Aquaponics at the farm started when we posted up on online forums about aquaponics and permaculture. We received an email from someone who seemed perfect for the job—Stu had grown up in east Africa with his father who had taught developmental agriculture for the UN.
He was excited to read about what we were trying to do up at the farm with permaculture and offered his experience in aquaponics. He wanted the lifestyle that we offered, living in paradise and we invited him to help us set up a micro system from plans we bought online from Hawaii. So we brought him on board and he took charge of the starting and maintaining our aquaponics program at the farm.
Over the course of a few weekends, we ended up having to build the first aquaponics system using an IBC tank and gravel when the original plans didn’t pan out. IBC systems are ideal first systems on the cheap. They are available pretty much everywhere in the world, and are fairly easy to convert into low cost, functioning systems. Looking back, it’s funny how little any of us knew at that point. We used regular tap water, gravel as a medium, and took fish from a nearby lagoon.
Our first system was totally amateur, even with the IBC system, it limped along and had regular system failures. Each failure forced us into the long process of figuring out which of the many variables could have been to blame. Was it the PH level? The water? The nitrates or ammonia? Not to mention the variables that were unique to our situation such as frequent power outages, someone accidentally kicking the system, too much rain, bugs, a banana tree falling on the system and draining all of the water (this really happened), someone stealing fish and contaminating the water, someone looking at the system and kicking out the power, or any number of things that could possibly have gone wrong. Even as we attempted to work out the kinks, we were also trying to figure out what plants worked during what seasons, what medium worked best, how to create proper drainage and water flow, and how to best deal with rotting plumbing.
A lot of it was shooting in the dark, there just wasn’t any other knowledge base on the island to compare it to, there was a wealth of opinions on the internet but it was hard to find someone from the tropics that knew how to address the issues that were unique to trying to do aquaponics in the Dominican Republic. We weren’t operating with North American resources, access to materials or ideal conditions. The experts knew how to run a system in their neighbourhoods, but not necessarily how best to do it here. Importing pieces was one way, but the cost and waiting period to have things shipped in was impractical. We needed to find local solutions. And in the absence of information applicable to our situation, we mostly winged it and learned as we went along.
Anyone who’s ever tried to start an aquaponics system from scratch will know that the delay in between systems failing and figuring out what happened and then re-starting the system is long and hard. An aquaponics system is a balancing act and for us it was usually at least 3 – 6 months between a fail and catching up to where the system was before. But we were all hooked! The time and energy that we put into each new attempt, (not to mention the money) that had to be reinvested each time the system failed was huge, and maintaining perseverance throughout was an incredible, and now almost unbelievable, feat.
Once we managed to get a two tank IBC system operational, we started to realize that getting fingerlings – a supply of new fish, was going to be an issue. The University in Santiago had an aquaculture centre and various SUPER YY male Tilapia, which through manipulation, selective breeding and hormone application, produced 95% male offspring that put all their energy into growth instead of losing some to the reproductive system. The university was just at the end of a 5-year sponsorship program from the Taiwanese embassy in Santo Domingo, who had brought over experts in aquaculture to assist in promoting aquaculture in the Caribbean and specifically in the Dominican Republic. But they could only fulfill our demand for a short period of time, in limited quantities, and as they neared the end of the sponsorship program, the future of the program was in question.
Without a hatchery to supply a constant stream of fish we would never be able to grow our operating micro system to commercial production. But we knew nothing of fish reproduction, and months after researching tilapia mating and reproduction we came up against the obstacle of finding tanks large enough to breed the tilapia in.
Aquarium supplies are not easy to come by in the Dominican Republic, and when they are, they’re expensive. So at first we tried to build the tanks, and failed. Months went by and we continued to invest time, salary and resources into finding a solution. With each attempt we felt certain we were just on the cusp, once we figured it out the last little problem we would have a huge profitable system, and then the next last little problem, and the next…
Eventually we found a glass cutter who could build us tanks, and we figured that for the ultimate goal of 2000 fish/month we would need about 4000 fingerlings a month. Optimally each tank would house one male and 4 females, and each female would produce about 100-150 fish/month. So we needed 10 tanks, each about 150 gallons, that we could connect into one system.
It ended up costing about 15,000 to build the hatchery, between figuring out the tanks, the system, and its still our biggest system today- about 1500 gallons in total. It took a while a get to that point, about a year and a half between the variations and keeping the systems separate. Now factor in the fails – between nitrates, pollutants, power failures – over feeding, etc. It was a long bumpy ride.
Our first attempt at a commercial sized system, was a $5000 fail, two attempts in plastic and wood, and they all leaked and then broke. We were determined to make this work, so we bought more IBC tanks, but this new system failed because it had too many connections. More time and money as we reset and rebuilt, a trip to Santiago to buy more fingerlings, and again, we start again.
After some frustrations, we found a guy online in the US who could build us plastic grow beds of what we figured were ideal size. We ordered those, which ended up costing $5000 (around $400 each plus transport and then duties) and took 2 months to arrive. We build out the base for a second system, this time more organized and a much better idea.
It felt good at that moment, as we had a better idea of size for commercial system number 2. We had the hatchery largely under control, not producing at the numbers we hoped, but producing about 300 fish /month. For the moment, it was producing, which was good, and it was going in the right direction. We built another backup power system and had better idea of managing the hotel power system, which was what we connected to.
By this time we had figured out how to isolate the air from the water pumps. If we lost the water pumps we could survive for 24 hours. Losing air we could not. Major disasters were often avoided, although not completely. The first commercial system was working, even though it was very high maintenance. The initial IBC systems were becoming low maintenance, except for the occasional fail, and our recovery times were reduced as we had more fish we could rotate into the system. We could now create water for liquid soil.
As we planned for the second commercial system, it felt good, we had a better idea on the numbers, sizing, and how to best utilize our cement workers and carpenters.
When we finished it, it was a 2000 gallon rectangular system with a combination of float and gravel flood and drain systems. The gravel creates great living filters that aerate the water, and create bacteria for breaking down fish waste. We realized that we didn’t need a roof on it, as we had also figured out different plants that worked in an open-air system. We decided to grow mint, as Mojito Bar was at eXtreme at the time, and any plants we could use for the restaurant on site, and things that could handle the salt water air, rainy and dry season, and differences in temperature.
I remember the first system we built, and the Dominicans looking at us and saying – “crazy gringos, you can’t grow fish in tanks, it won’t work.” With each fail they would repeat it. Slowly they changed their minds as we persevered.
And with each fail, a lesson was learned, from the importance of a check valve in the vent of people or animals walking by and knocking off a fitting on a plumbing or air valve, to not gluing the check valve on because it would pose a challenge doing maintenance. The second time around we built inspection ports to give us access to the plumbing lines.
The grow medium posed a different set of challenges. Finding a reliable source that is somewhat cost effective, and fit in with our local sustainable vision proved to be very difficult. But lessons learned from permaculture taught us to find someone else’s waste and incorporate it.
Gravel flood and drain aquaponics systems allow you to grow other types of plants that don’t grow in float-based systems as well as acting as a filter and stabilizer in your aquaponic system. The downside to gravel is that often you have to clean it out as organic matter from the dying roots of your vegetables build up. The solution to that was to introduce worms, but that didn’t happen until years later when we started a vermiculture program at the farm.
The PH of the gravel available on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic make it unusable for aquaponics, or so we figured. We needed something that is ph neutral and also offers small crevices and pores for the bacteria to grow.
We decided to give slate a try, but could only find it in large rock format. We could not easily or affordably find somewhere to crush it. Often the transport of heavy items is a challenge in the Dominican Republic, because gas is the most expensive fuel in Latin America. Vehicles are also heavily taxed, so even use is expensive. Labour in the Dominican Republic in general is also almost the highest cost in Latin America. We’d have to break the slate down by hand, 5 cubic yards of it, from large chunks of slate to gravel sized pieces.
So we had people at the farm, friends of one of our farmhands, Juan, breaking rocks. The scene was straight out of a movie prison scene from the 40’s. People with hammers, literally breaking rocks under the relentless Caribbean son. Yes, the entire aquaponics system we have is gravel that was broken down by hand with a hammer.
The second aquaponics system at the hotel came up to faster than the others. We had water from the first system to make liquid soil, so it was easier. The size of the fish tank meant we still had to do a couple trips to Santiago to get fry, as our in-house hatchery was still sporadically producing, at only a fraction of expectation on numbers. But the fish we got from Santiago sometimes imported diseases, which led to another couple fails and restarts. We had restarted so many times though, that the recoveries were faster though the cost factor was still very much there.
An ex-military intern was able to give us the structure, planning, and stability we needed, and he helped us to maintain a system operational while we took moved the IBC grow beds to replace the wood grow beds, which were beginning to rot, and build the first cement float system which would help us minimize plumbing and maintenance. He also took charge of the hatchery and wrote up a manual. By April 2014, we had gotten a lot of things under control: got a routine going, a basic plan for for basic things like keeping enough food on hand so that we’re not scrambling one day before we run out of food,actually started to get some measurables for how much the system was costing as far as fish food, cleaned up loose wires that were liabilities, cleaned up plumbing tubes. We had made it look presentable and could now share to others.
At this point we realized that the system could no longer grow at the hotel the power consumption, space, energy was competing with the hotel’s needs and resources. We needed to move the system up to the farm. This realization was met with reticence. After so many setbacks, Stu was worried about making the move. Once it was made and no fish died, we all settled into the new routine.
The farm production system is the natural evolution of the hotel systems. Call it v3.0 and v 4.0. Before embarking on the production system at the farm, we knew that we needed to be have water to make the liquid soil. Water is the base element for liquid soil, so we changed out the farm roofs from cana (thatch) to metal, and built storage tanks. More and more money spent, more building.
Stu realized from online guys that round tanks were the way to go. Less dead spots in the system, where water didn’t get circulated. building round tanks was a challenge, as the cement guys could not do it. but fortunately we had progressed enough in all our staff, that we had Billy. Billy is a gem. Billy manages all the solar systems, and was keen to learn about the aquaponics.
Empowering Billy took us in the right direction, his experience and working with cement, along with his connections and knowledge in the community, ability get people to get things done, and the respect from the community, connections and knowledge in the community to get things done. Billy was able to make the round tanks happen.
Then finally we build the first production system at the farm which cost about a million pesos, $25K at the time. Throughout all of this, Stu took a big liking to Juan, who had taken interest in learning about aquaponics. And soon, he had a good handle of the day-to-day maintenance of the system.
One of the tougher lessons we have had is that you can’t plan for everything. An issue with bringing together lot’s of amazing people is that sometimes they end up falling in love and going off to build a life together. Stu made the hard decision to leave the farm after finding (what we hope is) true love. We were delighted for him but a little thrown as everything happened so fast. Change is always scary and the idea of losing a key member of the team at such short notice was daunting at first. In the end it provided an opportunity to reevaluate where the farm was going. Fortunately we still had permanent staff members who had been working on the system everyday and had all the practical knowledge to keep it going. The problem was confidence in using this knowledge.
So we found, Pedro, an aquaponics expert from Puerto Rico. Pedro was able to explain what we had had been doing wrong over the years in the systems, how we could work towards improving them and equally importantly could give the correct Spanish terminology which is invaluable for researching future problems. Having an expert speak in Spanish was a real breakthrough for us, it got rid of the things being filtered out by the language barrier and made a world of difference. The mood after he left was far more positive.
After I took the summer to rethink, I realize that the answer to everything is right in front of me: the Dominicans. Invest in the Dominicans, train them up, empower them, remove all power from gringos, give more responsibility to the staff who’s loved and cared for me all this time. I start by apologizing for not seeing it from the beginning.
We’re finally, truly, on the cusp.