Vision

What if you could grow the majority of the food essentials that your family needs—vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, and beans—in an area the size of a two-car garage? What if that food kept you healthy and skinny? What if the time to maintain it took less than looking after your vegetable garden? What if the ongoing cost for this was 90% less than groceries cost you now? What if it paid for itself within five or six years?

Details: AutoMicroFarm is an automated farm system that enables gardeners to grow their food with a system that replaces time, effort, and agricultural expertise with design, technology, and software. It is an open-source aquaponics system with best-of-class design, monitoring and automation to make it easy to maintain.

Click the images below to see some renderings of AutoMicroFarm units.

About

Andrew

Andrew Shindyapin
Founder, YCombinator Fellow

I’m Andrew Shindyapin, the founder of AutoMicroFarm. I’ve always dreamed of marvelous inventions that would help save (or at least improve) the world.

For the last six years, I have been working on AutoMicroFarm, with the vision of designing automated farming systems that make the world a better place for myself and others. My current prototype is the fifth one. I am thrilled that AutoMicroFarm has been selected by the Hacker News community to be part of the third batch of the YCombinator Fellowship.

I'm also incredibly excited to bring the first AutoMicroFarm product to the market. It's just the first in a line of products that will automatically grow healthy, delicious, and wholesome food for you and your family. My vision it to make growing food in your back yard as easy as having solar panels installed on your roof to generate your own energy!

FAQ

Advantages

How is aquaponics better than gardening or hydroponics?
Here are just a few advantages over a traditional garden:
  • You get fish
  • Better yield, due to items mentioned below
  • The optimal watering cycle, followed by a drain cycle, means the plants get the air, water, and nutrients they need multiple times a day
  • The water being reused means you need only 10% of it as compared to a traditional garden
  • Going organic is really easy: just feed the fish organic fish feed
  • No soil diseases
  • Virtually no weeds (I’ve picked a dozen weeds over the course of the year I ran this prototype; it took me about 30 seconds total)
  • Minimal maintenance: only need to plant, harvest, prune, and feed the fish
Aquaponics is very similar to hydroponics in terms of yield and ease of maintenance. However, there are a few advantages over hydroponics, as well:
  • You get fish with aquaponics, but not with hydroponics
  • You have to constantly add supplements with hydroponics; this happens automatically with aquaponics
What is the minimum space required for the AutoMicroFarm?
Practically speaking, the minimum space required is about 70 square feet (160 if you give yourself a two-foot space around it to be able to reach all the parts).
What are we talking about in terms of maintenance time/costs?
Maintenance time is minimal: I spent 5 to 15 minutes a day this past year, and that was mostly to feed the fish and gather the harvest, once it got going. Maintenance costs are really minimal: fish feed and seeds come out to maybe $20-30 annually.
I've heard that you don't really save money on the fish side after you take into account feed and labor. Would you characterize that as true?
This may be true with aquaculture, but in backyard-sized aquaponics, where you're not trying to breed fish, I feel there's really not that much labor involved. And the feed not only feeds the fish, it's later reused as fertilizer for plants. If you account for both fish and plant production, you can definitely save money.
I would like to have something like this for indoors. Are there any plans to offer a non-backyard version at some point in the future?
Stay tuned for a new product announcement in 2017. :)

Water and Media

What about the soil? I'm no botanist, but does the fact that you're using sand affect the types of plants that grow well?
The whole premise of aquaponics is that you don't need soil, just something that holds the roots in place and allows fish waste to be converted to plant fertilizer by the bacteria. In general, coarse sand is a great substrate for plants. Both research and my own experience show no problems with aeration or anaerobic zones forming. The sand-based system is based on Dr. McMurtry's aquaponics research at NC State University. Here are a list of publications about it: http://iavs.info/publications/
How much water does an aquaponics system use compared to a traditional garden?
Aquaponics in general only uses ~10% of the water a normal garden, with the only water losses being evaporation and plant transpiration (and what water is incorporated into the plants themselves). If evaporation is a serious issue, you could cover up most of the fish tank (but be sure to add an air bubbler so there's enough oxygen for the fish).
Will the water level in the fish tank will vary a lot?
The water begins draining from the veggie beds seconds after the flooding cycle starts, so the water level in the fish tank only varies by ~10-15%.
I presume you need to manually top off the system for evaporation?
Yes, you would need to top off in times of little rain.
Is there some provision for the over-watering (rainy) scenario?
I drilled a small hole near the top of the fish tank for overflow.
In rainy weather, is losing nutrients to overflow a problem?
No, losing the nutrients is not an issue.

Plants

How many of these would you need to produce enough food for one adult?
If you eat mostly plants, two of these systems will provide 90%+ of your food (assuming you have a greenhouse to put it in, or live in a place that stays warm year-round). My initial proof-of-concept (with gravel media) produced 10 pounds per square foot annually, not counting the fish. In a university setting, aquaponics systems have achieved over 25 pounds of harvest per square foot. See http://iavs.info/publications/ for more info.
What kind of plants would work well for my aquaponics system?
The plants that normally grow well in your garden or your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone (zone 3 and above) will grow well in aquaponics, with a few extreme exceptions. For example, you would not want to grow banana trees, since their roots will break your vegetable bed. When you use sand as specified in the AutoMicroFarm design, you’re also able to plant and harvest root vegetables.
Do you plant the seeds right into the sand or sprout them first somewhere else?
The easiest way to get started is by planting the seeds into the sand: just push them in with your finger

Fish

What air temperature ranges does the fish pool tolerate?
The minimum temperature is 50°F (10°C), but that is a limit for the bacteria, not the fish. The maximum temperature is whatever can be found the natural bodies of water, practically speaking probably around 100°F (38°C). Of course, it all depends on the fish you are raising.
What kind of fish should you grow, and how long do they take to be adults and edible?
The fastest-growing fish used for aquaponics is tilapia, which can reach maturity in six months. But, they require for the water temperature to stay above 60°F (15°C), and really prefer water above 85°F (30°C). Other fish take nine or more months to mature. Tilapia, perch, and catfish are popular. I have catfish in mine. You just have to match the temperature requirements to your climate/area.
Where do you get the fish? I assume most pet stores don't sell fish to raise for food.
You would get the fish at a fish hatchery; there should be one near you. I can help my customers find a nearby hatchery. You can also buy fish online, but the required overnight shipping cost can be substantial.
What are the fish food options? Again, I assume pet stores don't carry the required feed.
You can buy fish food online, at a hatchery, or e.g. Tractor Supply.
Do you have to stick to one type of fish at a time? How many fish can your kit support at one time? I'm sure that's species dependent, so perhaps some examples?
The thing about different fish species (or even same species but substantially different sizes) is that if a fish fits inside a bigger fish's mouth, that bigger fish will try to eat it, unless the smaller fish has somewhere to hide, like aquatic vegetation. This is something I will be experimenting with more.

Potential Issues

Will the fine mesh preventing the sand from getting into the fish clog the tank with detritus?
No clogging has occurred so far (after nine months of operation). This is not an issue.
What about pests? Will the fish control mosquito-larvae in the pool? ... and any other bugs that fall in? What about raccoons or suburban/feral cats?
In my experience, the fish do a very good job of eating any mosquito larvae and other insects that happen to fall into the pool. My design specifies a fish net to prevent losses to raccoons, herons, and other birds of prey.
What about erosion during times of hard precipitation? (Again, most places in the US do get some serious weather multiple times during the growing season.) Seeing my mature plants wash away would be rather frustrating.
We've had several hard rains and high winds, and I haven't seen any significant erosion... maybe a few grains of sand that got washed out, but that's it. The plant roots are really good about holding onto the sand.
Is using PVC really that bad? I've been in the aquarium hobby for over half my life now, and I can't remember ever seeing a single DIY aquarium plumbing project that didn't use PVC. PVC seems particularly ubiquitous for elbows and fittings--how hard/expensive is it to get PEX fittings at retail?
I haven't been able to find a lot of hard facts about PVC, other than the fact that it supposedly bad for fish you want to eat eventually. In any case, PEX piping and fittings are readily available online and in Home Depot and Lowes stores.

Temperature Control

How does this work in winter?
You have three options:
  • Locate your AutoMicroFarm in a greenhouse
  • Let your system overwinter by planting winter-hardy plants and using winter-hardy fish
  • Shut down your AutoMicroFarm over the winter by harvesting fish and plants, and letting the water drain away instead of into the fish tank.
If this were in some sort of greenhouse, would this be sustainable for years at a time or is it more designed to be something you start up each spring?
Yes, my vision is for every house to have a food-grow room, just like most houses had root cellars ~100 years ago. I really like Ceres Greenhouses as well as Open Building Institute's aquaponic greenhouse. Stay tuned for more details on the aquaponic greenhouse, coming next year.
The climate in our house varies so much that we need a heater in the winter and a cooler in the summer to keep it habitable. An additional grow room for plants would require the same and the cost would seem to outweigh the benefits, although I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.
Check out the GAHT (Ground to Air Heat Transfer tech) through Ceres Greenhouses. It acts as a temperature stabilizer while using very little energy.
How high is the risk of mold or some disease getting in your system, considering your fairly inexperienced target user base?
I've never had a problem with mold, since the water always drains (after flooding). There is always the chance that you'll get some kind of pest or disease on your fish/plants, I've had those pests but companion planting can minimize that risk (something I'll help my customers with).

Future Ideas

Any thoughts to using a 12VDC pump, powered by a solar panel and small battery? (In some places it is illegal to have an extension cord outdoors for months on end.)
That is something I looked into. For $150-$200, you can buy a kit containing the DC pump, a battery, a solar panel, and a timer.
Are there ways to sustainably create your own protein-rich fish food? Perhaps some kind of insect farm?
That's the longer term goal. One practical way to do it is to feed all your compost to black soldier fly larvae (BSFL), which self-harvest when it's time by crawling out of the container... into the fish pond. Here's an example of a BSFL composting bin: The BioPod. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you have any type of closed loop, you'll be adding nutrients by default. For example, if you have the food waste -> BSFL -> fish -> plants -> harvest loop, you'll be adding food waste from outside the loop, which will have the nutrients you need. If you continue consuming bananas, banana peels will be an excellent source of magnesium and potassium that will make its way into the plants through the loop mentioned above.
Does it include / can it be combined with a compost system?
It doesn't include a compost system, but would work well paired with a BioPod to produce black soldier fly larvae that will self-harvest into the fish tank and provide the fish with supplementary feed.

Get In Touch

Use the form below to email me, or the button on the right to request a call.

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