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.