The TH Interview: Brian Naess of Snowcamp Aquaponics
Brian Naess of Snowcamp Aquaponics, with his son and future fish farmer Arne
When I started getting excited about aquaponics, the practice of combining hydroponics with fish farming, I was delighted to discover Snowcamp Aquaponics – a blog about DIY aquaponics for those with zero experience. I was even more delighted to discover that Brian and Liz Naess, the authors of the blog, were living 20 minutes drive from my house. Having posted on their blog, I contacted Brian and they kindly invited me to check out their set up. Brian, a research associate and co-instructor of a coral reef ecology and management class at UNC, also took the time to talk me through his set up and offer some advice on other would-be backyard fish farmers.
TreeHugger: What got you interested in aquaponics? Brian Naess: I stumbled across the term "aquaponics" while preparing a lecture on aquaculture for a coral reef ecology class, and the more I read about it, the more it just made sense! I've always loved fishing and gardening, and the idea that I could somehow combine the two was too hard to resist.
TH: What do you see as the primary environmental benefits?
BN: There are many potential environmental benefits from aquaponics, but a lot depends on your lifestyle, where you get your fish/produce from, and how you set up your system. In general, aquaponic systems provide fruits, vegetables, and fish that are raised with zero or minimal fertilizer input, and even when extra nutrients are required, they can often be provided by organic sources. Aquaponic systems typically have a lower carbon footprint than traditional soil, hydroponic, or aquaculture farms, due to the symbiosis between the fish, the beneficial bacteria, and the plants. Finally, most aquaponic systems are recirculating systems that require very little water input once the tanks are full. Unless you have a leak, the only water you lose during operation is due to evaporation and transpiration by the plants. Given the prevalence of drought over North Carolina and much of the southeast, this was a strong benefit for me, and I believe small aquaponic systems hold great promise for addressing nutritional needs in poor, arid countries.
TH: Can you list some of the resources available to the beginner such as yourself?
BN: There are a ton of great resources on the internet. While aquaponics is still a relatively new adventure, there are many sites about aquaculture. Your state probably has an agricultural extension office, and they probably have a section devoted to aquaculture. This is important, as many states restrict tilapia production. I would strongly suggest visiting Backyard Aquaponics. They have loads of information and a great forum with people from all over the world actively engaged in building, designing, and troubleshooting aquaponic systems. I also subscribe to the Aquaponics Journal, which is published quarterly. It's filled with nice articles about systems around the world, a question/answer section with a world expert on aquaponics, and info about workshops and other aquaponic-related events.
TH: Is it something anyone can do, or is this a hobby for the technically proficient?
BN: I had absolutely no prior experience with pond design, hydroponic gardening, or even plumbing, outside of toilet and drain repair, before I began this project. That said, I am probably a little above average in the handy-man-around-the-house department. I think the most important thing you need to get involved with aquaponics is a desire to see something through 'til the end. Because most people do not have experience with plumbing or hydroponics or even keeping fish, you have to be willing to invest a little money and a lot of time. There are plenty of resources available on the internet, and I would certainly suggest doing a lot research on what other people have already done - what works, the problems they encountered, and the ways that they solved those problems are particularly informative. The best part about it is that if you do put in the time and energy, it will work, and you will have fresh fish and vegetables!
TH: Can you describe your set up, and how you built it?
BN: When I first started reading about aquaponics, I imaged building something small and keeping it indoors. However, once I started pricing everything out, I realized that I could do something on a larger scale outdoors for about the same cost.
Since our new aquaponics system would be outdoors, we wanted it to look good. And, because we weren't really sure if this whole aquaponics idea was going to work and that we would enjoy it, we tried to avoid putting in any permanent, structural support. We decided to dig a small pond (about 10' diameter) for the fish, because we agreed that even if the aquaponics didn't work out as we had planned, it would be nice to have a pond and have the sound of running water in our yard. The digging commenced last fall, and aside from one day when a few friends came over to help, it was mostly a one-man job. We wanted it to be at least 3 feet deep, so that it would not freeze all the way through and the fish would be able to hunker down near the bottom if a heron or some other fish eater came through. We lined the pond with a fish-safe, rubber liner, and put a bunch of rocks and gravel in it for aesthetics and to give the fish some nooks and crannies to explore. The pond is roughly circular, and it has a skimmer, much like a pool, that is situated directly across from a waterfall. The waterfall not only helps to ensure that water flows through all parts of the pond without leaving any parts stagnant, but also oxygenates the water.
Water flowing into the skimmer is pumped around the pond and then is split in two directions. Half of the water is directed to a 110 gallon plastic tub with native North Carolina wetland plants growing in gravel that feeds the waterfall, and half of the water heads to two additional 110 gallon plastic tubs with garden vegetables, also growing in a gravel medium. Water flows into one end of the tub, then fills from the bottom up to about an inch from the gravel surface, then flows out one or more outflow pipes back into the pond. All three tubs have ball valves connected to them, so that I can control the flow of the water into them.
Brian's fish pond, including native wetland plant filtration bed
TH: What have been the biggest challenges in getting this up-and-running?
BN: The biggest challenge in the construction of our system was simply digging. We wanted to dig the pond by hand, and it just takes a lot of time and effort. We luckily didn't have many rocks or roots in the way, but the clay was brick-hard. The plumbing, electrical (for the pump), and installing the liner were all pretty easy to do.
It also turned out to be difficult to get tilapia large enough in May/June to have a chance of reaching plate size by October. Tilapia can only survive in warm water (greater than 70 degrees), so, in North Carolina, that means late spring through early fall. You want to start out with 3-4" fingerlings to have a chance at them being one to two pounds by October, but most suppliers will only ship much smaller fish. As it turned out, I found one local supplier, but was not able to get tilapia this year due to circumstances beyond my or his control (hungry otters). I'm hoping that this won't happen again next year!
TH: Do you have any advice for others wanting to start experimenting?
BN: Read as much as you can about aquaculture, hydroponics, and especially aquaponics. You'll see that most people encounter the same problems. If you're like me, reading doesn't soak in as well as doing, but it helps to at least know of some of the potential pitfalls as you are designing your system. If this is something that sounds cool to you, something that makes sense, something we should all be doing, then do it! You'll love having fish around, you'll love the sound of running water, and you'll love eating your own fresh veggies!
The hydroponics element of Brian's aquaponics system, growing tomatoes, peppers, squash, greens and other vegetables
More on Aquaponics
Snowcamp Aquaponics: DIY Fish Farming With Zero Experience
DIY Aquaponics – A Video Round Up
Growing Power Milwaukee
The Urban Aquaculture Centre
Aquaponics: The Urban Food Revolution