Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Time to sell

So far, we've been building and learning, testing and making sure that our methods will grow produce.  The good news is that they work!

Now it is time to sell.  We'll start with two sales channels, 1) the local farmer's market and 2) an online store.  The online store allows people to place orders for our produce and then pick it up at the warehouse.  If a group of people get together and place a large order, I'll delivery it to them.

I applied for a spot at the Colorado Art and Farmer's Market at the Pioneer Museum in downtown Colorado Springs, every Wednesday from 3-7 from September 7 through the second week of October. We hope to sell plenty of produce and meet some customers who will continue to buy from us over the winter using the online store.  

The online store is here: http://www.peakcitygardens.com.  It uses 3dcart's hosted eCommerce application, providing the online store and the backend software for managing orders and inventory.  Please note that if you click on the link and get the "Under Construction" page, please try again later.  It can take a few days for all of the internet to get the address for the new server.  The top of the new home page looks like this:

Construction Update

Over the last month, we have continued building our commercial sized troughs.  We now have four of them built and we're working on getting the leaks fixed.  At Phil L's suggestion, today I put a rubber gasket between the bulkhead fitting's plastic pushing and the trough liner.  If that does the trick, then we'll finish the plumbing and all four troughs will have the aquaponic water running through them -- ready for growing!

We also plumbed the sprouting table so that aquaponic water flows into it and then back out to one of the troughs.  That way we no longer have to lift buckets of fertilized water and pour them into the table.
Since this picture was taken, we've added a liner to this trough, so we don't need the bucket anymore. :-)

We've also been doing plenty of growing and have filled the first commercial sized trough from end to end!

And here are some close ups of some of the crops:

Red Salad Lettuce

Genovese Basil

Siberian Kale

Siberian Kale

Lacinato "Dino" Kale

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Our very first harvest!

On Friday this week, we harvested the very first produce from the Peak City Gardens aquaponic systems!  A small batch of red leaf lettuce:

We picked the larger leaves from around the edges of the plants, so there will be more lettuce from this lot before long.

As promised at the end of my last post, here are a few pictures of the plants with the grow lights turned off, so you can see their natural color.  Some broccoli and kale before we moved it to the 4' rafts:

Some broccoli and green onions.

Kale.  The yellow tint in the larger leaves tells me that we need to get more nitrogen to them.  We are now feeding the fish three times a day and purchased 300 additional fish for the commercial system.

The red lettuce that we harvested:

We are also building the next commercial trough.  We will install the troughs in pairs with aisles between each pair in order to squeeze as much growing space as possible into the warehouse.

And we put in orders this week for enough grow lights and trough liner to fill half the warehouse with aquaponic troughs.  The plan is to grow and sell produce in the first half in order to raise the money needed to build the second half.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ups and downs

We've been working away the last few weeks, building our commercial system and growing our first food.  We put in the our first commercial trough and started filling it with water, only to find a leak! So we found the spot in the liner where there was a small puncture, drained the trough and patched the leak.  We used a set of clamps to keep the liner out of the residual water in the trough while the marine caulk we used for patching cured for 24 hours.

When we refilled the trough, we found that the bulkhead fittings where the water goes in and out of the trough were leaking as well! So we drained again, patched the leaks and refilled.  As the marine caulk was drying and the trough filling, we built the frames and hung the lights.  We then cut the styrofoam rafts to 23.75" by 4' and laid them in the trough.  We now have a trough ready to go:

We've also put the fish tanks in place and plumbed in the pipes so that the water flows from one tank to the other, then through a long pipe to the end of the trough (see the above picture for the 3" pipe on the floor and the picture below for where the pipe comes out of the closest tank), and then back to the fish tanks.  The water is gravity fed between the fish tanks and the trough, then pumped back up to the fish tanks.

We are stocking our fish tanks with comet goldfish from the local pet store.  They are cheap and readily available.  Once we get the plants growing and selling, we'll look into replacing the goldfish with a fish we can sell to our customers.

Meanwhile, we've been getting the nutrient cycle going in our test systems.  We added fish, saw some of them die off, and watched for an increase in ammonia.  The ammonia showed, then we added nitrifying bacteria.  Then the ammonia concentration got too high, so we drained half the water out of the systems, refilled them and added more nitrifying bacteria.  We then watched for nitrites and nitrates to show up.  They didn't.  We saw hints, but the concentrations were barely measureable with our test strips (i.e. less than 0.15 ppm nitrites and 1 ppm nitrates).  I wondered if my test strips had gotten overheated while in transit and weren't working, so I decided to put some plants in the troughs and let them tell me if there were enough nutrients.  So on June 28, we transplanted the first plants from the sprouting table to the test systems.  They did just fine over the next day and we started to see measureable nitrites and nitrates (0.3 ppm and 1 ppm, respectively), so we planted more on the 29th and 30th:

And the plants are growing, so there must be some nutrient cycling happening in the test systems.  On July 1, we moved some of the kale from the 2'x2' rafts with 55 net pots each to 2'x4' rafts with 34 net pots each.

On July 10, those same Kale plants look like this:

With roots like this:

They seem to be a bit low on nitrogen.  The older leaves are showing some yellow, while the younger leaves are not:

While the plants have been growing, the ammonia concentration in our test systems has dropped down below the measureable threshold (< 0.5 ppm) and so has the nitrite and nitrate concentrations (<0.15 and <1 ppm, respectively).  I bought another bottle of nitrite/nitrate test strips to double check the ones we had.  When testing them side by side, they showed exactly the same color as the original strips.  So the nitrogen cycle that goes from fish droppings to ammonia to nitrites to nitrates to plant life has started.  We just need to get more into the system. So we are feeding the fish more and have moved some fish from the commercial system into the test systems.  We'll be buying more fish soon as well.

Today (July 10), I noted that our broccoli and more of the kale are ready to move to the 2'x4' rafts:

And I think some of our red lettuce (on the left in the picture below) will soon be ready for harvest!

We've also noted that animal life has moved into the test systems.  We have a few spiders that have taken up residence.  I tell them to eat lots of bugs and protect our plants. :-)

And if you've read this far, thanks!  Next time I take pictures of the plants, I'll turn off the grow lights so that the colors of the plants show up more like normal in the photos.

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.