Interview with Adam Tait

DigiLetter: Let’s get started. First of all Adam, what inspired you to pursue writing about aquaponics?

Adam Tait: Well, there are a number of reasons. First and foremost for me is the opportunity to spread the word about aquaponics and its potential. The world is facing a growing series of agriculture-related problems. From water usage issues and fertiliser run-off to fertiliser dependencies. From herbicides, pesticides and food contamination to our reliance on oil. Aquaponics stands ready to provide at least partial solutions to all of these problems, and it will continue to provide sustainable options for agroecology into the future. In the next 40+ years humans need to grow as much food as we have grown since we first began an agrarian lifestyle 9,000-odd years ago. This is a serious problem. As an economic consideration for the future, everyone needs to start learning more about how to grow food. Eventually, I believe everyone will need to start growing food.

Another inspiration for writing about aquaponics is the sheer volume of myths and misconceptions that are out there, floating around the internet. While some information is good, most of it is incomplete. Something I noticed early on in my aquaponics career was the general lack of scientific insight in the community. While some things were known, the reasons why things were that way, were often poorly understood. Between my educational background and many years of hands-on research and experimentation, I hope to correct as much of this as I can.

DL: What is your background, and how did you get into aquaponics in the first place?

AT: In a more formal sense, I studied Information Science as a student. This is somewhat similar to what people normally understand as “I.T.”, but it is more of a theoretical science. Essentially, information technology is the knowledge of information science applied. At first glance, even I might hesitate to suggest what possible skills information science has that could be transferable to aquaponics. However upon reflection one sees that information science is all about systems within systems. Information science is simulation theory. Information science is indispensable to biology, the environmental sciences, psychology, and all behavioural sciences — human and animal. Above all, information science is a science.

In a less formal sense, two of my very favourite lifelong hobbies lent themselves well to aquaponics. Firstly, hydroponics. This gave me a great background in sustaining ‘artificial’ environments for plants. I learnt that it was surprisingly easy to create an environment for plants that was significantly more productive than what could be provided in a more orthodox soil environment. I learnt that by tweaking environmental parameters, I could grow a wide variety of plant food types. My other hobby was keeping aquariums. Specifically — native Australian freshwater fish and crayfish.

One hot sunny day about 7 years ago, we put a small wading pool out in the backyard. Being crazy about fish, I thought about putting some in there. One thought led to another, as logic tends to. I realised that the water would become polluted, and that I could counter this pollution by using lots of underwater plants. I jumped on the internet, excited about my new idea. I quickly discovered that what I had stumbled upon was called aquaponics — and that I had a lot to learn. I have pretty much lived and breathed aquaponics every day since.

DL: How do you personally define success in aquaponics — what has made you the aquaponicist you are today?

AT: The success is in the produce — the quality and the volume of the produce. There is no other valid metric. If aquaponics truly is to be a viable alternative to less sustainable methods of agriculture then it has to be productive. Aquaponics turned out to be far trickier than I was led to believe in the very beginning, and this is probably true of most beginners. Sadly, this can turn people away and even lead people to proclaim that aquaponics ‘doesn’t work’. The fact is it does work. But like hydroponics or any soil based veggie garden, it doesn’t work all by itself. It needs to be done right, and specifically for your desired crop. Anything else will grow in a substandard manner. And so this is what has made me the aquaponicist I am today; experimentation. After many years of hypothesis, experimentation and research, the growth rates and productivity of my personal systems now speak for themselves. But it wasn’t always like this.

DL: Who do you envision will subscribe to your DigiLetter, and why will they subscribe?

AT: Wow. That is a big question — I would think it could quite literally be anybody. They will subscribe because the information will validate itself, and I sincerely believe that I am the best source for information on aquaponics. But as to who they might be….? They could be from any country on the planet, rich or poor. Any person aged 8-128. Anyone who has ever thought of keeping a goldfish, or growing some food — be it on a balcony in New York, a backyard in Sydney, a grass plain in Mongolia, a giant greenhouse in India or a tiny courtyard in the UK. Anyone can do it. The goal can be modest or grand.

The only real limitations are temperature. The extremes of temperature that our planet can produce are unsuitable for sustainable aquaponics. There is no point waging thermal wars that cost too much energy — like using expensive electricity to heat water, just to grow food. That is madness. Water temperatures must be maintained between a minimum of around 8 Celsius and a maximum of around 32 Celsius. And that is about the extent of the limitations.

DL: Do you have a motto or otherwise explicit set of values you would like to tell us about? Do you have any unique philosophies regarding aquaponics?

AT: Science. Definitely science. It is something I am dedicated to in quite a fundamental sense. I guess if I had to have a motto it might be:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will empty the oceans and rivers of every last one. Better to teach him aquaponics.”

DL: What makes the way that you do aquaponics unique?

AT: In many important ways I am self-taught — a true autodidact. And by not necessarily following the older, beaten path from the very beginning, my systems took on a form all of their own. By inventing new methods, by focusing on food safety even for backyard DIY, etc., my equipment selection regularly differed from the ‘norm’ and is therefore quite recognisable — well, to me at least. Regardless, this is merely a side effect of function and not a purposeful form. Function is the primary concern for me. Once function is mastered, form can then be taken care of in a variety of ways.

DL: These days, where do you go for new aquaponics info?

AT: Although I do browse the net to see what is going on around the various aquaponics forums and so on, most of the new aquaponics info I garner tends to come from scientific publications. Research into micro-organisms, specifically. These days, the cutting-edge of aquaponics lies in what specific micro-organisms are living inside our freshwater biofilters. Which are the most efficient, and what can we do to make them as efficient as possible? How can we make their habitat as inviting and conducive to them as possible? Any modern research into the biology of freshwater biofilters is enough to get me excited. But there isn’t much of it. It is mostly salt-water aquarium research.

For example, according to Google it appears that the very first suggestion that something other than bacteria might be at work in our freshwater aquaponic biofilters — specifically archaea — was made by myself on Mar 27, 2011. Almost 4 years later and it is now an accepted certainty. Archaea are doing a large amount of the ammonia oxidisation in our aquaponics – possibly even the majority. Astonishingly, Archaea are an entirely new domain of life, separate from the only other two known domains; Bacteria and Eukaryota (plants, fungi, you and me etc.). But this and other related subjects are fairly new and we still have much to learn.

DL: How do you feel about the online aquaponics community? How about the offline one?

AT: Seeing people get excited and motivated to get going in aquaponics is incredibly inspiring. The internet provides us with just the tools we need to inspire and motivate one another, and to share the information we need to get going. But alongside that we often have to see the trolls, or those masquerading as ‘experts’. Nothing stops a potential aquaponicist quite like bad advice, but being publicly belittled for being a ‘newb’ and so forth is very disheartening to witness, let alone experience. This is why writing this DigiLetter, and creating my own — our own — ‘ecosystem’ of knowledge, is so inspiring to me.

Offline is a very exciting story. In person, people are so inspiring! They are gracious, and desperate to learn. Few things are as exciting or as satisfying as sharing goals and aspirations with another human being. People have the ability for tremendous insight, and I have seen the aquaponics light ‘switch on’ in many a face over the years. It never gets old.

DL: Any advice for people just getting started with their first rig?

AT: Don’t start before arming yourself with knowledge and getting a firm grasp on the fundamentals. Subscribe to my DigiLetter. You are likely to waste money without appropriate advice, not to mention motivation. These days, the information and products are available to do a great job first time. Best to wait and put aside some money until then.

DL: Can you give us an insight into what kind of a person you are?

AT: I can try! As a person I think humour is very important to me. It is very hard to fearlessly confront the problems of the world without it. We simply must go forth into these potentially dark and frightening times ahead, and we must do it with bravery. In this, I find humour — often very dry humour — exceptionally helpful. We must beware not to take ourselves — or our fears — too seriously.

In my personal life, my family is the most important thing to me. My two young sons — 3 months and 4.5 years old — and my beautiful wife are truly the reason I live and breathe.

DL: OK – so what are your weak points? Is there anything that try as you might, you cannot fix about yourself? Do these make you interesting as a writer and entertaining for your readers?

AT: Ah, the toughest question of all! Passion. Passion is my weakness. Sure, passion can also be a strength. But not always. It is also certainly something that I have no chance of changing about myself. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to relinquish or detach from problems and issues of the world. Some problems seem to have no end and appear to be fuelled by nothing but human ignorance. I am quite a political person and I fail to see how anybody could not be a political entity, with associated opinions regarding the desired progress of society. Of course, the world is made up of an incredible diversity of people and opinions. As a result, conflict is assured for any who enjoy discussing options. Here, passion can be your enemy — because the skill of detachment can provide the benefit of perspective.

DL: Other than the DigiLetter, are there other ways readers can get in contact with you?

AT: Absolutely. Subscribers can find me on Facebook as “Aquaponics EcoGeek”.