Saturday, June 18, 2016

A trough and a logo

This week we built our first commercial sized trough--56' long:

The plastic tanks with metal frames you see on the left are the IBC totes that we will be using for our fish tanks.  We will be putting radiant barrier insulation under them and in the bottom of the trough to keep the cold concrete floor from sucking the warmth out of the water.

I also got to use a new tool -- a powder actuated hammer.  You put a nail in one end, load a .22 caliber cartridge with no slug in the chamber, hit the top with a hammer and boom! it drives the nail into the concrete.  Great fun!

Also, I've been working with my artist son on a logo:
I'm pleased with the results and will soon include it on a sign for the building, on business cards, on the web site, and on packaging.  He also made me a single color version for crates and boxes:
A great big thanks to Chris for a job well done!!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Getting ready for the commercial sized system

On Friday, 6/10 we were finally able to measure the ammonia in our first test system (our test strips measure 0.5 ppm or higher).  We've increased the number of goldfish to 40 and we're feeding them twice a day.  We added some more of the nitrifying bacteria solution as well, since we are not seeing nitrites or nitrates yet.  If we don't see nitrites/nitrates sometime in the next week, I'm thinking we may need another bottle of the nitrifying bacteria to seed the system.

In the meantime, we finalized our design for the commercial sized system and started buying the parts and materials.  We found a pump that provides the amount of flow we need and bought the plumping parts to connect it.

We also ordered a blower to provide the oxygen to the system.  Both the pump and the blower are sized to serve the entire warehouse, so we won't need to buy these again, except to have a spare blower on hand.

We purchased six used 275 gallon food grade IBC totes for the fish tanks.  When we're finished we'll have 18 or 19 of these.  They had lactose in them, so we plan to give them a good rinse so that they don't make the water too acidic.  We don't have any floor drains in the warehouse, so I ordered a cheap pump and a hose fitting for the tanks so we can pump the water out of them into the washtub.

And we purchased the lumber and the plumbing parts we think we'll need.  I am sure we'll need to make some parts runs as we assemble the system, but we have enough to get started.

We then cut the wood and painted those parts that will be over the water.  

We also painted the top side of the styrofoam that we will used for our rafts.  Which side is the top side, you ask?  The one we painted. ;-)  Seriously, we painted the side that had lettering on it, to make sure that the ink would not be able to leach into the water over time.

We plan to build our first commercial sized trough (56' x 4.5'), put the first tank in place and start plumbing the system this coming week.

And lest anyone forget, this is all about growing food.  So we planted some lettuce and onion seeds.  They sprouted in the germinator and now we have them in the sprouting table.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Building the test aquaponic systems

The seeds in the germinator sprouted in three days, just as I heard that they would.  Here are some of our first shoots on May 20, three days after planting:

On the 21st, we moved the trays to the sprouting table and put them under grow lights.  The lights are four feet long 20w LED tubes with two shades of red, two shades of blue and a green light every foot.  They are spaced so that we have 10 lights every four feet.

We started the first plants before building the aquaponic tanks and troughs so that we will have plants ready to use the nitrates when the nutrient cycle is up and running in the aquaponic system.

On May 23rd, we built our first aquaponic trough:

On the 24th, we put in the pipes, blower and pump:

Then we filled it with water 

and turned on the pump.
And true to form for my plumbing projects, two of the joints and the connection to the pump leaked.  We realized that the caulk we used for the bulkhead fitting was not designed to be used under water.  So we drained the trough, bought some marine-grade caulk and tried again.  I also managed to crack the housing on the pump when using the wrong fitting to connect to it.  So I went to the manufacturer's web site and ordered a new part.  I'm glad they had the part, that made it an $18 mistake instead of a $75 one.  We swapped out the pump for another one. We'll wait until Monday June 6th for the new part and use it to finish the second test system.  Making small mistakes, not big ones.  

While the marine caulk was taking its 24 hours to dry, we built the second trough:
We finished all of the plumbing and will connect the pump when the new part arrives. And the connection to the bulkhead fitting is leaking on this one, too.  Hmmm...need to take a different approach next time.

Through using a different type of caulk and adding PVC cement to an existing joint, we got the leaks reduced, but not eliminated.  We ordered rubber in a spray can for sealing the leaks.  It will arrive on Tuesday 6/7.  I'll let you know if it works.

While all this building is going on, our sprouts are happily growing in the sprouting table!  They are ready to go into the troughs as soon as the nutrient cycle is started.

On the 31st, we refilled the first trough and tested for chlorine.  It's pretty low in our tap water, so by the next day, June 1, it was down to zero and we put our first fish in the system.  We started small with 10 goldfish from the local pet store.

We then cut the rafts and put them on the trough to block out the light. The nitrifying bacteria that we added to the trough like to work in the dark. 
And yes, we cut the rafts a little too large and they don't quite fit in the trough, so we will adjust that when we drill the holes in them for the net pots.

We measured for ammonia on June 2nd.  Zero.  So we fed the fish.  We measured for ammonia on the third.  Zero.  So we bought 10 more fish.  

We measured for ammonia on the fourth.  Zero.  So we fed the fish and set up the fish feeder for them to eat daily.  If we see no ammonia by Monday the 6th, I might pull out a different bottle of test strips to see if the ones we are using went bad.  I don't think they did though, because I measured nitrite and nitrate levels as well on the third, which were also zero.

The next batch of grow lights arrived on Friday, June 3.  We mounted them on the frames that we had built and painted on Thursday and they are ready to go.  We have two sets of ten lights that are balanced between red and blue (for vegetative growth), two that are more red (for fruiting and flowering) and two that are more blue (for sprouting).

And in the meantime, our sprouts in the sprouting table are growing well.  Hopefully we can get them in a trough soon!  All we need are the nutrients from the fish to build up in high enough concentration in the first test system and we will be moving forward.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

First Planting

Over the last few weeks, I've been building the first few pieces of growing infrastructure, with the help of my family and friends.  A great big thanks to Marggie, Tom and Bretton!

We built a germination chamber (a.k.a. the germinator) using an old freezer, a thermostat, a few shelves, and a Vicks vaporizor.
The vaporizor and thermostat keep the inside a moist, toasty 72 degrees so that the seeds will sprout quickly.  Yesterday (Tuesday, May 17th, 2016), Bretton and I planted the first six trays of seeds and popped them into the germinator.

We also built two sprouting tables -- 4' x 8' solid wood, very well painted and caulked.  

Once the seeds send out their first shoots (hopefully in 2-3 days), we'll move them to a sprouting table and put them under grow lights.  We put the sprouting table in one of the office rooms in the warehouse so that we can better control the temperature.  We'll shoot for a steady 70 degrees.
The sprouting tables are slightly angled so that water will flow from one end to another and drain out the drain pipe (if you look carefully, you can see the drain pipe on the left end of the table).  We'll send a 5 gallon bucket of nutrient laden water through the table once or twice a day.  The goal is to keep the growing media moist, but not sitting in water.  

While the sprouts are growing, we'll be building our first aquaponic system.  Two 55 gallon drums for the fish tanks and two 32 sq ft troughs for the plant rafts.  Here are the parts, ready to be cut, painted, and assembled.

If you are interested in more details on how all of this works or if you'd like to build an aquaponic system yourself, please visit Friendly Aquaponic's web site.  They are my consultants and teachers for all things aquaponic.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Business Launch

This week I am launching my new business, Peak City Gardens, LLC.  I've done a lot of homework and searched around the city for a suitable location.  I signed a lease on a warehouse starting last Sunday, May 1.  It is located just down the street from the local rescue mission on the south side of downtown Colorado Springs.  Here are the "before" pictures...before I built or installed anything in the warehouse.  And before the previous tenant got all of their stuff out. ;-)

The front view
Entering the front door
Looking back toward the front door
The mezzanine and the offices underneath it on the left hand wall
The mezzanine level
I continue to marvel at the favor I'm experiencing.

  • My lawyer recommended a few additional paragraphs to add to the lease that limited my personal liability.  The landlord agreed to the terms. The leasing agent said he had never seen a landlord accept those particular terms.  
  • When I met with the city planner to get zoning approval, they found a way to let me get started immediately without any additional reviews or fees.

And I'm making connections. For instance, another new tenant next door to me in the warehouse sells candles made from old wine bottles.  She does business with many restaurants in town and offered to introduce me when I have produce to sell.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Knowledge and Power

A few quotes from George Gilder in Knowledge and Power.

Entrepreneurship is the launching of surprises...This process of wealth creation is offensive to levelers and planners because it yields mountains of new wealth in ways that could not possibly be planned.  But unpredictability is fundamental to free human enterprise.  It defies every econometric model and socialist scheme.  It makes no sense to most professors, who attain their positions by the systematic acquisition of credentials pleasing to the establishment above them.  By definition, innovations cannot be planned.  Leading entrepreneurs -- from Sam Walton to Mike Milken to Larry Page to Bill Gates -- did not ascend a hierarchy; they created a new one.  They did not climb to the top of anything.  They were pushed to the top by their own success.  They did not capture the pinnacle; they became it.

Entrepreneurial knowledge has little to do with the certified expertise of an advanced degree from an establishment school.  It has little to do with the gregarious charm of the high school student voted most likely to succeed.  The fashionably educated and cultivated spurn the kind of fanatically focused learning undertaken by the 1 percent.  Wealth all too often comes from doing what other people consider insufferably boring or unendurably hard...Most people think they are above learning the gritty and relentless details of life that allow the creation of great wealth.  They leave it to the experts.  But in general, you join the 1 percent of the 1 percent not by leaving it to the experts but by creating new expertise, not by knowing what the experts know but by learning what they think is beneath them.

Monday, October 19, 2015

City of Refuge, a vision that gives birth to a business

Over the last few years, I've been carrying a vision for Colorado Springs to become a city of refuge; that is, a place where those who have had trouble elsewhere can come to find safety, healing, provision, and a new home.  A city of refuge has spiritual and physical dimensions.  The spiritual dimension is built as people participate in worship and prayer and learn to care about others.  The physical dimension is built through a local economy that can provide the opportunity to make a living to the city's inhabitants as well as the newcomers.

As I considered the physical dimension, I realized that we have very little food production here in the Springs.  In fact, the state of Colorado imports 90% of its food from outside of its borders.  So I started looking for ways to remedy this problem so that we could have the security of a local food source.

Due to our alpine desert climate, standard agricultural methods don't work very well.  It dawned on me that we could, however, grow fruits and vegetable using hydroponics and greenhouses.  As I talked with one of my business partners about this, he challenged me to include a protein source as well.  A little more research led me to aquaponics, which combines aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (growing produce in water).  You raise fish in tanks, then send their nutrient filled water to troughs or gravel beds where fruits and vegetables are growing.  The fruits and vegetables filter out the nutrients and a pump sends the cleaned water back to the fish.  It is a fairly enclosed system that is pesticide free and, if you use the correct materials, can be certified organic.

I pulled out my trusty spreadsheet and started crunching the numbers.  I found that if done well, I could make a living with an aquaponic, year-round farm.  This can be a real business, not just a hobby!

Since May, I've been learning all I can about aquaponics and building my business plan.  I've found a design for a combination of materials and methods that can be certified with the USDA as organic at Friendly Aquaponics and I took their week-long training class.  I'm currently working on my greenhouse design and on methods for automating the harvesting and packing processes.  And of course, I'm working with my partners at ALC to raise the funds needed to launch.

The target market is anyone within a 300-mile radius of Colorado Springs.  Many people will pay a premium for certified organic produce.  Many will also pay a premium for locally grown food, particularly in the off-season.  I've heard from a number of sources that the demand for organic, locally grown food far outstrips the current supply.  While I don't expect the supply/demand situation to always stay the way it is now, I will leverage these current market conditions to establish this business here in Colorado Springs so that we have a long-term, year-round food supply that is clean and healthy.  A food supply for a city of refuge!