning temperature throughout the day) and the external 35,000 BTU wood-fired water heater, the optimum temperature can be maintained. The temperature of such a large volume of water would not change quickly. The large volume of water also acts as a heat sink. I would be very pleased to find that two systems of this size could, in fact, share one external water heater. Humidity is a foreseeable issue, but I believe it can be tackled in a number of ways, including injection of warm, dry air for ventilation. This would increase cost so it would only be done to keep humidity at a tolerable level.

The running costs (electricity, cord wood, labor, etc.) will be evaluated and a complete cost for production per plant/fish determined after the trial season. The potential gross revenue from the aquaculture component (the rainbow trout), estimated at an average of $2 per fish for the fish that are removed from the system before becoming plate size, and $5 per fish for the plate size fish, is $1,000 and $2,500, respectively. Considering fish losses of 5%, the total retail value would be $3,325. At first glance, one could easily dismiss this as hardly worth the effort. When you view the fish as small nutrient production units, however, a surprise is in store. The fish waste and uneaten feed will have provided most of the nutrients for plant growth (fish feed does not contain sufficient iron, potassium, and calcium), will have fed the red claw crayfish, and the solid waste removed daily from the clarifiers can be used as is for fertilizer or, preferably, converted to worm castings through the gut of composting worms (part of Phase II).  The potential gross revenue from the hydroponic component of the system, assuming a yield over a season of 7,680 heads of lettuce at wintertime retail prices of $1.50 per head, would be $11,520. Thus, ignoring the red claw crayfish, the potential gross revenue over the winter would be $14,845. Incidentally, rafts with 1 to 2-week old seedlings are placed at one end of the hydroponic component and, over a four week period, are gradually floated to the other end. This means that the 6 crops can be grown incrementally and harvested weekly over 24 weeks. This is an advantage if the farmer were to open once a week to sell his produce. Weekly production of lettuce in this case would be 320 heads. A weekly gross revenue of $480 might have its own appeal over the long New England (or any cold climate) winter. This all pales, of course, if you consider having 6 of these systems, or, in the case of Applefield Farm, utilize 78% of the existing greenhouse area. This would bring in a gross revenue of nearly $90,000. Now, if I can just track down Mr. Grant. . .

 

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The Lunatic Farmer’s Guide to Aquaponics over the Frigid New England Winter

Rainbow trout were very much on my mind when I learned that my mother in the US was dying. I mean, we are all gradually dying, but she was dying much faster than most of us are. Enough about that, but I’m glad I was able to see her last year.

I’ve made considerable progress in the last few months on my project in Laos. So much so, in fact, that I was able to indirectly launch about 750 baby tilapia into that place where tilapia spirits dwell after they meet their maker(s). For those of you who follow my blog solely for the entertainment value of my mishaps and misdeeds, this tragedy won’t let you down, but I’m afraid you will have to wait. I’ve got more important things on my mind.

This is kind of a dual-purpose article meant for my readers, of course, but also, through the savvy copy/paste function, for the helpful folks at Aquaponic Gardening. Perhaps they will be able to confirm the extent of my lunacy.

Background

Once my daughter gets her US citizenship sorted out in about 2 weeks, we are going to the US. It’s an expensive trip, so we want to get our money’s worth by staying as long as possible. In regards to my project here in Laos, I’m calling this “The Big Pause.” My generally light load of work for my company in Japan can be carried out just as well in the US, but how do I keep busy and perhaps make some extra cash while there? No, it’s not by lifting 70 pound boxes at the nearby UPS facility 4 hours a day. Since, in terms of theoretical knowledge, I’ve acquired what I consider a PhD level in aquaponics (admittedly, my standards are low), it’s got to involve aquaponics. Aquaponics in the middle of a New England winter? Yes, it does sound nuts.

The greenhouse within the greenhouse

Unless, of course, you happen to have a brother who is not a lunatic and is in possession of at least one 12,000 square foot greenhouse that is in a state of partial use to complete emptiness for 6 to 8 months of the year. Their retail business is only open from early April to the end of October. When I mentioned in an email about the prospect of this idea, I failed to mention that I’m talking about a greenhouse within the greenhouse. He probably thinks I was contemplating heating the entire thing for the sake of a few fish and vegetables. I never heard back about this, so I guess I’ve been taken off his list of relatives sane enough to communicate with.

My brother's greenhouse in Massachusetts-- look at all that space

Here’s a photo of the inside of his greenhouse taken around the middle of March last year. It was a mild spring, so they started earlier than usual. Notice all the structure. The far side to the left faces south. That’s the corner I want to play in. Building this thing must have cost him a fortune. Its got power, water, and, probably, artificial lighting (absolutely necessary). It occurred to me that my brother’s case is probably quite common in cold climates– sweat and toil for half a year, read books and plow people’s driveways for the other half. It also occurred to me that that may just suit them quite fine. So, I started thinking, is this how I can stay roughly half a year in the US each year? It’s completely the wrong way around, though. The idea is to spend cold winters in warm, tropical countries. But one cannot always get his way.

The advantage of a greenhouse within a greenhouse is that the main greenhouse provides all the structure and protection from the nastier elements such as wind and precipitation. This would allow one to literally drape, staple, and fold greenhouse plastic such that a basic enclosure is made.

Seek impermanence

A fully knock-downable aquaponic system

With nearly two years of exasperation under my belt trying to get things done on a shoestring in one of the world’s least developed (but quaint) countries, I think, thanks to my somewhat skewed perspective, I may have stumbled onto something that could be meaningful to farmers such as my brother. For the potential gain, a system as shown to the right is so cheap to set up that I’m inclined to think that any farmer with unused greenhouse space would be a lunatic not to consider it. Over here in the third world (not Yorkshire, that’s the other third world), we make do with what we have handy, such as bits of twine, empty PET bottles and strips of rubber from used inner tubes. The system shown would require about 1/5th the space of my brother’s greenhouse but it could easily be scaled down such that it would temporarily occupy only about 1/8th. The greenhouse within a greenhouse footprint in this design is about 240 square meters (2,583 square feet). The entire system is composed of 1, 2, and 3-foot high “stick-built” panels with the plywood on the inside. This facilitates bolting the panels together from the outside. It’s just 2 x 4 lumber, like building the wall of a house. There is no floor, or bottom panel. I would put down a layer of newspaper or carpet that’s been thrown away if I can find some. All of these water-holding vessels would be lined with 1 or 2 layers of greenhouse plastic. Only one panel in the entire system will require holes. While the inside of the vessels will be plywood, the outside will be burlap (jute, hessian for my UK and Aussie readers) simply stapled to to the studs and top/bottom plates. Its purpose would be to hold in shredded newspaper– lots of it. So, here we have insulated water vessels for a fraction of what you would buy them for (do a search for insulated water tanks and check out the prices). This whole system would probably take quite some time and effort to build, but after it’s built it would take only a few days to assemble/disassemble each year.

The sump may look unusual, and it will be annoying to have to step over it, but since my brother probably wouldn’t appreciate my breaking up his nice concrete floor to put in a normal, permanent one, I had to come up with something else. The fish tank is 3 feet high (90cm) and the water level would be a bit lower, about 80cm. I wanted to do 4 feet but thought that would be pushing it a bit. The hydroponic troughs (DWC) are 2 feet high; a bit unusual, too, as the water level will be about 50cm. But, within reason, there’s never too much water in an aquaponic system. Besides, there will be living things with claws and such creeping around in there. The sump is 1 foot high and will have a water level of about 20cm. So, what it loses by being shallow, it has to make up for by being somewhat broad. As it is designed, it will hold about 4 cubic meters of water. Orchard/bird netting could be added to help filter fine solids. Water will be moved mechanically only once, from the sump into the fish tank. From there, gravity will take it through the clarifiers into the hydroponic troughs and on back to the sump. Here are some system numbers and the hardware I’m contemplating:

  • Fish tank volume: 19 cubic meters
  • Hydroponic troughs: 24 square meters each, 12 cubic meters each
  • Sump: 4 cubic meters
  • Barrel clarifiers: 3 cubic meters total
  • Total system water: 74 cubic meters
  • Pumps: at least 2 @ 2,000 GPH (7,600 LPH) and a third if it becomes necessary.
  • Aeration: one 50LPM air pump for each hydroponic tank and 1 for the fish tank. Some of the diffusers from the hydroponic tanks will go into the sump.

All this trouble for what, ice skating?

A closer look at the barrel clarifiers

No, I hope not. The magic water temperature I’m seeking to hold is 17C, plus/minus a degree. That’s about 62F for you Americans. It will be imperative to use Styrofoam board material on all water surfaces, within reason. Since I’ll be making the greenhouse within the greenhouse as small as possible, this is important for reducing/limiting humidity, too. But when you start thinking of the 74 cubic meters of system water as a heat sink, one becomes more optimistic (until I’m convinced otherwise). An article I read about how to design and construct a greenhouse for use throughout the winter (in Minnesota, I think it was) without any supplemental heating suggested storing as many 52-gallon barrels full of water and painted black in sunny areas in the greenhouse as possible. They warm up during the day and release their heat during the night. That’s to help keep the air warm. I’ve studied before about barrel batch water heating and they are part of my future plans here in the third world. So I incorporated them in my design serving not only to transfer the sun’s energy to the water, but to clarify the water by removing solids. There are 8 pairs of barrels and each will receive water through flexible LDPE tubing. Water enters the top of the higher barrel and enters the lower barrel after making its way underneath a baffle. The same thing happens in the lower barrel and then the water spills into the hydroponic troughs. No moving parts, thank you. Most of the solids will settle to the bottom of the barrels which will have a tap on each to remove them. I forget exactly what angle I set them at in my design, but it’s the same angle that you would tilt your solar panels in the winter in Massachusetts (they face south). I will probably wrap them in clear plastic with some kind of a spacer. Anyway, I’ll be happy if this setup will maintain daytime water temperatures.

The 35,000 BTU outdoor spa heater that might make things possible

The greenhouse within a greenhouse with the passive solar barrel heaters could probably keep the system well above freezing, but I want the water to stay at 17C. To do this, I need supplemental heating. At about $800, this baby can raise my entire system water by 2 degrees in 24 hours. Essentially, this is the contraption that determines how big a system you can have. I wouldn’t suggest to any farmer to invest $10,000 on an efficient outdoor water boiler right from the start. But if this works at the scale I’m contemplating, then an even bigger one would allow expansion and increased income. This is where the real test is. How much of an effect will the passive solar barrel heaters have, what will be the effect of 3 or 4 hours of heat being given off from supplemental lighting, will 35,000 BTU be enough supplemental water heating? I want to find out. What I do know is that there won’t be any need to heat the air what with the great mass of water.

So, what’s so special about 17C (62.6F)?

These fellows are not just tasty, they will clean the hydroponic troughs (unless you eat them first)

There are 3 things that make this temperature important. First, it’s the temperature that rainbow trout grow fastest at. Second, it’s an excellent root zone temperature for many cool climate plants. Third, red claw crayfish will not only live and grow (if not thrive) at this temperature, they may just be able to reproduce, too (that would great). If the water temperature drops even rather extremely, it won’t hurt the rainbow trout or the cool climate veggies (it might kill the crayfish, though). But it will slow the growth of all of them.

System potential

You all got lucky. I just lost all of today’s work on this article. In fact, I’d finished, pressed preview, and everything I did today disappeared. So, I’ll sum it all up quickly (keeping a copy of what I write in another program!).

My strategy is to overstock the system with fish and then begin to partially harvest them when the system is at maximum capacity. The system can support 950kg of pan-size rainbow trout (just over 300g, about 11 ounces each). Incidentally, that’s at a stocking density of 50kg per cubic meter, well under the commercial density recommended for recirculating tank systems (80kg). So that’s 3,000 fish. I’m going to stock twice that, 6,000 fish. The system will be at full capacity when all the fish are about 100g, or between 3 and 4 ounces. At that point they will be consuming 2% of their body weight per day for a total of 12kg of feed a day. In raft aquaponics, it’s all about the ratio of feed to plant growing area. The advantage of overstocking is that this point is reached in half the time. This gives me 125g/m2. Since I’ll be keeping this as constant as possible by removing fish, say, weekly, the value of the fish removed early will be low, but gradually go up as they are removed later. For the sake of argument, I’m giving these fish an average value of $2.00 each. That’s $6,000. My brother’s business is a family, retail operation which they started way back in 1981, so I presume it will be easy to sell the product to established end-users. Therefore, I’m giving the remaining 3,000 fish a value of $4.50 each (could be much higher). That’s $13,500. I know there will be some fish losses, but let’s just say for now that the fish component of the system is worth $19,500 gross.

For the plants, there are many possibilities here, but let’s take lettuce as an example. Off season and sold retail to a gullible clientele, $1.50 a head. The system can hold 2,304 heads of lettuce. At 5 crops over a 5 to 6 month growing period, that’s 11,520 heads of lettuce at a value of $17,280. Any revenue from the red claw crayfish raised under the rafts in the hydroponic troughs will be a bonus.

Conclusion

I had written a snappy conclusion that would have sold ice to the Eskimos, but it, as well as 5 or so hours of other supporting information with citations and all to convince you that I’m in fact not such a raving lunatic after all, disappeared. So here it is in a couple of sentences. $36,780 would pay for a lot of electricity for supplemental grow lights, pumps, and aerators, as well as quite a few cords of wood. My next step is to cost it all out and apply, through my brother, if he’s willing, for a state or other grant which would allow us to examine the actual feasibility of such a project. It would be meaningful for your average farmer who has a retail (or even wholesale) business and underutilized greenhouse space. He could keep his retail business open a month longer, and open a month earlier; if a wide variety of greens and herbs were grown, perhaps he could even contemplate opening on weekends.

Final note

The above proposal is just Phase I. Phase II would add an adjacent mushroom grow room. Air could be circulated between it and the aquaponic system. This would supply the mushrooms with warm(ish), humid air, and the plants with a large volume of CO2 given off by the fruiting mushrooms, improving plant growth (forced CO2 injection is becoming common). Composting worms should be incorporated to turn the fish waste and spent mushroom-growing substrate into valuable worm castings. Extra worms could be fed to the fish. Other schemes to reduce the use of commercial fish feed should be explored.

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From Algae to Wabbits– A Revised Aquaponic System Design

According to the Urban Dictionary, “wabbit” could be:

  1. A cuter way of saying “rabbit.”
  2. A standard Scots word meaning exhausted, tired, worn out (Ah wiz wabbit after clearin’-oot ma gearden o’ all thon leaves)
  3. Hunter’s slang for Wererabbit, or a person that has transformed into a rabbit. This word is often believed to be a mispronunciation of the word rabbit, due to a speech impediment. Unlike Werewolves, Wererabbits are in a perpetual state of rabbitness. They also have the ability to speak in a Brooklyn accent, have an insatiable appetite for carrots, and believe anyone they meet to be a doctor. These animals should be approached with extreme caution as they are extremely waskly.

I’ll explain my plans for wabbits later.

Phase I– Just get Started

The guy I had do the main concrete footers for my greenhouse, Billy, my landlord, apparently couldn’t read a drawing, even though he claims to have a degree in mechanical engineering. I’d allotted very little space for walking between the hydroponic troughs, and with him making the hydroponic area something like 18cm narrower, I had no choice but to redesign. That gave me the perfect excuse to make my plans much more elaborate, robust, and unachievable.

Building Trough #1

I’ve begun work on what I’ll call Trough #1. This will actually be the length and width that I’d planned. What’s different is that I’m making its sides out of insulated (rice husks, again) wooden panels. It’s also going to be a lot deeper than originally planned. I don’t think there is a “too deep” in raft (deep water channel) aquaponics. Because of construction costs, the question is usually, “How shallow can I make it.” Standard water depth is probably about a 30cm. The depth of the water in this trough will be about 45cm. I got lucky when I bought my 50-meter long roll of pond lining. I’d ordered a 2-meter wide roll but was given a 2.5-meter wide roll for the same price (it’s expensive stuff). Wasting building materials is second only to wasting beer in my book of no-nos. The point of making it deeper is that I may be able to use it as a fish tank in the future, allowing me to double production of fish. Trough #1 will hold about 8,000 liters of water and covers 18 square meters.

I will never use the words "final design" again. This is the latest design.

This is the new design. Technically, what I’m creating is called an Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) system because it will provide the by-products, including waste, from one aquatic species as inputs (fertilizers, food) for another. “Integrated” refers to intensive and synergistic cultivation, using water-born nutrient and energy transfer. “Multi-trophic” means that the various species occupy different trophic levels, i.e., different (but adjacent) links in the food chain (Wikipedia). I was kind of surprised to find that the Asia Institute of Technology (AIT) is working on a similar project.  I mean, I’m not surprised that they have an excellent idea, I’m surprised that I managed to stumble onto the same thing independently. I think there are a lot of differences, though, as they have different goals (see this link). I’ve offered to exchange information, but I doubt they will take me up on it. Academic institutions are, for the most part, owned by corporations.

I’ve actually got a better idea for plumbing it. Fish tank water will flow by gravity to the solids removal tank. In the diagram at the right, I’m using 3 concrete rings. The bottommost ring is mostly buried and has a 45-degree taper down to a pipe for removal of the solids. These solids, fish waste and uneaten fish feed, are an important part of the system, so I want to access them efficiently. The diagram shows 1-meter diameter rings, but I’ll probably use 1.2-meter rings. Can’t be too big. The system water will continue to flow by gravity into Trough #1. I was going to have it set up to flow into Trough #2, too, and then both troughs would drain to sump, but I’m now considering flow into only Trough #1 and then from Trough #1 to Trough #2. So, all the system water will exit Trough #2 to sump. As it’s shown, I’ve got 2/3 the plant growth area of my former design. This is probably okay depending on the fish feed (g) to plant growing area (m2) ratio. Since I’ve got 36m2 plant growing area, it will support 2.16 to 3.6kg of fish feed input per day. As an example, if I had 400 adult fish in the tank and they each weighed 800g, then the total would be 320kg of fish. If they were fed 1.2% of their body weight each day, that would be 3.84kg, but, not to worry, the vertical, or hanging plant growing component (upside down tomatoes and bell peppers) is not shown here. Besides, it’s going to be a play-it-as-it-goes thing, anyway. If I have problems, I’ll harvest some fish, or add some, as necessary. I’ll go quickly now through the two new components I’ve added (excluding the sexy intern).

Algae

Spirulina, a dietary supplement for my fish.

Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis) is widely known as a dietary supplement (miracle drug). There are all kinds of edible alga, but spirulina sort of takes the cake. Its nutritional profile is outstanding (60% protein), and since it actually thrives in highly alkaline water that other types of algae cannot withstand, it can be monocultured by keeping the PH high. For this reason the culture water for the spirulina will be completely independent of the aquaponic system water.

Spirulina can be harvested with a very fine mesh cloth.

Normally, spirulina is fed a complicated mixture of nutrients plus CO2. I’m not going to be too scientific about it, as I’m not trying to get maximum yield, so they will get some of the waste solids I remove from my system (a bit like putting manure in a pond to induce an algae bloom) including some system water to make up for evaporation, ordinary aeration (until my mushroom growing rooms are built, then they will get CO2 enriched aeration), and perhaps some ordinary urea (I’ll resist the urge to pee in the algae troughs). Spirulina can be harvested easily as the photo shows, another advantage. 10g per square meter would be a mighty fine daily harvest generating 120g per day. That’s only 2.5 to 5% of my feed needs, so you may wonder if it’s worth the space, but it’s got double the protein of standard feed and provides other goodies. Also, if I were to eliminate the shallow algae ponds and extend Trough #2, I’d have to extend the aisleway, too; as it is, I figure that boards could be laid on top of the algae ponds for access. So, I think I’m saving 4 to 5m2 of productive floor space.

A type of algae that's easy to culture, but difficult to harvest.

Chlorella is another algae I’ll be playing with. It’s also available as a dietary supplement, but not quite as popular as spirulina. It’ll be fed the same fish waste and maybe some urea if needed. Both of these types of algae have been studied for their ability to remove nutrients from and thrive on fish effluent, so I’m expecting it to be pretty simple to grow them– but I don’t want much of either of them going directly in my system, so chlorella will be (mostly) independent, too. Studies have shown that chlorella is suitable as the sole source of food for Thai fairy shrimp, but  I’ll discuss that in the section below. Spirulina is also consumed by the fairy shrimp, but the studies suggest it’s not up to par. Chlorella will be grown in 5-liter clear plastic PET bottles hanging from the central greenhouse structure as well as in the concrete rings holding the fairy shrimp.

Fish feed is expensive and its origins are a bit dubious, so the goal is to produce a nutritious and tasty fish feed myself. Spirulina are easy to harvest, so they will go directly into the feed, while chlorella, which is difficult to harvest unless you are a larger aquatic animal, will either go into the feed via the fairy shrimp or directly into the fish via the fairy shrimp.

Thai Fairy Shrimp

Their environment made these guys perfect for aquaculture.

I need a drum roll and somebody to sing Elton John’s “Circle of Life.” These critters are truly amazing. Thai fairy shrimp (Branchinella thailandensis) were discovered by some university researchers who were splashing around in some vernal pools (temporary pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals) in Northeast Thailand (my backyard). If you choose a vernal pool as an abode, and you need something to always be able to swim in, you’re out of luck. But fairy shrimp (technically they are micro crustaceans) have managed to survive by growing quickly (reaching sexual maturity in just a week), an ability to reproduce which puts wabbits to shame, and the fact that their eggs (cysts) don’t mind it if the pond dries up– they’ll just stay put until the rains come again. They were only discovered about 10 years ago, but they are already becoming a big business. Why? Because they reproduce rapidly and have high nutritional value. Here is a somewhat random introduction from one study:

Fairy shrimps have great potential as live food organisms for a variety of aquatic animals. Both larvae and adult fairy shrimps (live or even frozen) can be fed to commercial aquaculture species such as catfish and shrimps and other aquarium species such as flower horn (Boonmak et al., 2007). The cysts of fairy shrimps contain 45-50% protein and 5-6% lipids while adult fairy shrimps have higher protein and carotene contents. Fairy shrimp biomass produced (using livestock waste as a nutrient source) can be used as nursery and maturation feed for ornamental fishes (Munuswamy et al., 1997).

It has also been shown that fairy shrimps contain high levels of many essential amino acids which are important for the growth performance of fresh and brackish water fishes and other crustaceans. Through enrichment and bioencapsulation,
fairy shrimps can be an ideal candidate for the provision of
valuable nutrients to young larvae of commercial aquaculture species (Munuswamy, 2005). Their high carotenoid content also makes them ideal for color enhancement in ornamental fish culture.

With the high cost of Artemia cyst to provide a good source of protein for freshwater and brackish fishes, the government of Thailand restructured a financially viable agendum by conducting research on the production of fairy shrimps (Branchinella thailandensis Sanoamuang, Saengphan and Murugan, 2002) which are locally available (Saengphan and Chusing, 2006) in the country.

This photo of the laboratory at Khon Kaen University is revealing.

One of the advantages cited in many studies is the fact that fairy shrimp are easy to culture. Yeah, right, but nobody wants to let the average guy know how. It’s not like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is publishing cultivation manuals for us peasants.  Not surprisingly, the academic institutions are making the information on culturing fairy shrimp and harvesting their eggs (cysts) available to businesses for a fee. But they still have to gain legitimacy by publishing their studies, so the information is out there, if you are willing to work for it. It’s made harder by the fact that usually only the abstracts are available; you have to pay do download the meat and bones of a study. After reading through a plethora of papers, not to mention following threads on the subject in all the amateur aquarist forums, here are the important points that I’ve learned.

  • “The prawns [giant freshwater prawns] with the greatest weight and length were those fed 50 live Thai fairy shrimps (30.07±0.16 g, 12.14 ±
    0.09 cm, respectively).” So from this I learned that a mature (7 to 8-day old) fairy shrimp weighs approximately 0.6g.  I also know that they are just over 12mm in length. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find this information.
  • From another source I learned that Branchinella thailandensis can be cultured outdoors at a density of 50 nauplii [hatched baby shrimp] per liter in concrete rings that are 1 meter in diameter and hold 150 liters of water.
  • A female of the Branchinella thailandensis species will produce up to about 6,000 eggs (cysts) in her short lifetime (about 1 month).
  • Perhaps most importantly, truly a great find, was the knowledge that, specific to Branchinella thailandensis, “The cysts require a period of retention in the parental medium for 2 – 4 weeks in order to continue their embryonic development before hatching.” And, “In contrast to the hatching behavior of many other species, drying is not absolutely essential for cyst hatching of this species.”

Commercial scale production-- the method was developed by the rich lady in the photo above.

The tricky part is harvesting the eggs. If you don’t do your homework you will likely believe, as many amateur aquarists do, that you have to dry the eggs, refrigerate them for a while, then put them back in water to hatch. They use distilled water, but if I were a fairy shrimp egg I’d wonder what the point of hatching out into that would be. Anyway, having learned that (a) the particular species of fairy shrimp I’ll be dealing with does not absolutely need drying out, and (b) they do, however, need to stay in the the water for 2 to 4 weeks, I’ve decided it’s worthwhile giving them a shot. Incidentally, one could just keep buying the eggs and not worry about recreating little orange populations. 1 million eggs can be purchased from a Thai company online for $165. But, assuming the unlikely scenario in which every one of them hatches and they all grow to be 0.6g, even though that’s a whopping 600kg of fairy shrimp, they are, unfortunately, composed mostly of water (90%, in fact). So you’ve really only got 60kg dry weight. That’s $2.75 per kilogram. While it’s certainly more nutritious than commercial fish feed, it’s also more than double the price. So, they are either going to have to reproduce in situ or piss off.

The polyculture of tilapia and giant freshwater prawns will eat these at any stage.

The system layout in the illustration above shows only thirteen 80cm diameter rings, but I need more if I’m going to make this work. So, I think I’ll partially bury these such that the water level in them is just above the water level in the sump and place a staggered  row of 12 rings on top for a total of 25 rings. Each ring will hold about 150 liters of system water. Water will be trickle fed such that an exchange of about 20% a day is achieved. Fairy shrimp eggs come in capsules, and each capsule contains 10,000 eggs ($25 for 120,000 eggs, 12 capsules). That’s a good number. At a hatching rate of 75%, that will give me the magic number of 50 fairy shrimp per liter per concrete ring. We’ll call this first one Ring #1. The next day I’ll stock Ring #2, and so forth until all the rings have been stocked. The fairy shrimp cysts will wait until they are certain that it wasn’t just some freak rainstorm in the middle of the dry season before they hatch, but by 10 days after stocking Ring #1 I should have 7,500 healthy snacks for my fish and giant freshwater prawns (in polyculture). At 0.6g each that’s 4.5kg of 12cm-long goodies. But, in terms of dry weight, that’s only 450g. With a protein level of roughly 60% of their dry weight, though, they are worth a kilogram of fish feed. In a perfect world, I would harvest 90% from one concrete ring a day just as they are full-sized and have reached sexual maturity. Having reached sexual maturity, the boys will spend all their energy doing what boys do best, and the girls will become egg producing machines. If I leave 10%, essentially I’ll be leaving 375 females. In her lifetime, each female will produce up to 6,000 eggs. At even 4,000 eggs each, that’s 1,500,000 eggs that will be laying dormant at the bottom while their embryos continue to develop. If all goes well, by the time I’ve stocked Ring #25, these 1,500,000 eggs will have hatched and madness will ensue. But they won’t all hatch. And to a fish or a larger shrimp, a 1mm fairy shrimp will be just as tasty as a 12mm one. The whole thing is bound to break down into a situation where I’m just removing some biomass, in this case fairy shrimp of various sizes, from some of the tanks each day, amassing an unknown number of them but, nevertheless, at least 4.5kg a day.

With double the carotenoids, my giant freshwater prawns will be a brighter orange than these.

How am I going to feed them to the fish and prawns, you ask? Probably just as they are. Tilapia are omnivorous so unless they’ve been brainwashed by the vegan community, they should be perfectly happy eating the micro crustaceans. I’ll be stocking giant freshwater prawns with the tilapia (3 individuals per m2) and in the plant growing troughs (10 individuals per m2). Many trials have been done using fairy shrimp as the sole source of feed for these big fellows, and not only superior growth has been proven. Major improvements in quality such as a much higher amount of carotenoids, in particular, was shown. The prawns fed fairy shrimp were visibly a brighter orange. I wonder if it will affect the flesh color of my tilapia, making it resemble salmon. . . Anyway, I don’t see the harm in just throwing them into the system. The ones that survive the fish tank and seek safer shelter will pass by gravity to the solids removal tank where they can’t do any harm. They may like it there so much that they decide to stay and populate it, but they should be warned that there will be a few small tilapia in there to clean the sides. If they flow from there into Trough #1, they’ll regret it. There will be 180 giant prawns waiting for them. If they manage to out swim these prawns, there will be another 180 waiting for them in Trough #2. A fine mesh bag under the outlet to sump will catch any unlikely survivors. The ones that stay in the piping will be doing me a favor by cleaning up detritus, algae, and such. The whole thing will mimic nature, just exponentially more intensive.

An alternative would be to dry them and mix them with the spirulina (also dried) as the protein component for the production of an on-farm feed. That’s a lot of work, though, and they would lose some of their nutritional value (prawns fed frozen fairy shrimp, for instance, did not do as well as those fed fresh ones). I want my prawns and fish to lead lives as they would in nature, but with greater abundance. I suspect that life for a giant freshwater prawns is pretty dull just waiting around for somebody to throw them a handful of pellets. There’s no sport in plucking up a pellet that has sunk to the bottom and landed right in front of your rostrum, no spirit of the chase.

Phase I– The Strategy

Harvesting rain.

As I write, the fish tank is filling with rainwater. I can’t afford to have a well drilled at the moment, so I have to harvest rain. Luckily, there’s no shortage of rain on the Bolaven Plateau at this time of the year. The one tarp I put up increases the surface area a little, and the tarps covering the tank lessen losses from evaporation while still letting water in. I have an elaborate scheme for harvesting rain, as you’d suspect, but I’ll spare you the details. I’ll need another 8,000 liters when Trough #1 is completed.

Fish

Recommended stocking and feeding rates for different size groups of tilapia in tanks and estimated growth rates.

As soon as the tank is mostly full of water I’ll adjust the pH if necessary, add some pig manure (for now I’m letting Billy keep his pigs on my leased land), and throw in an algae starter to get a healthy, light-green pea-soup going. I’m not particularly worried about algae in the system at this point. When the time seems right, but as soon as possible, I’ll stock it with 1,000 tilapia fry. Under normal circumstances, that would be too many fish for my system, but that’s the minimum order quantity for monosex fry. Deviating from my past strategy, I’ve decided to live with this number and practice a combination of gradual thinning and graded harvesting. The fry are just 2.5cm long and weigh only about 0.25g each, and they’d lose touch with each other in the spaciousness of the 8,000 liter tank, so I’ll keep them in hapa, which is really just a fine mesh cage, within the tank. As the table here shows, in a little over 2 months they will weigh about 20g and need to be fed about 7% of their body weight. With 1,000 fish, that’s 1.4kg a day. That’s when I should start getting the plant growing area (Trough #1) going.  In another month they will have reached 50g and will be eating 4% of their body weight per day. That’s 2kg of feed a day being consumed. It will be time to start plants on Trough #2. Roughly 3 to 4 months after having arrived on the Bolaven Plateau, the finned fellows will have reached a weight of 100g but they will still have plenty of room in the tank. In fact, they really need only about 1/4 of the tank at that stage. It will be the end of the exponential growth phase and the beginning of the linear growth phase. They’ll be eating a total of 3.5kg a day which is just fine. When they reach 250g about 7 weeks later, they’ll be eating only about 1.5% of their body weight daily, so at 3.75kg of feed a day, that’s still okay, but they’ll be at the maximum recommended density in the tank. Incidentally, the tilapia in the table seem to grow slowly compared to raw data I have from the supplier for the particular breed I’ll be raising, but the stocking densities should still be accurate.

Fish are mostly eaten whole in SE Asia.

The obvious solution to overcrowding is consumption. If the mean weight of the fish is 250g, that means I’ll probably have fish that range between 200 and 300g. A 200g fish is more than 20cm in length. In the West, they have to be grown out to a certain size to accommodate fileting, but here in Southeast Asia they eat the entire fish, including the eyeballs. Large fish are expensive, 30,000 kip ($3.78) on the Plateau, probably due to the cost of transporting them up from Pakse. I suspect five 200g fish would fetch the same price as one 1kg fish, but at the moment, I’m not sure. Anyway, in terms of strategy, I’m simply going to start harvesting the smaller fish at this point such that the total feed per day stays below 4kg. This is also probably a good point to stock another 1,000 fry in a hapa, sacrificing 1m2 of Trough #1 grow area.

By the time the mean weight of the fish is 450g, and that will happen more quickly if I’m removing only the small fish (I’ll do this because it’s better to hold on to the fish that demonstrate good growth), I’ll want there to be no more than 800 fish in the tank. Assuming that it takes 8 weeks to reach this stage, it’s just a matter of removing 25 to 30 fish a week. If the fish removed are, say, 250g each, then that would instantaneously lessen the daily feed load on the system by about 100g. It would also provide my venture with its first income, a whopping figure in the area of 200,000 kip ($25). But the fish the next week will be bigger. By the fourth week I’ll probably be selling 350g fish, fetching me around 300,000 kip ($38) which is enough to satisfy my Beer Lao needs (a little over 3 cases a week). Meanwhile, the bigger fish will be getting even bigger. By the time they’ve reached a mean weight of 450g, they’ll be at the recommended stocking rate, so it will be time to thin them and also make some room for the 1,000 juveniles kept in Trough #1. The 450g fish are at a marketable size, and in the course of 8 weeks they will reach about 750g. When they get that big there should not be more than 50 of them per cubic meter. They should be all sold by the time the second cohort reach 250g because they’ll need all the tank space. I’m not sure when that will be, but lets say for the sake of argument that I sell them over an 8 week period, and then the new cohort is thinned by about 200 individuals over a period of 6 weeks:

  1. 450g x 100 = 45kg @ $3.78/kg = $170
  2. 485g x 100 = 48.5kg @ $3.78/kg = $183
  3. 520g x 100 = 52kg @ $3.78/kg = $197
  4. 550g x 100 = 55kg @ $3.78/kg = $208
  5. 580g x 100 = 58kg @ $3.78/kg = $219
  6. 630g x 100 = 63kg @ $3.78/kg = $238
  7. 690g x 100 = 69kg @ $3.78/kg = $261
  8. 760g x 100 = 76kg @ $3.78/kg = $287
  9. 200g x 30 = 6kg @ $3.78/kg = $23
  10. 250g x 30 = 7.5kg @ $3.78/kg = $28
  11. 300g x 30 = 9kg @ $3.78/kg = $34
  12. 340g x 30 = 10kg @ $3.78/kg = $38
  13. 380g x 30 = 11kg @ $3.78/kg = $42
  14. 420g x 30 = 13kg @ $3.78/kg = $49

At week #15 it starts over again for roughly 3.5 cycles a year. The total of the above is $1,977 so that would be close to $7,000 a year. Of course that’s highly unlikely. There will be mortalities and I doubt I’ll be able to sell them at such a price. But, even knocking off 35% for these and other unknowns (fudge factor), that’s still a nice $4,500 gross income for fish in just an 8,000 liter tank.

Freshwater Prawns

I’ll stock juveniles in both the plant growing tanks, and maybe a few in the fish tank. Unlike the fairy shrimp, they cannot reproduce in fresh water, so there’s no worry of an overpopulation problem. I’m tentatively considering stocking 10 individuals per m2, so that would be 360 of the tasty crustaceans. For the most part they will be fed on whatever they can get from the system, but I’ll give them some fairy shrimp from time to time. They may get some anyway if the fairy shrimp make the trip from the fish tank. I’ll be happy if I can get 20kg of them 4 to 6 months after stocking them. That would be worth only about $170 so I’ll probably just eat them myself from time to time, occasionally restocking. This isn’t really a commercial venture during Phase I; it’s more for their functional activities, cleaning up detritus and adding to the biodiversity.

Plants

Don't freak out, they're just tomatoes growing upside down.

There are so many possibilities it is hard to decide, and I really don’t have to yet. I’ve got 3 types of lettuce seeds from the US which I’ll experiment with first. Trough #1 can hold 360 lettuce plants, and the growth cycle takes 4 to 5 weeks, so I can expect a minimum of 10 harvests a year. That’s 3,600 heads and, at approximately 250g per head, 900kg a year. Using the very conservative figure of $2.50 per kilogram, the lettuce in Trough #1 will bring in $2,250. It would make sense to do lettuce in Trough #2, too, if I can sell it. Hanging from the wooden joists running down the center of the system, I’ll grow tomatoes and bell peppers, upside down, of course, because it will freak people out. My earlier estimates were 300kg and 230kg a year, but I’ll lower those figures by a third to make space for PET bottles of algae (for the fairy shrimp). I should be able to get $2.50/kg for the tomatoes and $4/kg for the bell peppers, so that’s about $500 and $600, respectively.

Phase I– Summary

  • Fish production = $4,500
  • Plant production (lettuce, tomatoes, and bell peppers) =$5,600
  • Total = $10,100

Phase II– Bringing it Outdoors

Mean monthly temperatures on the Bolaven Plateau.

While doing my hermit thing I made a feeble attempt to keep track of morning, afternoon, and evening temperatures. Beer in the evenings inhibited taking accurate records, and I just plain forgot to do it most days. In the shade in the afternoon the temperature reached about 25C most days, and in the morning the coolest it got was 19.5C which, in theory, is the average mean temperature. Somebody has already done this work for me, so I was really just checking the accuracy of the data shown here which I took for the FAO’s Arabica Coffee Manual for Lao PDR. The red line, Km 42, is just 2 or 3km downhill from me, so it’s closest. I don’t know why Km 34, the yellow line, is so much cooler. It’s at a lower elevation. I suspect that it’s got something to do with the landscape there, like being bowl-shaped such that cool air collects. Anyway, with mean monthly temps between 19 and 23C, it’s what the technical people call “damned comfortable.” It’s actually made me wonder why I’m building a greenhouse, anyway. . . Oh, yeah, the fish. The tomatoes and bell peppers will enjoy the heat, too, but most other things, like lettuce, will be happier outside where it’s cooler.

There are a few problems with growing things outdoors, but these are not so difficult to overcome if you are enough of a lunatic to try some new approaches. The advantages of growing outside justify a bit of odd scheming. The first problem is that my system water temperature will be (should be) around 25 to 26C. That’s to provide for happy, fast-growing fish. You can’t take advantage of the cool outside climate for growing things such as strawberries if you are pumping 26C water into their root zone. Once I know how much water the outside component needs, I think I can solve this problem by leaving the water out overnight in an uninsulated tank. By morning, the water should cool down to 20C or so, depending on the season. First thing in the morning the tank could be wrapped with some sort of blanket insulation which would keep it cool for the day. On the return side, the opposite could be done. Return water would be passively heated by passing through black LDPE tubing and into a black tank. It would be insulated at night and gradually returned to the sump in the greenhouse. A lot of hit or miss here, but I’ll eventually sort it out.

Hydroponic strawberries growing in towers in California.

The ever-so flattering description of me as being “Insane. Cracked. Done for. A complete fruit loop” will no doubt be applied to me again when Ross, my mate from Down Under, arrives in Vientiane next week. Designs like this are, however, only crazy on the surface, and I can’t be accused of coming up with the idea. Vertical growing is all the rage these days amongst we lunatic farmers. The farm shown here can grow 12.5 strawberry plants per square meter, producing 17kg in this small amount of area.

Bringing it Outdoors– The Strategy

My soil is excellent for growing coffee so I don’t want to waste any more than I have to on grow beds, tanks, etc. After the coffee harvest at the end of this year, I’m going to replace the struggling katimor variety of coffee with typica which has a better cupping quality on an 8 x 20m patch of land next to the enclosed aquaponic system. The existing trees are struggling because they get too much sun and are spaced too close together. None of the coffee farmers read the FAO coffee manual– they just figure: the more coffee trees, the more coffee. I’m going to give these young plants 2 meters to spread their roots. Between the rows I’ll plant perennial peanut (Arachis pintoi), a leguminous forage plant which grows well in the shade and fixes nitrogen. So, there’s really no room for ground-supported towers like the ones shown above; instead, I’ll use hanging towers.

Hanging towers full of strawberries, lettuce and other vegetables will provide shade for the coffee.

The hanging towers will be constructed of white PVC tubing. The inside diameter will be 120cm and the long ones will be 1.33m in length. They will be filled with coir (coconut husks) so hopefully not too heavy even when wet. Hung from about 3 meters from the ground, the towers will be above and between the coffee, getting the most sun and providing shade. The longer towers will hold 15 liters of coir, and the shorter ones (half the length), will hold 7.5 liters of coir. While I personally favor raft aquaponics, with plants floating on the water, I couldn’t figure out a way to make water float above the coffee trees, so I’ll be entering into the world of media-based aquaponics which, it so happens, is much more popular with the backyard hobbyist folks. As a rule of thumb, they aim for a 1:1 ratio of fish tank volume to grow bed (media) volume. At the scale shown here, there are 50 long towers, so that’s 750 liters, and 75 short towers, so that’s 563 liters for a total of 1,313 liters.

This would suggest that I can only increase fish production by how many fish that can fit in a 1,313-liter tank. So, rather than follow this rule of thumb, I think it’s better to consider how many plants can be grown (nutrient uptake) here. If I grow strawberries in the long towers at 20 plants per tower that’s 1,000 strawberry plants. If I grow lettuce in the short towers at 15 lettuce plants per tower that’s 1,125 plants at any given time. If these were grown horizontally on rafts, I’d need 56 square meters for the lettuce alone. Assuming the same needs for the strawberries, I’m at 112 square meters. So, if I keep Trough #2 full of plants, can I really double fish production by making Trough #1 a fish tank? The answer, I think, is a definitive “yes.”

If grown horizontally, the area required to grow all this stuff would be 130 square meters.  Since the feed/plant area ratio demands at least 60g of feed per square meter, that’s 7.8kg of feed a day. Pretty much double Phase I. So, not only can I double fish production, I can raise it some more. The seemingly unused area where the pretty intern with nice tits is standing is for raising seedlings and such. There is no reason this cannot be done on tables above fish tanks. My favorite hardware store in Ubon sells 2,500-liter circular tanks. Two to 4 of these would fit nicely in this area. I’ll be certain to tie them securely in my truck (those of you who read my last article will understand why). Two smaller tanks plus converting Trough #1 into a fish tank would facilitate 2.5 times more fish. Assuming a 15% mortality rate and a food conversion ration (FCR) of 1.4, I’ll be supplying 115g per square meter of plant grow area. Considering the fact that I’ll still be growing tomatoes and bell peppers inside the greenhouse, I think this will be acceptable.

Anyway, this transition will be slow and carefully done. I can gradually expand the number of fish in Trough #2 and gradually put up towers outside.

Phase II– Potential

I’ll use lettuce to count my chickens before they’ve hatched, but most plants should thrive outdoors. I’m excited about strawberries. A 1-meter wide “roof” above each row of towers, made out of left over greenhouse plastic, will keep the rain off of them but still allow the water to saturate the ground for the coffee and forage. Among other possibilities is watercress which will thrive in the cool climate. I don’t eat strawberries myself, but they are grown in the north of Thailand and fetch a very high price. At a pick-your-own farm near Chiang Mai, people pay an entrance fee and 250 baht ($8) per kilogram. I could rent out ladders and charge the same, but people will have to beware the wabbits.

  • Fish production = $11,250 (already reduced by 35% for losses, etc.)
  • Plant production (lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers) = $10,381
  • Strawberries (at 1kg/plant) = $8,000
  • Total = $29,631

Phase III– Wabbits

16m2 per doe and her offspring-- spacious living and good food in return for yummy meat after a short lifetime.

As much as I like pigs for their intelligence and sense of humor, they are big fellows who may not treat strawberry pickers nicely. My piggy adventure will continue, but in Vientiane where there won’t be strawberries dangling overhead. Rabbits, on the other hand, produce what is arguably the finest manure for the manure aficionado and it requires no composting to use. If I were walking around in an animal pen picking strawberries, I’d certainly rather step on a pelleted piece of bunny poo than a steaming pile of pig dung. Rabbits are also the most economical, labor-efficient, and practical way to produce protein.

Each doe will get one 2 x 8m run. The runs will be divided by simple wire mesh fencing (chicken wire). It will protect the trunks of the coffee trees as rabbits like to gnaw on things but still allow socializing, if desired, with the female and her offspring in the next pen. This will give me 9 pens for does and 1 pen for a buck. I took a crash course in rabbit farming and I’m convinced they are just what I need to fertilize the coffee trees and mow the grass (high-protein perennial peanut).  A mature doe will produce 8 to 10 kits (offspring) in just 30 to 31 days after mating. These will be “fryer” size, about 1.5kg, in 12 to 15 weeks. In the meantime, you can begin the routine again for up to 5 litters a year. At an average of 8 kits per litter the 9 does would produce 540kg of rabbit a year. Assuming their live weight has the same value as a chicken, that’s another $2,366.

The investment is minimal. I’ll put chain-link fence down on the ground which will prevent them from burrowing yet allow the perennial peanut to grow. The chicken wire fencing between the pens can be low enough to step over. Any rabbits that get over it will not be able to get through the perimeter fence (electric) which will hopefully keep 2- and 4-legged rabbit thieves out (this will help protect my greenhouse and hermit house, too). Incest in the rabbit world isn’t a problem, so you can start with a buck and 2 does and choose the best females from the resulting litters.

The problem will be marketing. Reading about rabbits on an expat forum in Thailand, most of the guys who suggest they raise rabbits to their spouses are treated to an emotional outburst of significant proportions. Rabbits are cute, cuddly pets, not dinner. And that, itself, is a potential market (rabbits don’t make noise like pigs and are easy to conceal, so I’d probably have no trouble smuggling them into Thailand for the pet market). Perhaps the Thai revelers who come pick the strawberries, aghast at learning that the cute bunnies at their feet are being raised for meat, will pay a premium to rescue a few. The large Vietnamese population in the area will appreciate their availability. Ideally, I’ll supply one or two good French restaurants in the city (Pakse). If this happens, I’ll have to increase rabbit production, and that wouldn’t be hard to do.

They didn't know that rabbits are easy to skin. They singed the fur off of them.

Admittedly, the Lao people will eat anything. Rabbit is not common, though. Actually, that’s an understatement, because, according to a survey done in 1997, total rabbit production in Laos was just 500kg. Things have changed a lot since then, though. My little Lao helper is holding up 2 rabbits that her cousin was keeping. They escaped from their pen and were seized upon by local dogs. I considered them unsafe to eat, and when they started searing off the fur as they do with rats and such, the smell overwhelmed and I left. They didn’t know that rabbits are easy to skin (I didn’t either, at the time).

A paper entitled “A Strategy for the Development of Small- and Medium-Scale Rabbit Farming in South-East Asia,” after citing studies that have shown the potential of rabbit production for small farm family development, goes on to state:

This era of potential is now history because the benefits of rabbit production to smallholders have been realized in many lesser-developed countries (LDC’s) throughout the world. The present challenge is to take the rabbit to a higher level– to usher in a new era that involves formulation of new and improved models for development projects to provide even greater benefits for limited resource families, especially when initiated as a vehicle to alleviate poverty.

For a poor farming family in Laos, the loss of a breeding cow, pig, or goat may be catastrophic. The paper states that rabbits have a competitive edge over poultry in Asia as they do not depend on cereal grains (human food) and, of course, there’s no worry about the risks of Asian Bird Influenza.

Without getting into too much detail about animal cruelty and such, it is interesting to note the fundamental differences between animal cruelty law in the United States and Europe. In the US, a farmed animal is valued as a piece of property or a machine. In Europe, however, the laws reflect the view that animals are sentient beings. A paper on the subject states:

It can be seen that many common US husbandry practices are being phased out or have already been banned in Europe. The cruel practices that are considered common in the US are becoming violations of animal welfare regulations across the Atlantic. This is due to the status of animals. As property, animals may be treated like machines, regulated mainly for the benefit of the owner. As sentient beings, animals are endowed with a moral status and human beings have an advanced role in the protection of these beings. In the United States, there is a huge agricultural lobby. Food animals are governed by big money industry; most regulations are designed to protect this industry. In a union of countries such as the EU, a door is opened to newer ideas about the role of animals and their relationship with humans. In Europe, there is a variety of lobby’s controlling the regulation of animals. Although some countries are still faithful to the Christian idea that we have dominion over the animals, several other countries have moved away from this, believing that animals need to be protected for their own sake. This explains why the EU regulations are shifting. Several EU member states no longer hold the view that animals only have value as property. Animals cannot be given a moral status and still be treated as though they have none.

Switzerland has the toughest laws. In fact, rabbits are defined as “social” animals, so it is illegal to keep only one of them. They are sold with a companion. It’s a problem if one dies because according to the law you are required to replace it and there’s no guarantee that they will get along. Considering that an area of slightly less than a half a square meter is required for a single rabbit, a doe and her 8 kits will have an area of 1.77m2 each to hop about in, which will make them exceptionally lucky animals until the abrupt conclusion of their short lives. I’ll add some substrate here and there such a logs to jump over and tunnels to enter (20-liter pails placed on their side and partially buried). It’ll be more like a petting zoo than an animal farm, but with a coffee plantation there’s no need to raise them densely.

Feeding the Wabbits

I’ll devote Trough #2 to the production of water spinach (pak bung). Studies have shown that water spinach is an excellent feed for rabbits and satisfies all their nutritional needs. They’ll also feed on the perennial peanut growing in the play area. But that’s still not enough to produce 520kg of rabbit meat a year. The feed conversion ratio for rabbit is something in the area of 3.7, so they will need about 2 tons of feed dry weight. Since water spinach is about 90% water, I’d need 20 tons of it. Trough #2 will produce only about 1 ton green weight a year. I’ve calculated that the forage in the pen areas will only provide enough food for 20 rabbits, which is about how many the water spinach can support. There will also undoubtedly be a lot of waste greens. I’ll consider that as enough for 20 more rabbits. That leaves 350 rabbits to feed. As I gradually replace coffee trees, I can expand on the area for them to graze on perennial peanut, sort of managed intensive rotational feeding on a small scale, but I intend to do this slowly, and there are costs involved (chain-link fencing on the ground, etc.).

The solution is cut-and-carry forage. There’s plenty of grassy, weedy stuff growing around, but since I don’t know which ones are safe for rabbits, I think it’s better to grow a high-quality forage. In a Laos-specific paper I read entitled “Evaluation of Tropical Forages as Feeds for Growing Rabbits,” it was concluded that the leguminous Stylosanthes guianensis (Stylo 184) was the best forage material of the ones available in the study. But an even better forage is Ubon Stylo. I can expect 15 tons of dry matter per hectare per year and 15 to 20% crude protein. Since I need about 1,300kg of dry matter, I’ll need to cultivate about a 10th of a hectare, or 1,000m2. That’s just 32 x 32m. I’ve got plenty of space down on the second tier. For good measure, I’ll cultivate another 1,000m2 area with Mulato II which is a type of forage grass with a similar protein content. It is supposed to be highly nutritious and digestible.

In less than two weeks I return to the Plateau, my little Lao helper and our offspring in tow, to finish Phase I. The system should be up and running, cycling with fish in the tank by the end of August.

Posted in Aquaponics, Construction | 2 Comments

Bombs, Barrels, and Beans on Toast

Life as a hermit doesn’t lend itself well to blogging. Somehow I feel silly sitting at the computer dressed in a bed sheet with my head wreathed in foliage. That’s part of the reason why I haven’t written an article in nearly a month. But, as my “Drafts” folder insists upon reminding me, I’ve begun writing a few times. One draft, which I last saved on June 7, entitled “A Hermit’s Life Goes on. . .”, is exactly 612 words of utter rubbish. Well, a hermit’s life doesn’t necessarily have to go on. The bed sheet is in the to-do laundry heap, and I removed the foliage from around my head and used it to start the last fire. I’m in Vientiane now, and I’ll be posting two articles, this one, which kind of sums up what’s happened recently, and a more technical one (title pending) which will demonstrate lunacy at its pinnacle. I’ve obviously been alone in the jungle too long.

A couple of weeks ago an English friend of mine, who I’d only just met for the first time after perhaps a year or so of email correspondence, showed me his farm/project on the Plateau. On the way to his land he explained to me how the UXO people, the guys and gals who find, disarm, or destroy the Nixon-Kissinger team’s secret gifts to the people of Laos, were working on a powerful, hotshot Lao guy’s property, giving it such precedence that they were clearing the brush themselves (normally you have to have the land cleared of brush and other obstacles yourself before they will sweep it with their high-tech instruments). He was disgruntled because that meant it would take them longer to get around to clearing the rest of his land (6 out of his 7 hectares are still contaminated). It was about that moment that we pulled up to his pock-marked land. I got out of his pickup and had a better look just as a white UXO Land Cruiser passed by. I looked at his land. I looked at the Land Cruiser disappearing around a corner. I looked back at his land as I slowly, and with some disbelief, asked, “Are those bomb craters?” He probably thought it was a stupid question, because it was. “I’ve got a lot of those around me,” I added, still admiring the landscape. He’d been to my land earlier in the day and confirmed that, saying he saw one on his way in.

Nixon's handiwork. Who was he trying to kill?

This is the one he’d seen, and I’ve seen a hundred times. Why hadn’t I known that I was surrounded by bomb craters? This one shown here is not very picturesque but I could reach it from the doorstep of my hermit house with a pitching wedge even against a strong headwind. There’s another one, even less picturesque, probably only about 30 meters away. I’d use a gentle half-swing with a 7-iron for a hole-in-one. It wasn’t any form of guilty-American denial. I’m a history buff and know quite a bit about what went on here. Perhaps it was because all the crater-like holes down on the second tier of my land were, when I asked about them, dug by Billy to use as fish ponds, but the soil just wouldn’t hold the water. Whenever I looked at the other robust indentations on the surrounding landscape, I always thought, “Jeez, how many ponds do these people have to dig until they realize the soil doesn’t hold water. . .” Perhaps Billy had just expanded on holes that were partially dug by Mr. Nixon.

Military targets-- carpet bombing ensures that you hit at least one.

I suspect the bombs dropped in this area, the western side of the Bolaven Plateau, relatively far from the Ho Chi Minh trail, were dropped after the Bolaven Plateau was “liberated” by the Pathet Lao in, probably, late 1971. But a lot of bombing went on. In fact, The US government delivered $7,000  worth of bombs to every man, woman and child in Laos over a 9-year period (870kg each), all paid for by US taxpayers. An incredible $17 million a day  was spent on bombing the country to bits. One quarter of all the money spent on the Vietnam war was used for this purpose (it’s not known how many people were killed, but estimates range between 50,000 and 350,000, 80% of whom were non-combatants). When forced to admit that he was bombing the crap out of a neutral country, Nixon insisted that he was bombing only military targets– I think it’s been well established that Nixon was a brazen liar. In actuality, it was often just a matter of having a lot of planes and bombs and sometimes nowhere else to drop them. Every bureaucrat knows that if you don’t spend all of this year’s budget, it’ll get cut next year. A courageous journalist named Fred Branfman, who risked his life to expose Nixon’s secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, once managed to corner a high-ranking US official back in 1968, pestering him relentlessly until he got a response to his question: “Why is this intensive bombing going on in Northern Laos? It has nothing to do with the war in Indochina, it’s just the destruction of a poor peasant society.” The official lost his temper and replied, “Look, there’s a cessation of bombarding of North Vietnam and we have all these planes, and we don’t know what do with them, so we will bomb Laos.” We know this is true thanks to meticulous record keeping on the part of the US military and Clinton’s declassification of all the military records for the entire Vietnam War in 2000. The bombing got worse from 1968 when the Nixon-Kissinger team were forced to the negotiating table and had to stop bombing North Vietnam.

Incidentally, that’s after Nixon, who would have likely lost the presidential election if the Democrats achieved a peace accord with North Vietnam, using inside information he got from Kissinger, who at that time was involved in the negotiations, secretly sabotaged the talks by directly convincing the president of South Vietnam to not attend. It took another 3 or 4 years to negotiate an accord that got them roughly the same terms as the one he’d sabotaged. Ultimately, it was all about not wanting to look weak to the Soviet Union and China– China had just tested a hydrogen bomb in 1967. That’s when he hit upon the “madman theory” He explained it himself to his chief of staff:

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

It’s interesting, too, that there was another peak in the bombing after the Paris Peace Accords from January 1973 until May of the same year when the US Senate finally put a stop to it. I guess when you get used to dropping bombs, it’s just hard to quit.

Instead of spending $17 million a day bombing innocent peasants, the US should have dropped millions of small parcels of US dollars on them. They’d love us for it, and if the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese tried to take it away from them, the peasants would surely have risen and pushed them out instead of joining them after their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

Just one province wedged between Thailand and Vietnam. The US pretty much bombed all of it.

Along with an embarrassingly tiny amount of money that the US gives every year for UXO cleanup (which is expected to take 3,000 years at the present pace), the US provided  detailed bombing data to the people tasked with cleaning up the mess. Utilizing Google Earth, one of the organizations involved has made maps available based on this information. They look like the one shown at the left which I got from another source. This particular data set is for Khammouane Province only. I drive through this province regularly and have often stayed at the provincial capital of Thakhek as it’s roughly the midpoint between Vientiane and my my farm.

It's as if the bombing map were superimposed on the provincial map.

Notice how the map above compares to this one on the right. But this doesn’t give the full picture. The above file was filtered to show only attack sorties using large general purpose (GP) bombs, so no cluster bomblets nor the sorties that delivered them are shown. Over 270 million cluster bomb submunitions, which we call “bombies,” were dispersed throughout Laos, of which an estimated 80 million didn’t explode. Yet, that is. They are still killing an estimated 300 people a year, of which 40% are said to be children. The sole purpose of the majority of these was to kill or maim people (anti-personnel). Incidentally, the “Convention on Cluster Munitions,” which went into effect in August, 2010, bans the stockpiling, use and transfer of virtually all existing cluster bombs and provides for the clearing up of unexploded munitions. The US refused to be a signatory. The number of cluster bomb submunitions stockpiled by the US today is said to be in the area of 1 billion.

The bombing data offers amazing detail if you are interested in where bombs once rained down on your present position.

The organization that provides the maps claims it “hoped to make this information accessible and useful for interested parties,” so I filled out their request form, asking for information for the province where my farm is, Champasak. They never replied. I’m not going to give up though. Look at the incredible detail the data offers. The photo on the left shows just how detailed the information is. If you zoom in, you can click on a sortie and get information about it. This particular one is just off Route 13 South, so I pass by here frequently. It tells me that two F4 Phantom aircraft dropped a total of 36 MK-82 general purpose 500-pound bombs here on February 15, 1973. I also know that 2 sorties were flown the day before consisting of two A-7s dropping a total of 48 similar bombs and two F4 Phantoms dropping 24 bombs. According to the data for the three sorties, the targets were “Personnel/Any,” “Troops in Contact,” and “Confirm Enemy Location.” This is interesting because technically the US didn’t have any “enemies” because the Paris Peace Accords went into effect two weeks before these bombs were dropped. It’s going to be fun getting precise information about the bomb craters around me. It’s a good thing the Vietnam War didn’t end in 1968 because then I probably wouldn’t have any bomb craters to write about.

There is an art to such disarray.

Changing the subject abruptly, each item in the photo to the right was positioned with utmost care and precision so as to reveal the essence of true disarray. First and foremost is the rain barrel towards the back. It is essential not only for harvesting rain, but for providing me with a topic that starts with the letter “B” which fits in nicely between “Bombs” and “Beans on Toast.” Next to it is the little stick that keeps the building from falling over. The purchased gutters are an immense improvement over the ones I tried to fabricate myself; it’s just that one loses enthusiasm for putting them up after you’ve done one. Next to the uninstalled gutters on the table is an empty can of Campbell’s  Pork and Beans. It’s worth noting that “pork” is the 8th item on the list of ingredients, followed by “salt” and preceded by “modified food starch.” You would expect a product with an “and” in the name to be named after its two most voluminous items, in which case it would be named “Campbell’s Cooked Pea Beans and Water.”  The pieces of cardboard that seem merely strewn about are just that, pieces of cardboard merely strewn about; but by providing them with a purpose they become “The Cardboard Method of No-Till Farming.” To give it an organic twist, I’ve been peeing on them relentlessly.

Water tank after arriving safely in Vientiane.

I had to begin this section with the barrel, because it starts with a “B”, but what I really want to talk about is this baby. It’s a 1500-liter fiberglass tank. I got an excellent deal on it from a friend in Roi Et who discovered it wouldn’t work for him. This is a guy who served as an officer on the island of Borneo during the undeclared war known as the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, and later was involved with building airports and such all over the world as a civil engineer. After Yorkshire Bob, there’s nobody else that I’d turn to if I had a question about building something, fixing something, or securing something firmly to the back of my truck.

It was Friday, June 21. My life as a hermit had been put to an abrupt halt a few days earlier when duty had crept up on me from behind– a Skype video conference involving myself, my company in Japan, and a customer in Italy demanded a half-decent internet connection, pronto. So, I quite happily accepted divine intervention and sped off to my house in Ubon, without any warning, where I was warmly welcomed by my daughter and rather coolly accepted by her mother (“You come too much!” she said as a greeting). As such, I departed the moment my monthly salary wafted into my Thai bank account a few days later.

The day started off quite nicely. I’d been given a really big cardboard box which looked like it could withstand a lot of peeing on, and I put my chainsaw in it to keep it from blowing off the truck. In hindsight, I realize now that I’d just used up all my common sense for the day. I guess I’m not allotted enough daily common sense.  I dropped my daughter off at her school at just after 7:00 a.m. and continued on without incident to Roi Et which is about a 3-hour ride from Ubon. There I was introduced to my tank. It seemed pretty heavy to us. We manhandled it onto the bed of my truck and, after trying a few different positions, we settled on one quite contrary to the one in the photo. We were thinking about aerodynamics, drag and such, but not the important aerodynamics, such as lift. Placed up tight against my cab like an overturned beer cup, we thought it would have the least wind resistance. I disassembled the big box and placed it under the tank. There was some concern about the lid flying away, so I put my chainsaw, which had been relieved of its prior duty, on top of it.

After chatting over a few beers I made my way to Global, a big hardware store, because that’s what the type of guy who carries a big tank in the back of his truck likes to do for fun. I bought a 100-meter roll of black LDPE pipe which, after a short perusal of the situation on the bed of my truck, I decided to place on top of the lid as the chainsaw had bounced halfway off it. Don’t want that lid flying off the truck– could be dangerous, I thought.

Going to Global in Roi Et meant I had to go the wrong way around the ring road, so I decided to try a different route. I was on my last leg to home in Vientiane, which, after living like a hermit for so long, I was actually looking forward to. As my friend in Roi Et had told me, the road to Maha Salakham and eventually to Route 2, which would take me north, was now mostly dual carriageway. I was quite content, looking out at the fresh scenery provided by the new route. I’d gotten used to using the side mirrors as the tank blocked my view with the rear view mirror.

And then the tank suddenly stopped blocking my view. It did so rather violently, with a loud thud that shook my truck as the tank bounded over my tailgate. The first of an assortment of feelings that swept over me in those first few seconds of the affair was betrayal. No, you can’t leave me like this! Then panic enveloped me– I watched in terror as cars behind me struggled to evade the unpredictable movements of a huge, cone-shaped object which, despite rolling from one lane to the other and back again, seemed intent on staying on the road instead of rolling off harmlessly. At this point I paid attention to pulling over and beginning to back up to the “scene of the betrayal.” This took about 10 or 15 seconds, and the predominant feeling, which carried on a good bit longer, like until even now, was disbelief. Disbelief was briefly interrupted by disappointment as it became clear that one car hadn’t completely managed to avoid the 1.5 cubic meter water vessel, and had, it appeared, knocked it into the deep, grassy median (central reservation for you Brits).

It was now time to confront my adversary, a puny Thai girl armed with an iPhone. After having come to a screeching halt as gravity and momentum drew this object, taller than she was, toward her, interacting briefly with her front fender, there can’t be anything much worse than being approached by me. I mean, if some idiot’s going to let their water tank fly off the back of their truck and quite possibly have killed you, let it be another Thai, not a comparatively huge barbarian with a month’s growth of unruly hair on his face. I know how to apologize in Thai as I’ve had to do it frequently, and plenty of the appropriate body signals such as concern and remorse were naturally quite obvious. I decided not to complain about her having knocked my tank into no-man’s land. I did, however, try to get off easy by claiming that the smudge on her fender was “little little.” She said something I didn’t understand, and when she realized I didn’t understand she started walking to the other side of her car and pointing. At first I thought she was pointing at more damage, but how could the tank have hit the front and side of her car? She was pointing at her insurance sticker, actually. When she got off the phone with her insurance company I risked a bit of friendly conversation. I didn’t know how to say, “That must have scared the shit out of you,” so I said, “That was scary, huh.” She spread her arms out wide and put a terrified look on her face, as if she were about to be hit by an asteroid. She was friendly and, though some of my readers may find this hard to believe, there were no apparent hard feelings. This is Isaan, Northeast Thailand. This shit happens all the time. She wouldn’t let me retrieve my tank, though.

We waited in our air conditioned vehicles for the insurance guy to show up. He took lots of photographs, my license, my truck, my tank down in the deep, wide ditch. I don’t know why, but I was expecting him to scold me, but he just carried on with his business as if everything was perfectly normal. After he’d photographed my tank, I pulled it up out of the ditch. I thought he might offer to help me put it back on my truck, but he completely ignored me. It was a case of blatant ignoring. I’m familiar with this, too, as nice people will feel compelled to help you if they make the mistake of making eye contact. I summoned all the strength I had, dragged the tank across the road, and somehow managed to get it back up on the truck. For some reason my friend had drilled a series of holes just under the rim of the tank. I had a short length of nylon rope and I used it to tie the rim securely to the framework behind the cab. Before tying it I waved the rope in the air in the general direction of the puny Thai girl I could have killed, and she smiled back at me.

I paid 2,500 baht (about $80) for the cosmetic damage and was on my way again. Although not a feeling, the tank had become an enormous distraction.  I have a vivid imagination, and as the tank wobbled back and forth, the rope securing it pulled tight, I imagined the sharp edge of the hole through which the rope was tied gradually sawing through it. I checked on it several times. It wasn’t happening, but I wasn’t in a normal frame of mind. Eventually I used all the remaining length of the rope to make another knot. Irrational me. And, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the distraction of the tank made me miss a turn that my friend had warned me about. This mistake added 80km to my trip. I got to the border just as they were about to close. I’d been a bit concerned that the Lao customs people would try to get some money out of me. It’s not as if I’d been shopping in Thailand and was bringing back a few grocery items. The customs guy who signed my paperwork for my truck asked me, in English, if I had anything with me. “Just an old water tank,” I replied. It was looking old and beaten up even though my friend had never used it. I was careful not to make eye contact as I passed through the gate to freedom on the other side. It was almost 10 p.m. when I got to the house in Vientiane. The trip had taken 15 hours.

It doesn't look like much, but I'm getting there.

This is what I left behind, and to which I will soon be retuning, hopefully with my little Lao helper in tow. I’m using tarps to catch the rain, and I’ll be adding more soon. The idea is to get the tank filled up with rain water, add some of Billy’s pig’s shit, and coax some algae to life. Then I’ll stock it with 1,000 tiny tilapia, each about 2.5cm in length. They will be able to grow in there for quite some time without becoming too crowded. While they grow, I’ll finish up the rest of my aquaponic system. You can see that as I gradually extend the concrete footing on the right-hand side, I’m putting up wooden panels on the left which will form one side of this hydroponic trough. Billy, who I paid to do much of the concrete work that you see, apparently can’t read a simple drawing, having gotten things off by just enough to require a complete design overhaul. I’m making this hydroponic trough as deep as the pond liner material I have will allow. Since that material is 2.5m wide, I’m making the sides 40cm high. This will make it possible to double as a fish tank in the future. It will hold about 8,000 liters, as much as the main fish tank. I thought about using other materials, but finally settled on wood as I can insulate it with rice husks and I know how to work with it. Each 3.66m length of panel is anchored to the concrete footer in two places and bolted to the next panel. After the voids are filled with rice husks, the panels will get a top plate. Bracing will connect between the top plates and the posts running down the middle of the system. My next article will be mostly about my rather far-reaching plans for this system, which have changed considerably, so I’ll leave it at this for now.

The devil made me eat it. . .

For nourishment during my hermit adventure I depended mostly on beer but also had the occasional solid food item. I’d made a trip to Ubon in early June to use my bank, buy some building materials, and stock up on food. I bought some good bread and made an excellent tuna salad mixture, enough for a sandwich a day for a week. Having only a charcoal grill, my focus was on things that could be heated up easily, preferably from a can. Cleaning up was a distraction from getting things done, so I rarely cleaned up. A tuna salad sandwich requires very little cleaning up, but, as you’d suspect, I forgot to bring the all-important tuna salad. So, there I was one night, with some leftover pork and beans in the fridge and numerous slices of bread with no friends to play with. When I lived in Hua Hin about 10 years ago I had a couple of British flatmates. One was called Tony Chang after the popular Thai beer. He didn’t usually wake up until late afternoon and I don’t remember his eating habits, if he had any, but the other guy, Martin, would eat a tin of beans on toast every day when he came home from work for lunch. As my computer was in what would best be termed the multipurpose room, I couldn’t help but watch him day in and day out eating beans on toast. I swore I’d never eat it myself. Asceticism, which is sort of the way a hermit lives, is described as a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. Being reduced to eating beans on toast taught me a valuable lesson: hermiting just plain sucks.

Posted in Aquaponics, Construction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Building the Cube– Part 2– Arrival of the Hermit

“In the 18th century, the inclusion of a hermit on one’s estate was regarded as the epitome of country house style. There is absolutely no reason why today’s dandy should not avail himself of the same privilege. It’s a straightforward enough matter to entice a hopelessly drunk vagrant back to your premises using the simple lure of an opened bottle of wine. Once there, dress him in a bed sheet, wreathe his head in foliage and invite him to take up residence in an old barrel with the promise of unlimited alcohol, tobacco and scraps from your table in return for a sterling display of relentless solitude. Such a move not only provides the disadvantaged with ideal employment opportunities, but also enhances your reputation for stylish romanticism. Watch your friends gape in wonderment at the picturesque spectacle as your hermit sporadically peers out the top of the barrel and matters a few enigmatic words of wisdom.”

I must admit, I like that. The trouble is, I appear to be both the hermit and, on rare occasions, the dandy. This will be my 4th night in what I used to call “the cube,” but now refer to as “the hermit house.” For the next year, at least, I will probably be sleeping more nights here than anywhere else; so I now consider myself “living here.”

Chicken feet soup for dinner; yum!

Today’s rain, from early afternoon, was (and still is) one of those practical, consistent, yet not overly zealous rains– just serious enough to make me stay indoors, drink beer, make soup, and attempt this update.  My finances are crap, so today it’s chicken feet soup for dinner. It may look meager, but there are two chicken feet in there. And, anyway, the fridge is full of beer. Actually, the lady at the market refused to sell me just the feet, so I had to buy the whole chicken. No Lotus Tesco here. So, I’m starting with the feet today and working my way up over the next several weeks.

It just gets more and more luxurious. . .

I wish I could take a photo that would encapsulate it all. . . Soup over charcoal, Eric Clapton playing from my hard drive (no 3G here, only Edge, so I can’t even listen to internet radio), an exceptionally well-made door, that I fabricated this morning using scraps, on the bathing/dish washing area in the back (which I enclosed yesterday). I’m reduced to using whatever is left over. It’s kind of funny, because when I started this “odyssey” I thought I’d strive to be economical, so that by setting an example the poorer people around me would be able to make some use of my efforts, even if I was fairly well off; but, as it turns out, the Bank of Japan has conspired against me, and I find myself envying those poor people around me who have running water and don’t need to roam about the coffee plantation with a shovel and a bottle of water when nature calls.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, here are 11,000 words, in chronologically descending order.

It's no longer a cube, it's a "Hermit House."

This is today’s view from the side. I’d hoped to put up gutters to catch the rain today, but, well, it rained. . .

With a little ingenuity, you can make coffee under any circumstances, but it might not be very good. . .

Since I have a coffee plantation, I felt I should drink coffee from the Bolaven Plateau every morning. But in my haste, I bought “robusta” instead of “arabica,” which is about as fatal a mistake as you can make, coffee-wise. What’s worse, I  had no cup, no filter, no anything. So, in radical departure from common sense, instead of going out and buying the necessary items, I used the top of a water bottle (the bottom of which I use to drink beer) with some linen I had hanging around as a filter, a bowl as a cup, and I just throw the coffee in the little pot I have to steep for a while. It actually works– but not well. At first I held the filter/water bottle by hand, which was quite precarious, and painful, so I cut a hole in a piece of cardboard and set the whole thing on top of two pieces of scrap wood. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Naughty wood! Sit! Sit! Okay, never mind. . .

My truck makes a very nice work bench. However, when you are using scraps of wood such as these that I salvaged, there’s not much you or the Hyundai can do. But this is part of the Way of the Wrong Way.

The photo speaks for itself. . .

This photo sums it up. If I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t be here alone. But I really wish there was someone to clean up after me. . .

Another thing I didn't think of buying. . .

My welcome mat.

Another burst of ingenuity-- beer cup fabricated from a water bottle.

As much as I enjoy drinking beer from a bowl, as I’m drinking coffee these days, I needed a cup, because only backpackers drink 640ml beers from the bottle. The other half became my coffee filter contraption. What on Earth am I doing!

Home, sweet home.

It’s actually kind of cozy inside. A home improvement of relative importance will be getting a ceiling up and insulated– it’s quite hot in the afternoon with just the tin roof overhead.

Cantilevered overhang in the back.

I needed somewhere to shower, hide dirty dishes, and instal a composting toilet. I figured it didn’t need to be fancy, just enough to protect me from the elements. But I was running out of wood, so I had to mostly use scraps. That’s when I decided to make it a cantilevered overhang.

Hinged storm doors-- not as easy as you'd think. . .

It took me most of a day to build these storm doors. I think it was the first time I ever put something on hinges. And no, the whole thing doesn’t fall over if I remove the stick. Now I’ve got a bicycle lock on it for a bit of security when I go to town to get supplies.

This veranda gives me 30% more living space.

The veranda required a full day to accomplish– or maybe it was two. This photo was taken on May 21, my birthday.

The hermit house is just 20 meters to the left of the aquaponic system site. Getting this up and running is my next task.

I think that’s pretty much where I left off from my earlier post. Now that I’m settled in, I can focus on my aquaponic system. I’d better hurry, before it’s completely consumed by the jungle.

 

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Building the Cube– Part 1

The madness continues-- Lao New Year

As you can see, the one spot at the Vientiane residence which I could sort of call my own for a quiet beer in the evening was overrun, beset upon by an intoxicated mob of revelers. They carried on like this for three strait days during the recent Lao New Year festivities. I took refuge, as best I could, in the suffocating little cubbyhole that is both my bedroom and my office. I wanted to get another chapter of the book that I’m translating done so that I could get paid quickly and get away, escape, flee the scene of the madness. But the locals had other plans for me. They assured me that I was missing all the fun, come and see, which was just a ruse to get me to go outside, and when I relented and made what I’d hoped would be a brief appearance, they poured buckets of ice cold water down my back (the water was a gift from the shop across the street whose owner so generously provided the runoff from his ice-making machine).

Truckload of rice husks.

Needless to say, this became a repetitious circus act in which the Big White Guy is lured from the safety of his closet only to become the target of water cannons and short women wearing pink, wet T-shirts and armed with an arsenal of talcum powder. I’d succumb, of course, and the beer they forced me to drink, completely against my will, would numb me sufficiently to bear it all.  Eventually it winded down. I got my translation done, days later than planned, got paid, and on Saturday, April 20, with my little Lao helper in tow, I made my escape. I felt like a kid just out of school for the summer. The day before we departed, I’d had Dad load my truck with a heap of bags full of dry rice husks.  I woke up so early that morning that we were off from Vientiane at 7:20 a.m.

It was the first time in a long time that I’d done the Lao route to the South, where my farm is. I usually go through Thailand because the roads are better and it’s about the same distance, although doing two border crossings is annoying. The roads had improved, miraculously, and since it wasn’t quite into the rainy season yet, most of the animals were not standing in the middle of the road. It still took me eleven and a half hours to get to Pakse, which happens to be the third most populous city in Laos. Pakse is “just about there,” but I usually stop somewhere about “half-way there.” I wanted to make full use of Sunday, though, so I drove as far as I could.

Screwed up stacking order.

Although I’d planned everything quite precisely, “stacking order” was not part of the plan. So, when we got to my farm at around 10:00 a.m., Sunday, April 21, after checking into a guest house in the nearby town of Paksong, we unloaded the bags of rice husks from the truck and began shuffling through the assorted semi-finished panels and other building materials I’d smuggled in from Thailand a few weeks earlier. The semi-finished floor panels were what I needed first, and they were, as you’d suspect, in the lower half of the pile. So out of necessity one pile became two. At last the two semi-finished floor panels were retrieved and placed one each on top of the piles. I received a blank look from my little Lao helper when I explained that the plywood surface that was facing up was actually the bottom, and that a copious amount of preservative needed to be applied to it. I didn’t know if this was true, but I thought it better to be on the safe side. When I opened the small can of preservative, it wasn’t what I expected; it was gray and foamy (from shaking it), and I’d expected something like a dark-brown stain. These days manufacturers are required to print so much information in so many languages on the back side of their products that the print has become impossibly small to read, so I’d relied on the larger print on the front of the can which was mostly just an advertisement. But it was an expensive imported product from Germany that claimed to be a wood preservative, and I didn’t want the overly-attentive staff member following me around at the hardware store as if he were attached by an umbilical cord to think I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I’d chosen it somewhat haphazardly. I continued to pretend that its contents were exactly what I wanted when she watched me open the can. I’d bought a paint brush, too, and she looked at it with what seemed to be a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. I demonstrated, dipping the brush into the mysterious liquid and using the tips of the bristles to spread it evenly. I let her carry on with it while I went to the building site about 20 paces away to level some strings, again, as some kids had been playing around there while I’d been away and had broken a few of the stakes which I’d painstakingly erected and leveled a few weeks before. I checked how she was doing twice. The first time I noticed that she was sort of smearing the stuff onto the plywood, the brush almost horizontally applied. I demonstrated again how you paint with the tips of the bristles, like I’d learned as a kid. She didn’t seem to see how that was any better, so I mentioned something about capillary action and fluid dynamics and completed my lecture with, “Just do it like this, okay?” The second time I checked up on her she’d just accidentally tipped the can over right in the center of the second panel. It couldn’t have been a more perfectly placed accident. We used some flat edged pieces of wood to spread the stuff about and coax the excess back into the nearly empty can. “Baw pen yang,” I said.  Never mind. I expected things to start off badly.

And that’s about when the storm came. The storm was, in principle, supposed to arrive in the late afternoon, otherwise my eleven-and-a-half-hour effort to get to Pakse the day before so that I could begin work early would have been in vain. And that it was. Although we were under the roof of a fairly substantial building, the building didn’t have any walls, and this was not a normal storm. It became nothing less than colossal. We later learned that it had toppled a number of poorly constructed buildings, garages and such, in the area. Poorly constructed, huh? As it quickly became as dark as night and the wind began spitting the rain at us horizontally, we realized there was nowhere to hide. The two piles that lay exposed were getting soaked. There were no gutters on the building, so the downpour that fell off the roof just splashed up noisily and joined the rain that was blowing in and soaking us, as well. Where there was earlier a puddle of wood preservative on a panel, there was now a puddle of water. We covered the piles as best we could with aged tarps of dubious quality. We waited for the storm to die down, but it just got more intense. My little Lao helper took shelter, crouching behind the wall of bags filled with rice husks, while I stood defiantly in the center of it all, as if to say, “Come on! You can do better than that!” Lightning struck all around us with hardly a delay before smacking our eardrums with its thunder. The trees that we could see around us were not just swaying in the wind, it was as if they were being shaken in a fit of rage. We would have just gotten in the truck and left, gone back to the cozy guest house, but we realized that by making two piles we’d made it impossible for Billy, my landlord, who was probably suffering as badly as we were, but elsewhere, to move his motorbike-with-a-side-car. So we first had to put one stack back on top of the other and then cover it again. This was how the Bolaven Plateau greeted us on our first day.

 Monday, April 22

Treated to a weird light show

We got an entirely different reception early the next morning. I parked the truck nearby the building side, and when we got out an looked to the east where the sun was already surprisingly high, there were two shining sun-like objects on opposite sides of the sun. In the photo here at the right, the sun is behind the tree. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good scientific explanation for it, but it was pretty cool, nonetheless. Although I don’t have a photo of it, a bit later a ring formed around us in the sky; it was sort of like a halo, and sort of like a rainbow, but neither. It was weird. We felt welcomed. Had we passed some test that the Spirits of the Million-Year-Old Extinct Volcano (that’s what the Bolaven Plateau is) had cast at us the day before?

Getting the foundation level-- almost. . .

Then we got to work. I’d decided not to use any concrete at all. It probably wasn’t the best decision I could make. The bags of gravel which I’d decided to use instead were not easy to level. I wasn’t worried about the durability of the polypropylene bags, because I know that if they are kept out of the sun, they will last more than a century, and their tensile strength exponentially exceeds what’s needed in this application. But they were hard to get level. My little Lao helper seemed to think that a centimeter or two didn’t matter, so, exhausted from moving the 60kg bags around, I said, “Let’s find out.”

Tuesday, April 23

Vapor barrier, maybe.

Then the whole thing got two layers of black plastic. I have my doubts about this stuff, but I didn’t want to use any of the expensive greenhouse plastic that I have. If it’s kept out of the sun, I figured, it’ll probably continue to function as a vapor barrier for long enough, if not forever. Although I’m a believer in biodegradability, I’m not ashamed to use these products of the petrochemical industry when it suits me.  This is about when I noticed my little Lao helper grinning. Or was it a smirk? Did she think it was clever (I’ve never seen a vapor barrier being used here), or stupid? It’s another one of those things I’ll never know.

Semi-finished floor with rice husks for insulation.

We set the two floor panels down and I bolted them together with the help of a C-clamp. Then we started filling the voids with rice husks. It was oddly satisfying. Although it’s not well known, rice husks are classified, in the USA, as a Class A thermal insulating material. You can’t get better than that. There is no Class A+. They generally refuse to burn, and they absorb so little moisture that molds and fungi find them quite inhospitable. And they are free.

My little Lao helper, aka Thone, mother of our 3-year old daughter.

Having successfully filled all the voids, we began attaching the upper sheets of plywood across the two panels, essentially tying them together. My little Lao helper finally understood what I was doing, or pretended to, anyway, and managed a smile. Although I like to take my shirt off and expose myself to the sun, vitamin D and all that, the sun is the mortal enemy of all Southeast Asian girls. They abhor it, and spend hundreds of dollars a month on skin whitening creams. And at more than a kilometer above sea level, it’s a strong sun, although it’s cool and comfortable in the shade. I was beginning to appreciate the “sacrifice” she was making, but I also wanted her to stop bitching about “becoming black.”

Foundation, floor, and one roof truss-- end of the second day.

It would have been nice to just start putting up walls, but I needed the flat surface of the finished floor to assemble my roof trusses. I’d cut the timber to length in Ubon, so it was just a matter of making a few cuts and tying them together with plywood. I got the front truss finished by the time the weather began to look ominous in the early afternoon. So that was the end of our second day of work. Foundation, floor, and one roof truss completed. About a 5-hour day. No beer. Exhausted. We covered it with the dubious plastic tarps and retreated to the safety of our guest house. Hot shower, happy happy.

Wednesday, April 24

Two wall panels up and bolted together. Trusses at the right.

I finished putting the trusses together. I’d never made trusses before. It was really hard to keep myself from over-engineering them. It’s an 8′ x 8′ box, after all, not a gymnasium. I’d planned on 5 trusses, but realized that was overkill, or maybe I was just letting laziness get to me, so I settled on 4 trusses. My little Lao helper agreed. She kept on asking me, “When you do roof?” She also asked me, “Where you put posts?” Any shortcut I suggested was eagerly accepted. “Don’t need posts,” I said. “Okay!” At one point I thought of suggesting that the building really didn’t need a roof at all, since there’s only about 3.5 meters of precipitation each year. She might have hesitated for an instant before replying, “Yes, don’t need roof.”

Ugly veneer but easy to disinfect and it keeps the rice husks in.

Billy, my landlord, had gone off to get food for his pigs (scraps from the market), and the walls which I’d made in advance were going up so quickly that I got carried away and careless. I’d wanted to impress him, which, given the fact that he’s got a degree in mechanical engineering, was not an easy thing to do. By the sixth wall panel, that “One or two centimeters doesn’t matter” began to matter. But it wasn’t anything that a bit of mindless bashing with a sledgehammer couldn’t solve. Three sides were up, and we’d begun applying the really ugly but easy-to-disinfect veneer interior paneling. So the walls got veneer paneling applied horizontally on the inside, and we filled the voids with rice husks. “When you do roof?” I was asked again. Not yet. I had to apply the top plates first, pieces of timber that would tie the whole thing together, but I couldn’t do that until the voids were all full of rice husks. But she didn’t understand. And then the weather became threatening, so after battening down the hatches, we gratefully returned to the guest house and enjoyed a long, hot shower.

Thursday, April 25

Battening down the cube with dubious tarps.

I was convinced I’d have the roof up on Thursday, although I’d originally thought it would only take a day to complete. Every day I thought I’d get the roof up. But there were minor things I had to do, first. Ventilation would be nice, I knew, so I had to make vents on two of the walls. And as much as I’d wanted to get the roof on quickly, I decided to get the two remaining front walls up first. Then I got carried away and went for the roof, completing a bit of it before the weather became threatening again. This bit of roof just got in the way afterwards. I didn’t like being hurried. I didn’t like the sound of thunder in the distance. . . My shorts were in tatters. It had been a 9-hour day. I was almost too tired to drink beer in the evening. And it was just a tiny box, a cube; thank God I wasn’t building anything bigger. I would have “expired.”

Friday, April 26; Saturday, April 27

The roof is on, time to take a break.

I didn’t take any photos on Friday. We finished the inside, filling the wall voids with rice husks. I remember just about getting the top plate on the front wall done when the weather began threatening us. But, by the end of the day on Saturday, the roof trusses were up, and the roof itself was done. An hour or two before getting the roof done, I’d smashed the middle finger of my left hand with the hammer, and then sliced a knuckle of my right hand seemingly to the bone when I nailed to close to the roofing material, which has quite sharp edges. It was okay while the blood was flowing, but when I’d left it be for a while and later realized I couldn’t even pick up a glass of beer with it, I decided that we were done. Part One was over. I was quite satisfied even if it was a minor achievement. With the top plates on and the trusses in place, it was solid as a rock, over-engineered, as I’d expected. My little Lao helper actually spoke fondly of it, as if it were an ugly but irresistible duckling.

To be continued. . .

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