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Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Buddha would eat

What happens to animals to support non-vegan diets

If you believe your loved ones might be reborn as other life forms, it's disturbing to eat meat. If you believe your loved one might be reborn as a cow, chicken, pig, or fish, it's really disturbing to consider the way animals are treated en route to the dinner plate.

I don't personally believe in reincarnation, but the short segment of Farm To Fridge you see at is still pretty disturbing. There's no need for a detailed review - this video just shows you the horrific way in which food animals are treated during their short, miserable lives.

I was a vegetarian in my youth. I think I mentioned that somewhere here already. While I was a vegetarian, I took Zoology 260. Zoology 260 was the class titled "Human Anatomy," and at my college the lab involved actual human cadavers. We didn't get to cut up the cadavers - that was left to the students who took Zoology 360.

Even so, as a Zoology 260 student, I had the chance every week to see and handle the remains of several fellow humans.

For years after I stopped being vegetarian, all meat I did eat reminded me of those bodies.

Since I started eating meat again, I had a wide variety of dishes. In addition to the standard animals and cuts, I've had cicadas, brains, squid,, tripe, testicles, goat, and rabbit. I admit, my mind didn't like the chewy thorax of the cicadas, but the rest went down easy enough. Once I resumed eating meat, it was all just variations on dead animal.

When we make a choice, we embrace the consequence of that choice. All that we do, all that we fail to do, is choice. Whether one bothers to think about the origins of one's food or not, we vote for the consequences of what the world does to provide us that food.

My point? Just that the 'normal' food involves some pretty distasteful aspects.

Makes home-based food production sound better all the time. At least if I'm eating my own food, I know what I did to the poor organisms. Speaking of which...

Some of my fish have not been thriving. It's been distressing to see some of them start "swimming upside down." No doubt they might have enjoyed a better/longer life if I wasn't clueless. But experience is one way to move from clueless to knowledgeable.

If I were doing aquaponics again from scratch, I would:

1) Make sure my system was assembled, with the water conditioned and all components clean of any potential contaminants.

2) Make sure I had a system that would feed the fish as often as they needed, accounting both for the appetite warm water brings and the lack of appetite that comes with cold water.

3) Wait until warm weather to introduce fish to my system.

In the mean time, I've googled up how to make top rate compost out of fish. It involves unsulphered molassas and leaves/sawdust. Garden Web's article "How do you make homemade Fish/Seaweed Emulsion?" says

For fresh fish [ahem], "you need to compost it separately in a 5 gallon closeable bucket.

"Fill bucket 1/2 full with extra browns like sawdust, leaves, or straw. You can add molasses to the fishy mixture in order to build up microbes in order to speed up decomposition. The sugars will also help control odors too.

"Open the bucket and stir the fishy paste daily or every other day in order to get air in the mix for better decomposition and better aerobic microbial growth in the emulsion. Let this paste rot for at least 1-2 weeks. The browns help control offensive odors and absorb organic nitrogen from the fish so that it is not leached out or evaporated.

"You can now safely take the decomposed fish paste from the 5 gallon bucket and add it to your regular hot composting piles or add it to your special compost tea recipes."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Methane Powering a Town Near You

People who use Methane (in science fiction, at least)

Dr. Jaron Hansen has figured out how to convert waste into nearly-pure methane gas.

Hansen didn't invent the basic idea. Animals have been producing gas from 'waste' since forever. But raw gas from anaerobic digestion of waste contains more than just methane. It also contains carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

Hydrogen sulfide is the part of gaseous and solid animal waste that stinks. It's also corrosive as all get out, which has previously made methane from waste impractical except in science fiction.

But Dr. Hansen has invented an inexpensive biogas conditioning system that removes most all the carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from waste gas. The resulting gas is 98% pure methane gas, making it affordable to create electricity and fuel from trash.

"One of the projects is with a dairy in Alberta, UT on a project to use the manure from cows as energy. The waste from 8,000 cows has the potential to generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity...enough to power 1,200 homes..."

Another project in Ogden, Utah, is using cow manure to produce biodiesel. Dr. Hansen produced the first batch just two months ago (January 2011).

I can't tell you how cool I think this is, but perhaps a story from my past will illuminate why the thought of turning manure into useful energy will suffice.

A Personal Experience with Waste

I mentioned my brief experience being a farm girl back in November (My Roots, Part 1). But I didn't tell you about the day Mom slept in.

I was kindergarten age, and my brother was about 2 years younger. While Mom slept, we gamboled about the farm, a veritable fantasy land to our tiny selves. It was full of mysterious little buildings, with arcane delights like a full set of mink paws laid out to dry in the rafters of the garage.

That day I remember playing in the broad, flat field. It was hard under our feet, and nothing grew there.

Then I came upon the hole.

In the midst of flatness, the hole stretched down into darkness. I did what any curious 5-year-old might do, unfettered by adult caution or supervision.

I jumped into the unknown.

The first sensation was sound. The splashing, sucking sound my keds made as they hit the not-solid bottom.

The second sensation was smell, as the wet, moist depths let off puffs of hydrogen sulfide.

The third sensation was fear, as I realized the walls of the hole weren't solid. I wouldn't be able to climb out.

I screamed, and my three-year-old brother peered over the edge. An eternity later, my mother peered over the edge. Moments later I was free.

I probably got hosed down and was likely asked to stay inside. Decades later I found out the rest of the story. Mom and Dad had spent the prior evening extracting a cow from the manure after it fell through the crust. Hence why she was exhausted and why there was a mysterious hole in the middle of our "play ground."

So, hooray for Dr. Hansen and his system for turning manure into useful energy. If his system had existed those decades ago, I could have enjoyed a bright, well-fueled childhood, unmarred by memories of dark terror in a sulfurous pit.

Monday, March 21, 2011

DIY Aquaponics - Review

Murray Hallam's Latest Aquaponics DVD

My birthday was this month, and I hinted and suggested and hinted some more about what I really wanted - Murray Hallam's latest DVD, discussing how to make your own CHOP-2 system. The DVD plays in a regular DVD player, which is cool. And it also includes an extra feature, "Aquaponics: The First 12 Months!"

As soon as we got the DVD, I sat down to watch it. There are all kinds of tidbits, like how to actually dispatch one's fish when it's time to cook them, and how to avoid dead zones in your grow beds.

Even though I won't be using IBC containers, I learned a lot from watching Murray and his team set up that system. I love to see the little innovations from film to film, and appreciate Murray's putting all that information out in such an accessible format - not just the content, but his delivery of the content.

Tonight I created an emergency mini-growbed for my backyard aquaponics system out of a 2'x3' concrete mixing trough. I plumbed it with a small submersible pump from the local pet store (160 gph) and PVC bits from the local hardware store. It was cool to have a chance to incorporate the lessons I'd learned from Murray's video. And I also incorporated a feature I saw in Sylvia Bernstein's bell siphon kit, a sliced media guard:

The AquaponicSource Bell Siphon w/ Media Guard

I also incorporated an idea that occurred to me after trying to plant seedlings in gravel. I have 3/4" gravel in the bottom of the grow bed, but I cover the top 2-3 inches in hydroton, aka expanded clay beads. I'm hoping this will give me all the benefits of easy planting while retaining the cost benefits of gravel, not to mention the stability gravel gives tall plants that sometimes fall over in hydroton.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

We has bluegills and shellcrackers!!

FishWagon, aka Arkansas PondStockers

Spending $10 for less than a pound of catfish on Thursday increased my appetite for buying my outdoor fish.

I knew the Fish Wagon [aka Arkansas PondStockers] was going to be at the Manassas Southern States Coop Friday. So I went for it. I picked up 25 hybrid bluegills, 50 redear, and a pound of minnows - all for less than $60. I plan to pick up a handful of catfish in a month or two, when I've got the 300 gallon tank in place.

I know I'm doing it all backwards. But having the fish in the tank, crying out for the greenhouse to be built, has made clearing a couple of trees an emergency. Mere planning for a greenhouse would have allowed the hard tree-clearing part to get delayed for weeks, months, years.

Trees are down now, with a small bit of bad news. Apparently my greenhouse can't be taller than the brick wall at the end of my property. Which would make the greenhouse, I don't know, like 4'8" tall. The lady purveying the unhappy news did make some helpful suggestions that might work, though. And my greenhouse design can be scaled to whatever height is allowed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Catfish - yum...

First Catch Fish Market

Yesterday I drove past the "tea pot house" off Route 60 near Buena Vista, VA. It's a funny looking little place, and for the longest time it seemed empty.

Now, however, it is a fish store. So on a whim we swung by. They had a variety of fish, but I decided to go for the catfish, since I'm thinking of getting some catfish for my polyculture outdoor aquaponics system.

Took the fillets home, coated them with chili powder, salt, and pepper, then sauteed them in olive oil.

My daughter prefers salmon. But I can't raise salmon in my backyard...

I served up the fillets with a crisp garden salad and fresh berries. Very lovely!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Power of the Sun

DIY Solar Course - a mere $50

So what to do when the power fails? I guess the recent earthquake and tsunami got me thinking, again, about "preparedness." All things considered, I'm on track to be pretty self-reliant in a disaster, with the following items (not even counting the garden):
  • food storage in cans
  • manual wheat grinder
  • water storage
  • 72-hour emergency kits
  • solar oven
  • manual washing machine
  • makings for a 'loveable loo'

A glaring omission in this sea of preparedness is electrical power generation.

I really like the idea of being able to create my own power, particularly now that I've got dozens of fish who wouldn't survive long if there were a prolonged power outage. (My family would survive, they'd just be irritable...)

Even though I'm a physicist, I've not previously wrapped my head around how one might make a good solar panel. But tonight, I chanced across the following series of videos from the folks at Affordable Solar Frames, down near Mobile, Alabama:

How to make your own 30-year Solar Panels (1 of 3 videos)

After watching these videos, I "get it." As I scope out my greenhouse-enclosed polyculture backyard aquaponics system, I'll be seeing how little power I can get by with.

It would be sweet to be able to run that outdoor system off solar panels!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More Greenhouse Fun

Small Green House Plan from North Carolina Cooperative Extension

I've learned a lot from stuff posted online about how to create hoop houses. Probably the most useful document to date is "A Small Backyard Greenhouse for the Home Gardener" from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. The instructions give you a 14-foot long greenhouse that is 12 feet wide and 6 feet high.

But I don't have space for a full-up hoop house. I've been messing around with powerpoint, trying to figure out how to fit a 300 gallon tank and six 50-gallon grow beds into an 8-foot wide space in the minimum length. I think I've got it:

I'll talk about the aquaponics layout later. For now it is sufficient to say that I should be able to fit everything in a 8 foot wide by 14 foot long footprint.

Instead of PVC pipe, I'll be constructing the body of my greenhouse out of 1/2" Electric Metallic Tube (EMT) conduit. Conduit is pretty inexpensive, running just over $2 for a 10' length. It's stronger than PVC, and I can bend it to the shape shown above.

In fact, I've figured out the "recipe." Conduit benders can be had for ~$30, and are marked for bends of standard size (10, 22.5, 30, 45, and 60 degrees). If you've not used a conduit bender before, know that the "center" of even a shallow bend will be 1-2 inches offset from the 'start' of the bend. Many benders will have a mark that shows the location of "the exact center of a 45 degree bend." No matter what angle you bend, the center will be pretty close to that 45 degree center mark, so position your tubing accordingly.

  1. Mark the pipe in the middle (5') and make marks 8", 21", and 34" from either end.
  2. Bend the pipe 22.5 degrees at the 5' mark. [From this point on it is useful to get a partner who can hold the pipe so the rest of the bends are in the same plane.]
  3. Move the conduit bender to the 8" mark and make a 60 degree bend.
  4. Move the conduit bender to the 21" mark and make a 10 degree bend.
  5. Move the conduit bender to the 34" mark and make another 10 degree bend.
  6. Flip the pipe and bend the other side (60 degrees at 8", 10 degrees at both 21" and 34")
When you're done, your ten foot pipe should look like this, and the distance between the two leg-stubs should be 8 feet. Or at least, when I did this, this is what my pipe ended up looking like:

This shape minimizes height delta between the edge and center of the structure, provides strength along the roof "faces," and gives a peak at the center to help shed snow. For a 14-foot long greenhouse with frames every 2 feet, you'll be making 8 of these "tops." If they don't lay flat, you can do some "correction" with the conduit bender.

Next, create 16 EMT "legs" by cutting 10-foot lengths in half with a pipe cutter or hack saw. These legs will be connected to the tops using EMT set-screw couplings. Position the set screws so they face the inside of the frame, so they won't snag the plastic sheeting you'll be draping over your structure.

From this point you can pretty much follow the instructions for the North Carolina hoop house from the top of this post. But instead of a wide, short semi-circle, your greenhouse will be only 8 feet wide and about 7 feet high. Also, you will be installing a simple door in each of the two end walls, so you can access the beds on either side of the fish tank.

Two last points - I plan to screw three 14-foot lengths of EMT to the frames with EMT 2-hole straps and zinc sheet metal screws. These will serve as a ridge pole and lateral stiffeners. Also, since part of the location where I'm putting this is brick patio, I plan to connect the greenhouse to a support under the fish tank. I figure 300 gallons of water (2,400 pounds!) is enough to keep the house from "shifting."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Review of "Fat Head"

The "Fat Head" trailer

Since we've been on this kick, watching movies about the modern impact on diet, my daughter asked if I'd seen "Fat Head," Tom Naughton's 2008 sardonic examination of the claim fast food is evil.

I had seen "Super Size Me" a few years ago, a 2004 documentary showing Morgan Spurlock's 30 day experiment with eating only McDonald's food. Spurlock gained a lot of weight and his cholesterol shot through the roof:

The "Super Size Me" trailer

If you're inclined to watch these movies, you should watch "Super Size Me" first. "Super Size Me" conveys a compelling message: fast food phenomenon isn't healthy. I really liked the experiment where they examine how long it takes fast food to decay - particularly the days, weeks and months where the french fries didn't appear to decay at all.

Spurlock presumes the ideal diet is vegetarian and organic. He consumed 5000+ calories a day of non-vegan food to illustrate the difference. As conveyed in "Super Size Me," Spurlock inferred the fattening part of the fast food diet was the sugar and fat and meat. That plus being so available and cheap and alluring.

In "Fat Head," Tom Naughton sets out to show that a reasonable person eating a fast food diet for a month can be just fine, thank you very much. Naughton's ideal diet is one moderate in calories (~2000 per day) and low in carbohydrates (<100 g per day). So Naughton necessarily avoided the sugary sodas and starchy parts of the McDonalds repetoire. Plus he walked 6 days a week (5 miles per day).

Naughton ends his experiment having lost 12 pounds and improving his cholesterol levels.

Throughout "Fat Head," Naughton mocks Spurlock. It's pretty amusing. Naughton also hits a theme that resonates with the warnings in "Food, Inc." and "The Future of Food:" the business behind corn and soybeans has been twisting science and law and policy to fundamentally change what we eat, and it hasn't been a good thing.

Naughton isn't preaching organics, however. He's just pointing out that a low-carb diet is healthy and it's entirely possible even while eating fast food.

I think both documentaries are worth watching. But Naughton's work reminded me of Woody Allen's "Sleeper," where a man put in cryo-suspension in 1973 is revived 200 years later.

"...this morning for breakfast... [the Sleeper] requested something called wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk."

[Doctor laughs] "Oh, yes. Those were the charmed substances... that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties."

"You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?

[Doctor again] "Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we know now to be true..."

I should call "Fat Head" thought-provoking, because it was. But I was giggling too much to feel as though I'd been 'educated.' If you like such things, enjoy.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Squeee - we has tilapia!

Fish. Live Fish.

When I got the e-mail from saying they would ship late last night, I went to the web to re-watch Murray Hallam's discussion about getting new fish and how to deal with them.

I carefully reviewed the instructions in the e-mail:
Receiving and Acclimating Your Fingerlings

In order to properly acclimate your fish to their new environment you will need to follow the steps below. You should already have a tank established and ready with de-chlorinated water, proper ph, and an air stone with sufficient air bubbling through it. You will need to begin the process below immediately after receiving your fish.
  1. (Thermal Acclimation) Remove inflated bag from styrofoam box and place sealed bag in receiving tank. Sealed bag should float on top of the tank for 15 minutes in order for the temperature of the water in the bag to slowly equalize with the water in the tank.
  2. (PH Acclimation) Remove the clip on the bag and roll down the sides to make a float around the sides of the bag. Then place a bubbling air-stone inside of the bag since the sealed up oxygen will have escaped when you opened the bag. Over the course of 15 minutes, you will slowly add an additional 1.5 gallons of water from the receiving tank and pour it into the bag, in order to gradually acclimate the fish to the ph of the receiving tank.
After step 2 you will tip the bag over to let the fish escape. They will generally go straight to the bottom for a few hours until they get used to their new environment. It may take a couple of hours until they are ready to eat food
We had one little guy who was clearly "not like the others." As in, they were swimming and he was not. Seems he got caught in a crease during shipping and suffocated. The new tilapia are significantly smaller than my goldfish, so I got a pop-up hamper to protect the tilapia. It isn't that the goldfish would eat the tilapia, but my comet goldfish liked to badger their fellow goldfish. I can only imagine the fun they'd have chasing baby tilapia - until, that is, the tilapia "stopped swimming..."

I'll post more in a few days. Hopefully the tilapia will continue to do well!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Mystery Plant (formerly known as tarragon)

Plant that grew from a 'tarragon' seed

I was excited about making tilapia with a tarragon-basil pesto last night. Hadn't used any tarragon yet, because it isn't a plant I "know."

Which is probably how I let what I now know was a weed grow in my garden for the past couple of months.

Can anyone can tell me what this thing is? I assume it isn't poisonous, since my daughter and I both munched on it briefly before deciding it had neither taste nor scent to differentiate it from generic "plant."

The nice thing about growing in gravel is the ability to easily yank out offending plants.

By the way, if you're in the Northern Hemisphere and haven't bought seeds yet, plants and seeds are popping up all over in local stores. Strawberry plants and blueberry bushes are currently available - yum!