Happy Seedlings, Happy Fish, Happy Family? Achieving All Three Through Function Stacking In An Integrated Seed Starting/Heating/Aquaponics System

Progress report for FNC22-1323

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Serenity Farm
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Brad Dilts
Serenity Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Our farm occupies 40 acres, with 2.5 in organic (not certified) and regenerative vegetable production. It's a family operation involving myself, my wife, and all 8 of our children. We have been at it since October 2014. We practice cover cropping, manure and compost fertilization, and animal rotations in order to continue to heal our land from decades of conventional agriculture.


A huge part of our workload is starting and caring for seedlings for eventual transplant into the gardens. We have previously worked in a small lean-to greenhouse.  It doesn’t have good thermal regulation, leaks, and requires a lot of fuel. Watering is a manual process, requiring constant attention. We periodically lose seedlings due to missed watering or flooding.

I’m building a new seedling greenhouse that is a 30' x 60' walipini style, dug 5' below grade, and covered with double layered plastic. To solve the above problems in the new greenhouse, I’m designing an integrated aquaponic seed starting and heating system with the following features:

  1. Use of a "rocket stove" mass heater to efficiently heat the greenhouse through use of thermal mass. This will release heat into the greenhouse over time for more even temperatures with less babysitting and fuel.
  2. A low profile fish tank to absorb heat from the rocket stove and circulate warm fertilized water through elevated "thin film" watering beds. Seedling trays sit in these beds, where the seedlings are consistently bottom watered through capillary action. This reduces or eliminates manual watering, reducing labor.
  3.  As fish population increases, they can be sold for additional revenue.
Project Objectives:

The focus of research will be to evaluate feasibility of this system and effectiveness in meeting the following criteria:

  1. Improve thermal stability of the greenhouse.
  2. Provide more consistent soil moisture for the seedlings through use of thin film watering beds.
  3. Provide fertility for the seedlings and cleaner water for the fish, reducing stress and improving outcomes.
  4. Provide another revenue stream for the farm through fish and live plant sales.
  5. Reduce daily workload in establishing and caring for seedlings.

Outreach will be accomplished through social media postings and field days in conjunction with our local extension office's "Growing Growers" program.


Materials and methods:

Due to construction setbacks in the seedling house this project was to be conducted in 2022 (see lessons learned). The actual research has not begun yet as of January 2023.

Due to circumstances beyond our control, limited progress was made on construction of the greenhouse and systems, and the equipment is not yet functional as of January 2023.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Education and outreach has been postponed due to setbacks in project construction.

Outreach is still postponed as of January 2023.

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

2022 was one of those years where nothing went right. I've been able to accomplish purchasing materials, though challenges surfaced.  The construction of the Walipini style seedling house this project was to be conducted in was set back due to a retaining wall collapse last winter.  I was excavating to level the floor in preparation for setting posts for the project and bringing rock in, and inadvertently dug a little too deep alongside one retaining wall.  That night we had an unexpected heavy rainstorm that washed out the sand base from under the wall.  With the base compromised, the saturation of the berm soil caused it to tip in and collapse.  By the time it dried out, I was dealing with other breakdowns, repairs, and general spring farm activities.  The whole year set a record for problems, and I am still constructing the greenhouse. My hope is to have the seedling house done this spring, and to conduct the project as planned, but essentially a year behind schedule.  The biggest lesson of the past year's attempts to work this project has been a solid reinforcement of the old adage, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

2023 has continued the challenges of 2022.  The main structure of the greenhouse was completed, and the tank, growing beds, and rocket stove were begun.  However, due to extenuating circumstances, construction was not completed.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.