Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.

An Aquaponic System in Oakland

Root Simple pal Federico alerted me to an interesting aquaponics project in Oakland, CA created by Eric Maundu. I share with Federico some skepticism when it comes to aquaponics–the concept seems a bit complicated and plastic intensive to me. But Federico thought, and I agree that this project might be simple enough to be practical.

If any of you have experience with aquaponics, let us know what you think.

A Fishy Mountaintop

We considered putting an aquaculture project in our next book but ultimately decided a against it, because we felt it’s too complicated a subject for most people.Aquaculture/aquaponics also seems to require just the right context. Even here in sunny Los Angeles we’d have to figure out a way to keep the fish warm during the winter, not to mention the use of lots of  water in a very dry place.

Austrian permaculturalist Sepp Holzer has developed an innovated aquaculture system.While, obviously, Holzer’s mountaintop setup is very unique, his problem solving through sophisticated but low tech means is universal. There’s something to learn from his methodology, even though few of us will be able to recreate his specific innovations..

I haven’t read it, but Holzer has a book: Sepp Holzer: The Rebel Farmer.

Via BoingBoing.

A silly note, but I had to point it out. Judging from the video, kudos to Holzer for being a proponent of traditional Austrian alpine clothing. Can we make that a trend? Nice to see.

Fish Don’t Fart

Portable Farms founder Colle Davis

Earlier this week we posted about home-scaled fish farming coming to a Home Depot near you. Yesterday we came across mention of another aquaponics supplier, Portable Farms ( that produces larger greenhouse-based cultivation/aquaponics setups ranging in size from 6′ x 8′ to 90′ x 120′. The greenhouse seems like a good idea since, even in our warm Southern California climate, common aquaponics fish such as tilapia need heated water. Portable Farms owner Colle Davis runs a two acre farm in Escondido California and has been working on his aquaponics system for over 37 years. The tag line “Fish Don’t Fart” refers to the benefits of fish over methane generating cattle.

We skipped over aquaponics in our book since we considered it too expensive and complicated for most people. But perhaps we should give it closer consideration. Aquaponics is profiled in the pioneering urban homesteading book, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the Cityand Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guidewhich comes out of their work at Austin’s Rhizome Collective. What all of these efforts have in common is a permacultural design principle of turning a waste product into a resource and closing a loop. Fish make fertilizer and plants clean water, so why not combine the two?

I’d like to hear stories from ordinary folks who have tried aquaponics on a small scale. If that’s you, leave a comment!

Farm in a Box

Farm in a Box ‘Little Tokyo

I never thought I’d see “permaculture” and “Home Depot” in the same sentence, but an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (For a Green Thumb, Just Add Water) connects the dots between the two with a new product line called Farm in a Box Aquaponics from Earth Solutions.

Farm in the Box is a combined fish tank/planter box. Waste from the fish circulates into the planter box via a pump to provide fertilizer for the plants as well as removing nitrogen and ammonia from the water. From the Earth Solutions website:

“By integrating fish with vegetables, naturally balanced aquatic ecosystems are established making it unnecessary to add fertilizer, chemicals or remove nitrogen rich water.

As in nature, plants, fish and oxygen loving bacteria create a symbiotic relationship; Fish waste is converted by bacteria to a plant loving nutrient which helps maintain safe levels of ammonia without discarding waste and water.

Aqupaonics is an efficient, intensive gardening method with average of 3-6 fold greater yield per square foot. And even though water is everywhere in an aquaponic system, there is as much as 90% less water used than in-ground methods. Other advantages to aquaponics, is that it is fun, easy, most can be done anywhere, by anyone who shares a passion for locally grown food and herbs, without the challenges of in ground farming. Experiment with growing aquaponically raised fish and vegetables in your house on the patio in a greenhouse or community garden, and enjoy!”

Having never tried aquaculture I can’t say if Farm in a Box is a good idea or not, but it sure is interesting to see an advanced permacultural concept ending up in the isles of a big box store. If Home Depot wants to distribute a product like this or Nike wants to use fixed gear bike “culture” to sell shoes, I’m all for it. Let’s get the ideas out there. It’s up to us to take the next step and actually eat the fish.