Commercial Aquaponics Discussion

This is a popular and contentious topic lately, and with good reason. There are NOT many farms out there making their living from aquaponics and those that are, have not been doing so for a terribly long time. Most of the ones I know of happen to be on tropical islands that provide for a great niche market for fresh local produce.

That said, let me make sure everyone understands where I’m coming from or where I am at currently. It is Early September 2013. I went nuts about the beginning of 2012 and had to move out of the suburban neighborhood where it was “unsanitary to grow food” and I bought a farm. We moved to the farm summer 2012 and I was starting to sell produce by the start of 2013. Systems still need to expand to the point where I might be able to grow enough quantity to support the farm and myself from the income (if I can manage to sell that much.) The farm is NOT profitable yet but I also haven’t been growing for sale for a year yet so I do feel I’m on the right track but I still have improvements to make and learning to do.

I would also like to mention that running a successful aquaponic operation is likely to be only a small % about aquaponics itself. One might have a great aquaponics system that can work wonderfully to raise fish and plants but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing else involved in doing so. One must actually manage to grow a good product, do it in the climate/situation where your farm is (as opposed to the farm where you learned your system design.) Many people seem to think that no extra supplements or pest controls are needed for aquaponics, perhaps that works out for some people in the back yard but when growing produce for sale, one needs to plan on supplementing as needed to maintain good plant production and controlling pests as needed. This means the operator needs to test for and learn to recognize nutrient problems and how to correct or keep them from happening in the first place as well as practicing good pest inspection routines and Integrated Pest Management and also spraying as the situation calls for it. These things apply if you are growing in aquaponics or NOT, about the only thing specific to aquaponics is that the supplements and pest controls that are usable around aquaponics must be fish and bacteria safe. There are things that can be used but one must be far more careful since most of the standard pest controls would kill fish and even many of the “certified organic” controls also kill fish.

Another very important point about commercial aquaponics is that you make NO money growing things (it actually costs you money to do it,) the only way you can make money farming is if you are SELLING what you grow for more than it costs you to grow it. This is very important and probably overlooked by many to first get enamored of the idea of aquaponics and going commercial with it.

I have also seen many plans/designs that spend most of the money and space on cramming as much aquaponics system and growing space in as possible while not giving enough space to walkways and work areas. In a backyard system one might be ok with a 4′ wide media bed full of plants all on top of each other but those beds are generally not going to be appropriate to growing commercial tomatoes or peas sine if you fill that bed up, you can’t reach most of the plants in the bed to tend, inspect, harvest, spray, etc. Making it too difficult to do these things will greatly hamper efficiency or even make for a large portion of the produce being unmarketable. Spending money to grow unmarketable product is a recipe for an operations failure. Be sure to design in enough space to allow people to make the space function. If it is going to take hours extra to do a weekly operation because it is too difficult to access some part of the system, the operation is not going to get done often enough and the operation will suffer. The work space for planting, transplanting, harvesting, packing, chilling, and processing if any also needs to be taken into account. Making the work areas inefficient can cost an operation big time when harvesting for market takes too many hours to reasonably justify what little money one will earn selling the crops at the market. And if an operation doesn’t plan the work area and it gets stuck in or is make shift as an afterthought, it is highly unlikely that it will be as efficient as it might otherwise have been. Think about the seed storage, media and storage and tray filling, planting, germination (space, lighting, temperature, humidity) as well as the nursery area, transplanting operation AND how to move things from one to the other efficiently. Then on the other end the harvest operation. Continual harvest plants might not require much extra for a harvest area other than wide enough walkways to move through with the cart and tubs or boxes. But Raft or tower or nft plants often need a harvest area arranged to bring the planting units to strip and clean/chill/package the plants. One must also have a reasonable way to stack up, then CLEAN, then store the planting units (like rafts) until they get re-planted. The harvest area must have or be very close to facilities to cool the product. You can’t simply take veggies hot from the growing space and pack it in boxes to take to market. The “field heat” must be removed from the produce to allow it to retain quality to provide a good product for sale.

Finally, Aquaponics is FARMING. Anyone who thinks they can start a backyard system and then somehow quit their day job while not actually having to work hard or get dirty is going to have a hard lesson coming. Aquaponics isn’t something where you can simply hire minimum wage workers or use random volunteers as your workforce without providing a huge amount of supervision and training. Farming is not a desk job.

13 comments to Commercial Aquaponics Discussion

  • chris marshall

    you just preached here tc. would share some of my trials with you someday as I run a commercial aquaponics farm with no day job

    • TCLynx

      Chris, yours is one of the farms I mention managing to make it. Please do share some of your trials and what you have learned from them. I’ve been trying to share my mistakes and what I’ve been learning from them.

    • Ron Robert

      Chris, where is you operation and how long have you been in operation? I am glad to hear you are running a successful aquaponics business.

    • TCLynx

      Thanks Molly,
      I’ve been getting a lot of questions about doing commercial aquaponics lately. I have to tell people I AM NOT making a living from my farm yet and even when I do, aquaponics is not the only income source on my farm. We have other animals and growing techniques too.

      But I have been learning certain lessons, many about the not necessarily aquaponics related parts of the operation that hamper efficiency to the edge between is it possible to make enough money doing this to survive. Are there enough hours when it is even cool enough to harvest and package?

      I’m sometimes known to be TOO open and Honest and I’m sure there are some people out there going to be rather angry about what I have written but the truth is, FARMING is HARD so people really should get a big dose of reality before they go ahead with it.

      I can also say, there are some things that Friendly Aquaponics has written about in their Newsletters that are good points. Like weed control. The time spent weeding/mowing etc around an aquaponics system can really bite into ones time to do other work on the farm and the weeds provide an avenue for pests/plant diseases and weeds to actually get into the system. I really wish multiple layers of weed fabric were actually more effective weed control here in Florida (unfortunately here there are many weeds that will happily take root right on top of weed fabric, especially if you put gravel or mulch over it.)

  • Aleece,
    The information which you are sharing is vital to anyone trying to,or thinking about taking a bite out of this apple. I am very greatful for the help in which you shared with me and our orginization about setting up a well thought out system. Construction of the project is moving forward quickly and I am looking forward to the time when you can revisit our project and see the harvest of the seeds you planted in here in south Florida. Thanks again John

  • Ron Robert

    Well said Aleece. Many people think this is so simple when in fact you need many skills to have a successful aquaponics operation. Even if you are able to be successful in the operation of a large aquaponics system and are able to deliver a quality product does not mean you will make a profit. Marketing of your product and determining the value and what the market wants is just as important as managing the aquaponics system.
    It is much easier to run a hydroponic farm and produce peppers, lettuce and tomatoes in a greenhouse all year long if you want a commercial operation. Hydroponics is not nearly as fun or interesting as aquaponics in my opinion but a commercial aquaponics operation is very complex and takes a lot of knowledge and experience. There have been a few major failures of commercial systems and most people in aquaponics only make money by teaching others how to do it and charging a lot of money to attend the classes.
    It may be possible to make a living in aquaponics if you are in the right area and have the financial backing, professional staff and market opportunities but it is clearly not easy.

  • GUYS, AND GIRLS, My wife and I have had it with the healthcare industry. She’s a nurse and I’m a Pharmacist. We both work 40+ hours weekly for our income, and both have put in 60+ hours a week on our “project”. Neither is afraid of hard work and we’ve both gardened for years. I’ve had several other careers so plumbing, oxygen chemistry, water chemistry, and mechanical endeavors are second nature. We’re investing a sizable portion of our retirement to fund this aquaponic adventure. Come hell or high water we’re going to make this thing work. Dirty, hard work is great, but I’ve spent 100’s if not 1000’s of hours studying on the internet and I believe this is one of the best truthful sites I’ve encountered, but man are there a lot of charlatans out there that talk a good game but don’t know jack about farming or aquaponics. I hope to continue to get to know all of ya’ll and thank you, TCLYNX FOR YOUR REFRESHING HONESTY.

    • TCLynx

      Thank You Russ,
      I will recommend you also follow Nate Story of Bright Agrotech since they are posting and publishing a lot of videos on some topics that are of great importance to small farmers (as opposed to some who might be just doing backyard gardening) He has some e-books (free I believe if You sign up for their newsletter) that list some of the top mistakes new farmers make.

      I do recommend as he does starting a bit smaller (this gives a chance to do some market research and a system for quarantine and later for experimenting) before you build Huge scale. Remember to plan the WORK area for flow and efficiency. (Having to be up all night before spending the day at market because the harvest area is too inefficient to do the harvest in a few hours sucks, make sure your cool room or cooler is convenient to the harvest area and for loading to go to market.)

  • Freddy

    My opinion is hard work is a must in any kind of business , no matter how simple it seems to make a new business then it is always associated with the work.
          If you live by a business then you have to work 24/7

    Here where I live ( south Spain) , it is not quite known yet with organic crops , it varies widely from little bit more , always different things , and things that are not my kind of cooking (I’m from Denmark )
         I appreciate the fresh crops are not very well known and used in this country yet, the North has beautiful crops.

    Although 70% of crops are grown in Spain for the North countries so there is no taste of fruits and vegetables from freezing north , where today you can buy all kinds of organic crops.

    It is however pleasure I have found great joy in Aquaponic , I will just say that I shall not live by it , just enjoy myself with it, the more I put myself into the task the more interesting becomes.
    I really appreciate your approach with ” do not think it is easy ” thank you Russ TCLynx, I glad to be here and enjoy you service!

    • TCLynx

      Using aquaponics for your own personal growing is by far one of the best things to do with aquaponics. To have fresh food you grow yourself not only provides you with good healthy nutritious food, but can also promote a wonderful feeling of well being and empowerment that has to be good for you.

  • Toby

    Does anyone have experience or resources related to urban indoor aquaponics?

    • TCLynx

      Look for operations that are in colder climates, especially ones with less sunshine during the winter and you are more likely to find people with experience growing indoors and with lights instead of depending just on sunlight. There are several operations in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas.
      Jesse Hull and Molly Stanik of Imagine Aquaponic shttp://imagineaquaponics.com/ may be of assistance.

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