A: I am a lab technician at the Community College of Baltimore County, in Baltimore, Maryland. Our program is Sustainable Horticulture. We offer an A.A.S. degree as well as Certificates in concentrated areas of study. We decided to create an Aquaponics system for student learning projects. I work on our Aquaponics alongside other college employees with various areas of expertise creating quite a successful troubleshooting/ problem solving group.
Q: How did you get interested in aquaponics?
A: The director of the program, Dr. Bradley W. Thompson, was awarded a grant to begin an Aquaponics system for student learning. We visited a Johns Hopkins University based program, “A Center for a Liveable Fuutre” for our first exposure to Aquaponics. In my position, as a technician for the program, I was ” thrown into the water, so to speak, and learned by using the book, Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bertstein to “swim” in the Aquaponics system. My cohorts, especially, Doug Meise, another lab technician, and Chuck Mens, a facility engineer, came willingly to help as the concept was of interest to them.
Q: How are you currently working with aquaponics? Home setup, community greenhouse, etc.
A: We are a community college program and decided to create an Aquaponics system for student learning projects. We began last Fall, purchasing most of the components from Aquaponics Source.
Q: Tell us about your system. Geek out a bit and tell us all the specs.
A: We purchased the Aquabundance Modular Bountiful system with an upgraded 800gPH pump. This original purchase included 2- 4×4 media beds, which we filled with Hydrocorn. The fish tank is 200 gallons. We also added two raft beds and another pump to the system. We have a 55 gallon tank for water storage to allow chlorine to off gas before we use as replacement water. We used 4 aquarium type water heaters and three aerators on the system. The lighting used over all 4 beds are T5, 4ft. six bulb fixtures. We purchased 50 fingerling White Nile Tilapia from White Brook Tilpaia Farm. We have fed them AquaNourish food and are on Stage 4 food at this time ready to harvest the fully grown fish this month(June). We used Red Wiggler Worms in the system. We also tried beneficial insects of various kinds to help with pest issues .
Q: What plants and fish have you had the best luck with? And the worst?
A: We have only had one season of fish growing so far. The White Nile Tilapia were easy to raise using the chosen Aquanourish food using mostly an automatic feeder. They were very hardy even through many swings of water chemistry, temperature, occasional over feeding, pump malfunctions, etc. We started with Collards and Kale and had issue with Cabbage Whitefly so removed all cabbage family except for Pak Choi. Pak Choi grew very well and didn’t have insect issues. Swiss Chard is the best grower with no insect issues! I had incredible yield from grape tomato plants that grew into the ceiling of the greenhouse. We called it the tomato monster! Pepper plants, marigolds, bush beans all incredible. The plants grew larger than any I had ever seen. The system was supercharged with nutrients!
Q: What do you like most about aquaponics? Least?
A: I love how easily the plants grow in water in the system. It is much less labor intensive than a soil based garden. It was fascinating to see the growth. The least favorite thing is the sludge in the system and cleaning secondary filtration and sump tank, etc. The fish add a layer of stress to the upkeep knowing that living creatures can be at risk from any error or mishap.
I loved Sylvia’s book, it was my “bible”.
Q: What do you think the biggest misconception about aquaponics is?
A: Biggest misconception: That it is simply fish poo and plants growing… The system is very complex Nitrogen system where every aspect must be working in tandem to have a healthy system. Water chemistry concepts should be studied before you begin as learning on the fly can be stressful.
Misconception #2 That it is cost effective and inexpensive. I found it to be very expensive and can’t imagine that you could feed a family cheaply using only this type of system.
Q: What are your future aquaponics goals?
A: We are giving it a break for one semester when the fish are harvested. We will begin again from “scratch” in Spring semester of 2016. We may try to raise different fish such as Koi, using cooler temp water, which will mean we can possible grow lettuces(cool crops) mostly.
If I were to raise Tilapia again, I would want to use the Organic food, or all vegan food. I would like have Duckweed rafts in the fish tank .
Q: What do your friends say when you show them your system for the first time?
A: They are fascinated and say “WOW!” Some are surprised that we would use the fish for food when they are grown. I don’t know why else I would’ve raised Tilapia if they weren’t to be eaten..
Q: What is your next big gear purchase going to be? What about your next small one?
A: Possibly another fish tank for ability to breed and separate fish.
Possibly a classroom size set-up to use in area other than greenhouse.
Q: What’s the best recipe you’ve ever had/made, based around something you grew in your system?
A: I did not make anything unusual but sure did eat Swiss Chard (sauteed) and plenty of grape tomatoes right off the vines!