Total Pageviews

Friday, February 25, 2011


Lepomis microlophus, aka shellcracker or redear sunfish

I gave a call to my nearest commercial fishery (90 minutes away...) and he extolled the benefits of catfish and 'shellcracker.' Seems shellcracker is a type of sunfish, like blue gill, but they grow faster and larger. They're called shellcracker because they like to munch on aquatic snails, cracking the shells in their powerful back jaws.

Most of what I can find on shellcracker (or redear sunfish) is on sport fishing or pond culture websites. I can find all kinds of recommendations for stocking density for a 1-2 acre pond, for example. And much of that literature explains the mix of fishes you want to get. Carolina Fish Hatchery goes so far as to offer pond stocking packages. For example, the package for a new 1 acre pond would run $765 and consists of:
700 Bluegill (2-4")
300 Shellcracker (2-4")
10# Minnows
100 Largemouth Bass (4-6")
100 Channel Catfish (6-8")

I told the nice man at the local fishery how excited I was to visit once I'd set up my system. He proceeded to tell me about the Fish Wagon. Fish Wagon is a family owned pond stocking business out of Arkansas that delivers to customers at local agricultural supply stores during the warmer months. I'm sure the nice man at the fishery 90 minutes from my house wouldn't mind my business, but he thought local delivery of fish that didn't cost me shipping might work better for me.

I thought that was right nice of him.

If I'm looking at a polyculture of fish, I don't mind going for a 300 gallon tank. Even though I've read on the internet somewhere that you can have as many as 3 bluefish per gallon of water (900 blue gill), I think I'd settle for a tiny fraction of the numbers cited above.

Here's the way the Rubbermaid 300 gallon fish tank and 50 (or 100) gallon grow beds could fit in the 8'x18' space:


In other news, my tilapia have yet to ship. They're coming from near Kansas City, which has been hit by a big winter storm. Looking forward to having them in hand sometime next week!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Loving me some Bluegill...

Lepomis macrochirus, aka Bluegill

So in considering my outdoor aquaponics system, I was at a loss for what kind of fish I wanted to do.

Channel catfish were looking excellent. I figured out a layout if I were to do channel cats. TCLynx in Florida recommends at least a 300 gallon tank for catfish, but I worried because even she had a problem with fish deaths because it got cold and the channel cats stopped eating (while the automatic feeder kept dispensing). That's Florida cold, not DC cold.

I mean, what is OK in warm water and OK in near-freezing or even frozen water? What is legal for me to have outside (i.e., NOT tilapia)? What eats just about anything?

Turns out Bluegill may be just what the doctor ordered.

Bluegill will eat just about anything. They are pretty prolific, but in ponds are usually kept in check by larger predator fish (think largemouth bass). As for eating, it's a clue that they are called "pan fish."

They do OK in freezing temperatures. In fact, some ice fishers swear they are amongst the best fish to try for. They're fierce, making them a good sport fish, though they tend to run small.

And I finally found the list on the DGIF website for local commercial fish hatcheries. So now I know where to go to buy fish.

I'll have to ask about what size tank I'll need, and whether I should add a largemouth bass or two to help keep the eventual juvenile population in check. Since I need to be permitted for these fish as well, I'll be asking if I can amend the permit I already got for the tilapia (it's the same form).

So do I do bluegill or catfish?

The greenhouse layout with a 300 gallon tank I'd need for catfish would be 3 feet longer (18'x8'), which was getting a bit big for my tastes. And a 300 gallon tank runs a bit over $210, while I can get a 150 gallon tank I originally planned for is $130 (higher price per gallon, but lower unit price). At this time I don't know whether or not I'd need the 300 gallon tank for bluegill or not.

I see a bit more research in my future, but it's fun knowing I have multiple options for making this work.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review of Food, Inc., the movie

From The Official Food, Inc. Movie Website

So my daughter goes to school and tells her teacher about The Future of Food. The teacher tells my daughter she has to watch the movie Food, Inc.

There isn't a free version of Food, Inc., on the internet, but you can watch it on Netflix.

They discuss a variety of issues that have been exacerbated by the industrialization of food:

  • Nasty food-borne diseases. Kevin is the poster child for this, a boy who died from contaminated food. Legislation to prevent future occurrences of this tragedy has been batting around for years, now. But the film illustrates a now where the majority of food is processed in a handful of plants. The FDA has been stripped of the power to shut down such plants, presumably because to do so would have massive repercussions.

  • Obesity. One in three individuals is obese. When we talk minorities and poor folks, it grows to one in two. The subsidized foods are cheap and 'easy,' and have been engineered to maximize appeal. So it is cheaper and easier to eat sugary, fattening foods than to eat vegetables. Nuts!

  • Illegal immigration. The highly mechanized, significantly subsidized US grain supply has put many farmers in other nations out of business, particularly once the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) prevented Mexico and Canada from retaining protective tariffs. Food industries, e.g., slaughterhouses, recruit across the border and bring in illegal workers.

  • Indentured servitude for farmers. Since there are so few markets for food, now, those markets can demand conditions. Like making farmers buy the latest equipment ($250,000 per chicken shed, for example). Upgrades (at profit to the industry) become mandatory as a condition of keeping the contract with the buyer. Per the film, a poultry farmer with two chicken sheds would have a debt of $500,000 for the sheds along, and only net $18,000 per year out of which that debt must be paid.

Interests of the food industry are protected by the US government. The movie presents a nice montage of executives who have worked for key food companies (e.g., Monsanto) and for the highest levels of government, under both parties.

But despite the crushing dominance of this mechanized food system, the film offers hope. It shows how customer demand for organics is causing Walmart to start carrying organics. And the film ends with a hopeful note, showing how we can "vote," at least three times a day, to make a difference.

The movie went to wrap before the most recent food crisis, arguably a major contributor to civil unrest in Egypt and other countries (though Twitter and Facebook have no doubt contributed).

With this same civil unrest causing increased risk to petroleum resources, it will be interesting to see what happens in the US to the price of gas and a food industry that is so completely dependent upon petroleum to fertilize, harvest, transport, and process food.

I suggest this movie as a holistic explanation of the 2010+ US food market. Much becomes clear after seeing this.

My daughter's teacher will be using Friday's class time to show Food, Inc., to her health students. I project several of those students will commit to an all organic diet, if not become full-out vegans, as a result of Friday's showing.

Poor Man's Greenhouse (aka High Tunnel)

$50 Greenhouse at

One of my early rants focused on the fact that it gets cold up here in the continental US. And not everyone has a greenhouse.

But with the White House using hoop houses and the USDA running around helping folks construct high tunnels, I've been seeing a lot about how one might be able to do a greenhouse for far less than $$$. The idea is you bend PVC pipe between anchors at either edge of the area, then drape the hoops with 6 mil polyethylene. Done.

Some things to consider.

Structural Stability

Door Garden reports the structure sprang back to shape once the snow was removed. But there are various ideas for making the initial structure stronger.
  1. Go Gothic - there's a reason those northern barbarians didn't use the classic roman arch - because it was liable to fail under load (think snow). A pointy arch can do beautiful things. Check out the post Another snow day at

  2. Use metal conduit rather than PVC. Turns out a conduit bender can be had for less than $40, and metal conduit is about the same price as PVC. Check out the Chiot's Run post about Building Hoop Houses out of Electrical Conduit.

Size constraints
  • Tiny yard. I live in a townhome. The entire thing is only 20' wide and about as deep.

  • Covenants. I'm not allowed to build anything that is taller than the fence around my yard.

I'm thinking of using the metal conduit to achieve a slightly more complex shape that would give me enough space for two rows of aquaponic growbeds without being taller than 6 feet. Here are some initial sketches:

The tall, flat wall will be next to the northern side of my fenced area. For the 8' x 15' plan shown, the conduit, bender, and 6 mil sheeting will run me about $250 (prices at Home Depot as of 2/21/11). Add a door, some lumber, and chicken wire, and we're around $300. I'd do a CHOP2 configuration, so there will be ~200-250 gallons of water in the system even though the tank, itself, is only 150 gallons. The Rubbermaid growbeds are $130 for the 150 gallon tank and $70 for each 50 gallon growbed and sump tank, so those would run me $700. Total $1000.

But I'd have no cost for grow-lights and the electricity needed to run them. That'd be sweet.

Too bad I can't use tilapia outdoors. I'll have to figure out what fish could do OK outside. Goldfish always work - they're cheap and 'dirty,' perfect for aquaponics. But ornamental goldfish can be carcinogenic if they've ever been treated with Malachite Green, so we couldn't eat them. I'll give my buddy at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries a holler and find out what he recommends.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Genetic Modification of Organisms

Today my son-in-law suggested I watch the film The Future of Food online with him.

The film clearly has the worldview that corporations have taken immoral measures to consolidate power and reap profit via biotechnology. The film makes no attempt to find any virtuous motive for the technological tinkering corporations have been conducting with biological organisms. For this post I'll ignore the legal and market implications, and focus on the biological implications of genetic modifications.

To create a genetic modification, they invade the original DNA with foreign genes. This part I actually don't mind.

Often the invasion is done by linking the gene with a viral delivery system. This I mind.

To mark the fact that the gene splice has worked, they include an anti-bacterial marker. This I mind.

And for an un-known motive, they are now including a termination function, rendering future seeds infertile. This I wouldn't mind *if* biology was controllable.

The result engineered plants that:

  1. Aggressively crowd out natural plants,

  2. Arguably reduce consumer resistance to antibiotics, and

  3. Produce sterile seeds, so future seeds must be bought from the corporations.

Resistance to Anti-biotics. Beginning with Louis Pasteur, mankind was able to curb infection with antibiotics. Over time, however, bacteria evolve, so that some strains are no longer harmed by antibiotics that killed earlier generations of bacteria.

Future infections will eventually have full power to kill again, as the vast majority of bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. Broadcasting antibacteria-imbued matter like so much seed corn across millions of acres can't have a zero impact on creating that resistance.

Viral invasion of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Biology is messy. The film shows multiple cases where GMO crops have shown up in fields where they were never intentionally sown. A discussion of genetically modified salmon projected the modified salmon could crowd out all the native salmon in a matter of 40 generations.

The very modification was inserted by linking it to a viral component. The viral component in something good at invading cells, like E. Coli. GMOs are intended to thrive, to be stronger, better, more aggresive than the native parent organism.

Over time one could imagine the GMO variant replacing the native parent crop, as well as the native variants of the crop, leaving a monoculture. This biological Ponzi scheme eventually defrauds humanity of the biological diversity that protects us the way a diversified financial portfolio protects and investor from failure of any one monetary asset.

The Irish potato famine happened because blight killed the near-monoculture potato crop. A million lives were lost.

But it's OK if we design GMOs to self destruct, right? Recently an additional bit of genetic stuff gets added when organisms are modified. After the GMO seed has grown, produced, and died, the seeds of the GMO are sterile.

This works just fine for the corporations selling GMO. That way customers always have to come back to buy, year after year.

If this self-terminating gene remains in the GMO and doesn't contaminate other organisms, we're good. In fact, this could be a great way to eliminate all GMO from world food production. Stop allowing sale of GMO, and the seeds from existing GMO will fail to reproduce.

But what if the self-terminating gene cross-pollinates into native stock. What if, after years and decades and centurys, we've created a world where the plants and animals we eat cannot reproduce without the technological interference of man?

Evils and Designs of Conspiring Men. I now understand why members of the European Union and other nations adamantly oppose allowing GMOs into their food supplies.

I understand afresh the concern about buying non-organic food.

And I read with new eyes a warning we Mormons believe God gave over 150 years ago [D&C 89: 4, 10-11]:

In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you...

God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof...

Those who first heard this could hardly have imagined a world where produce travels on average 1500 miles from farm to plate, where less than 3% of the population is involved in farming, where people consume food without thought for what season or continent is actually appropriate for that food.

Every time we purchase food, we're voting with our wallets. Those planes and trains and combines are forcing world food supplies to do un-natural things because of how we choose.

Let us choose wisely. Else a just God will lay blame for the consequences at our feet.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

They're coming...!

This winter has been dreadful, with tremendous snow storms ravaging the East Coast. Not a time you want a box full of tiny, defenseless tilapia risking an interstate journey to your home.

The weather is turning warm, now. So I put my order in this morning. Come 24 February I should have approximately 25 lively little fishies swimming in a mesh bin in my 100 gallon tank.

Fingers crossed. Knock on wood.

The garden, meanwhile, has been puttering along nicely. Almost all my original seeds sprouted. The marigolds are blooming, the cabbage is dominating the landscape, and the fennel is aggressively spreading its delicate fronds. The parsley, chives, and eggplant have grown, but aren't what I'd call hardy.

I've been loving the mustard, plucking off a broad leaf every day or so to put in a sandwich. Spicy. And the transplanted basil on the other side of the grow bed is going strong despite having been snipped regularly for pizzas, sandwiches, and pestos.

We aren't living off our aquaponic produce yet, but it's definitely added zest to our lives!