The Secret To Small-Lot Homesteading?


The Secret To Small-Lot Homesteading?

By Jeremiah Robinson, Madison, Wisconsin

You could say that I’m an odd duck.

A homesteader and agriculturally-minded Mennonite, I grow a good portion of the food needs for my family—at least by dollar value— on my own land. This includes vegetables, greens, eggs, meat, and maple syrup. As the perennials get established I’ll have my own fruit, berries, nuts, and plants grown for soil fertility.

The odd part? I live four miles from the capitol building in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, on an ⅕ acre lot.

Where I live, I face three major challenges in growing food:

Limited space: One-quarter acre isn’t much to grow on, especially when much of it is shaded.

Zoning regulations: City regulations make it tough for me to raise animals, especially for meat.

Cold weather: In USDA Zone 5a, I see temperatures of -25°F and only get 110 reliable frost-free days.

However, over the years I found a method for growing that allows me to overcome all these obstacles. Can you guess what it is?

I’ll give you a hint:

It was invented separately in ancient times by some creative folks in both China and the Amazon.

In China, it allowed subsistence farmers to thrive on plots of mountainside land that no traditional farmer could ever survive on.

It gave the indigenous residents of ancient Bolivia the power to develop a wealthy and sophisticated agricultural civilization atop worthless soil for 1000 years.

For the past two millenia, these farmers quietly developed the most efficient and sustainable method of growing food known to man. And nobody noticed.


However, about 50 years ago, some folks in Massachusetts calling themselves “The New Alchemists” rediscovered those old techniques and started adapting them to our modern world.

This ancient-turned-modern method of growing is called aquaponics. It combines the raising of fish (aquaculture) with the growing of plants in nutrient-rich water (hydroponics). The fish fertilize the plants, and the plants clean the water.

It’s a fantastic and labor-minimizing way to grow! It allows me to raise my own meat (fish) and grow the highest quality greens, all without weeding, mulching, fertilizing, or building soil.

But those weren’t the challenges I needed to overcome. Let me come back to those.

Limited Space

I built my aquaponics system in a 8′ x 16′ greenhouse. This includes enough space for 480 gallons of water and 70 ft.2 of growing surface, as well as a seed starting area.

This small space allows me to grow the following quantities of food each year:

• 50 lbs. of trout fillets

• 100 lbs. of cold-finished, foodpurged tilapia fillets

• 75 lbs. of basil leaves for pesto

• 50 lbs. of winter spinach

• 40 lbs. of lettuce

This adds up to a total farmersmarket value of $3,660, all from a small unheated greenhouse. Oh, and by the way, I don’t have to wash my lettuce and herbs since there’s no dirt and (usually) few pests.


Zoning Regulations

In the city, I’m not allowed to raise walking animals for meat. This includes sheep, goats, meat chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, cows, etc.

But I discovered one animal they never bothered to write regulations about.

Probably because they don’t bark, bleat, moo, escape, smell, eat wood siding, or mate in public, no municipality that I know of has any rules about raising fish in fish tanks. Some homeowners associations require that tanks look nice or match the décor, but that’s not hard. This year, the Wisconsin DNR decided people like me don’t even need permits to purchase fish from a hatchery.

Problem solved.

Greenhouse/Aquaponics System
The author’s aquaponics system is located inside his greenhouse on a small city lot.

Cold Weather

Do you know what noise the snow makes when it gets really cold, and you walk on it?

It squeaks.

If you live in a place where the snow squeaks, you know what it means to worry about cold weather.

Like squirrels, we store up plenty of tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, pesto, and applesauce for the winter. But we still crave our fresh greens when the world outside is white. Besides that, greens raised in the cold taste a loads better than those raised in warm weather—if you can keep them alive.

Fortunately, I happen to maintain a day job as an energy efficiency engineer with a specialty in cold climate heating. I experimented with a lot of methods for insulating and heating my aquaponics system, but I eventually came to a conclusion that surprised even me.

We can raise fresh greens outside in winter using aquaponics, and it doesn’t even take much energy. It does takes a bit of doing to set it all up for the cold, but if you include multiple layers of thermal protection it’s entirely possible to raise your own greens and fish outdoors all winter long with only a small input of heat and electricity. The trick is to insulate and air seal everything—in order to prevent evaporation at night—as well as to keep your plants, fish, piping, and filters thermally separated from the cold outdoor air.

Conserving energy in this way allows your plants to maintain their health all winter and grow slowly. To speed up winter growth you add small amounts of supplemental fluorescent light for a few hours after dusk during the weeks when there’s less than 10 hours of daylight.

But Wait! Where Do I Start?

Over the next four issues, I plan to go into detail on how to design an aquaponics system for the cold. The techniques I recommend aren’t hard to put into practice, though they take a bit of thought to understand.

In the meantime, if this article got you excited and you want to start making progress, you can download a set of plans from one of the sources listed below. Look them up on Google, and you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Zero to Hero Aquaponics System: Built from a chest freezer, treated wood, insulation, and pond liner, this system is maximized for cold weather (plan cost — $17 with freezer conversion plans).

Barrel Ponics: Built from 55 gallon food-grade barrels. Designed for warm weather, especially missions to third world countries (plan cost — free).

IBC of Aquaponics: Built from a food-grade intermediate bulk container (plan cost — free). Designed for warm weather.

Jeremiah Robinson owns Frosty Fish, a company devoted to bringing aquaponics to the North. Feel free to get in touch at or 608-616-0463. Address: 944 Dane St., Madison, WI 53713.

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