Aquaponics a healthy hobby

Cate RocchiThe West Australian
Damen and Ellen Maddock.
Camera IconDamen and Ellen Maddock. Credit: Countryman

On the edge of the Wheatbelt, not far from where the pastoral land begins in earnest, a young couple have achieved spectacular results from an aquaponics trial, raising barramundi and growing fresh vegetables.

Damen and Ellen Maddock live on a family property, 55km north of Mukinbudin. Red dirt is as far as you can see and everything is dry after a long, hot summer. Not far from the second house - Damen's parents, Reg and Di Maddock, live in the main farmhouse - about 100 full-size barramundi swim around in ponds in a converted pig shed.

Although the installation of equipment has been time consuming, it has meant the extended family can have fresh fish all year round. This has improved their lifestyle and reduced expenses.

It has not rained for a while and all the dams are empty or very low, so water is carted from a nearby granite rock. A stone catchment wall - built more than a century ago - feeds rainwater into an underground tank.

Many early settlers built homes by large rocks because that guaranteed a consistent water supply. Damen's great-grandfather George Maddock settled in the area on a pastoral lease.

The family does not know who built the wall around the huge rock to catch rainwater, but Damen believes it may have been after the lease was later divided up into parcels of farms for war service veterans. Reg and Di bought the current property in 1974.

Damen brings the fresh rainwater back from the historic catchment on the back of a vehicle, and uses sunlight to warm it. The water passes through a series of black pipes that run along the shed roof.

The biggest challenge has been keeping the fish warm, he said, particularly during cold winter nights. The hundred or so fish swimming are what remains of 180 fingerling barramundis bought a year ago.

Behind the shed is the second part of the aquaponics system, plant beds that were installed to help purify the water.

It is amazing. Spring onions are nearly a metre tall, and there are tomatoes, lettuce, silverbeet, capsicums and every type of herb. An unbelievable amount of fresh vegetables thrive on the fish waste water and then purify it - the bounty at the back of this pig shed is a revelation.

The couple admit that visiting friends and family, who fill plastic bags of greens to take home, are also very surprised at the amount of produce they can grow.

Ellen said she was a bit sceptical when her husband raised the idea of an aquaponics system. However, the couple now agree their days of shopping for vegetables are over.

"Whatever I need, I just go down and pick it fresh," said Ellen, who was formerly Mukinbudin Shire's deputy chief executive.

"We eat a lot of more fresh vegetables now. When you walk in here you are overwhelmed by the look and smell of everything," she said.

They are full of stories of enormous tomatoes and report the speed of growth is exceptional. "I was amazed. I just can't believe they grow that fast," Ellen said.

Practical Damen has recycled big plastic containers to use as vegetable beds. When installing them, he placed them on benches so Ellen, who was pregnant with son Charlie at the time, did not have to bend down to garden.

The Maddocks have a history of adapting their farming strategies. The family was known for an intensive pig operation which ran from 1985 to 2005.

"Finding labour was an issue," Reg said. "Once our farm got bigger, it became too difficult to manage the pigs. Also the margins became that close that there was not a great deal of money in them."

But now the pig shed has been put to good use. "We had a really good shed that was used as the piggery farrowing shed," Damen said.

"We thought of raising marron originally, but they take so long to grow - two years. Then during a drought year, we thought we'd try barramundi, so over a couple of years, we slowly put it in place."

So after a lifetime of pork dinners, the family are eating a great deal more fish and vegies than in the past.

While the family's trial operation is not running commercially as yet, there are plans to obtain an aquaculture licence. Damen said he would aim to raise two batches of barramundi to sell each year, one at Easter and one before Christmas.

He added there was a shortfall in barramundi in Australia each year. The fish have to be plate size, which is between 25cm and 28cm. Based on this figure, Damen said the family's fish were a bit overgrown.

"We wanted to see if it worked and if they would survive to eating stage," Ellen added.

Personally, Damen said the exercise had been a wonderful hobby.

"Not every year is perfect out here and during a drought, you are sitting around and you don't want to spend any money on the farm because you are not making any money," he said.

"Then you go into the shed and the noise of the trickling water is really relaxing and it calms you."

Down the track, if a business plan proves barramundi production from Mukinbudin is viable commercially, Damen said solar power would make sense. Then, using rainwater as a water source, the product would be organic and the operation would leave a very small green footprint.

He hopes to eventually supply his fish to one or two restaurants and may do partnerships with other local hospitality ventures, including their friends Scott and Hayley Watson. They recently took over Watson's Way Bed and Breakfast from Scott's mum, Ray Watson.

"Everyone said the barra were going to die, but we had nothing to lose so we had a go," Damen said.

We eat a lot of more fresh vegetables now. When you walk in here you are overwhelmed by the look and smell of everything.

"Ellen Maddock

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