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Tiny Farms State of the Union Address: What we're actually doing right now

Tiny Farms State of the Union Address: What we're actually doing right now

I thought I'd give a quick update on how everything is going, the state of the Open Bug Farm project and our timeline as we lead up to releasing designs and shipping kits.

One of the surprisingly tricky things we've found about starting an Open Source project is resisting the urge to keep our work private "before it’s ready". In a traditional product development environment, one naturally wants to hide away their work until it has a high level of polish. However, in an Open Source environment, community involvement and feedback should shape the entire process. It's a big mental shift! We hope this update should shed some light on the current state of affairs.

What do Open Bug Farm mealworm kits currently look like?

Our current prototypes feature mesh fabrics to house mealworms. We happened upon the idea last year when experimenting with methods for separating food & frass from worms. When housed in a mesh fabric bag as opposed to the typical plastic bin, the worms "self-clean" - their natural movement causes frass to move to the bottom of their substrate and drop through the mesh, where it can be easily removed. We’re playing with structures (racks, hooks or rope), from which these bags can be suspended.

Once you get the numbers right, it could be possible to fill a bag once with the exact amount of feed required to take worms up to their optimal harvest weight. Frass drops through the mesh and after a month or so you're left with a bag entirely filled with mealworms. No harvest process required; just open up the bag!

Typically, mealworm farms have consisted of lots of plastic trays, either stacked, on shelves or as drawers. Inspecting, feeding, cleaning and harvesting each individual tray is a labourious process. Since the insects' waste has nowhere to go, harvesting requires a tedious separation process. This makes no sense when you're trying to produce cheaply at scale.

We've also had a lot of trouble finding cheap, commodity plastic trays that are likely to be available worldwide, whether California, Uganda or Vietnam. We played with a lot of design concepts resembling traditional farms using rigid trays, with or without the addition of mesh fabric.

Since eggs and tiny juvenile worms can get through a very fine mesh, we'll probably need a separate breeding container, and a “Hatchery” for the youngest bugs.

Some other folks also came up with the idea of using bags (as bins) in a recent forum thread on Ultra Cheap Mealworm Production which encourages us that this is a direction worth pursuing further. Open Source is awesome!

Pros to using Mesh bags instead of the traditional Plastic bins

* Avoids laborious waste separation
* Cheap materials
* Lightweight and easy to store/move
* Extremely low transportation costs
* Easier to wash
* Simple manufacturing and global availability
* A substantially greater depth of mealworms per unit with airflow on all sides of a suspended bag

Our current questions are:

* What is the optimal mesh size
* Which is an appropriate fabric - we can't use something that rots, or that mealworms will chew through, and it has to be available worldwide. Mosquito netting is looking good so far.
* What's the best way to close the bags? My own current favourite is something similar to the way dry sacks close.
* What should we suspend the bags from, and how?
* How do the separate hatchery and breeding containers work?
* How do we deal with the frass?
* What is the optimal volume of worms/bedding per bag
* How do we cycle through moisture sources (like carrots or cactus)

How long will all this take?

We will be continually releasing information and design documentation on the forum as we go. Finding creative answers to all these questions should take us around a month or so. We need to create final designs and get them published, then figure out manufacturing and distribution. Our target is to have this done by the end of Q1 2014, which is the end of March. All three of us are working part time on this, so there could be some slippage if unexpected things happen, but we're certainly on track for now!

I hope this gives you a better understanding of where things are at. Expect more soon. And please share your feedback on everything!

Warmly,
Daniel

Comments

  • Fantastic! You lot really think outside the square. Another 'PRO' for mesh bags is that less plastic pollutes the environment when discarded. Also sounds like less space is required depending on how they hang and what is underneath to catch the fras etc... do these need to be plastic bins?
  • As for the best way to close the bags, speak to any one who can sew. The linked system is a bit too fancy and probably unnecessary, a simple draw string through the mesh with no clip would do if you are hanging them. The weight would keep them closed. *-:)
  • Yeah, there'll have to be something underneath to catch the frass - we're still working on that part :)

    You're right about the links - we did some prototyping this weekend and found that simple loops work pretty well, although you need something to hold tight edges (rounded rope slips out when you add weight).
  • Keep it up, we're waiting... no pressure though. :))
  • I have only just found this post, thanks for the update Dansitu. I was wondering how the kits were coming along. My own expectation was that you may have made use of a plastic container, that way you could house other insects like crickets if you decide to move on from mealworms, but as you have explained there are greater cost benefits with using a bag for mealworms. Great work guys, can't wait to purchase and get farming..
  • I'm looking forward to the bags idea... these drawers are driving me nuts, they just don't slide well and are awkward. Glueing the mesh in the bases is a nightmare and they take up more space than I would like. :-S
  • I doubt that bags could ever work for crickets, but there would be many other species that it would be good for.
  • @kerri - for now we're considering the bag approach pretty much only for species that live in amongst their bedding like mealworms, but crickets will inevitably require rigid structure, at least within their containers. It's still possible that we may be able to design a sufficient containment unit using cheap plastic sheeting as siding, but they need 3 dimensional structure with nooks and crannies to hide in
  • @yìchóng, thanks for your support! We're working hard to get everything out there as soon as we can :)
  • @dansitu What about the possibility of utilizing frass for plant fertilizer, especially in the cultivation of carrots or the cactus for hydration plants for the worms? Also, are you thinking multi-level bag stacking like multi-teir hanging planters or like this http://www.finecraftguild.com/vertical-gardening/. Now that the bag idea is described in more detail, I actually like it more and would be very interested in investing in a kit containing such bags when available. Another idea for the bags could present the possibility of cheese cloth, maybe? I know I may not know what I'm talking about, as I have not started my farm yet, but these are just some ideas.
  • Frass definitely works as fertilizer - these guys are actually selling it for $4.99 per pound! http://www.pritchettssmallpets.com/products.php?product=Mealworm-Frass-(Natural-Fertilizer)

    You're right, the bags are designed be multi-level, sort of like the hammocks in this picture :) We're thinking about how to make sure the frass can make its way easily into a collection bin - perhaps having mesh fabric at the bottom of each bag but a non-mesh fabric at the top (so that any frass falling on it slips right off).

    By the way, those planters are awesome!
  • @HeatherSayyah, thanks for the bottle vegie growing idea. Definitely on my list of new projects. Don't know yet what Open Bug Farm in bags will look like, but hope it is as efficient and space-saving as this!
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