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!



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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1 Response to The Autumn of 16,647 Kilometers of Lateral Drift

  1. Eddie says:

    Hi Lunatic Dreamer and Bugger All Beer Maker,
    You wrote: “…the only thing that will be discharged into the environment will be CO2 into the air.” Besides the global warming issues, are you aware that many commercial greenhouse growers (e.g. of tomatoes, cucumbers, etc) supplement the air inside their greenhouses with CO2 to increase yields? Just Google greenhouse CO2 supplementation.
    Lunatic Dreamer and Bugger All Bike Rider.

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