Aquaponic Gardening

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So much discussions have come about regarding the viability of aquaponics as a business.


Can it work, or not?

and why?

In Canada (Toronto specifically) the focus for local has been huge. Being in a cold climate we cannot source certain products locally, and they come from California, or Mexico. I have no experience running aquaponics on a huge level (I've got a small setup on the second floor of my restaurant)

But what I dont get, is why is a hyroponic/greenhouse setup selling, say cucumbers viable?

We have greenhouses in Ontario growing peppers, cucumbers,  year-round in a cold climate. so these guys have heating costs in the winter, probably artificial light for the lack of sun in the winter - and I am sure they are turning a profit? (They wouldn't be in business if they werent making money!)

Regarding additional income streams such as consulting, training, farm tours

That is all part of the business IMO. My restaurants turn a profit from all aspects of the business. (ie. Catering) but are base is dining in/taking out)

If you look at my restaurant model, I've got 3 cooks, 2 waitresses, cost of rent, heat, hydro, enormous food cost (30-40% in many cases) TONS of competition, and at the end of the day we turn a profit.

from 7am to 10am we sell 3 eggs, 3 bacon, homefries, toast and coffee for 3.99!! plus I got to pay all those other costs. but money is made because of turn-over.

Why NOT aquaponics? (forgive my lack of knowledge)

But if you've got say, 4000 sq. feet of grow beds, ample lighting etc. and you follow what most of the experts are saying. (ie. say 27 holes per 2X4 raft)and decide to grow, say buttercrunch lettuce

4000 sq. feet should technically give you a gross production of 13,500 heads of lettuce?

obviously you stagger the harvest cycles, have an ample amount of seedlings ready to replace the harvest.

Is it unrealistic that 4000. sq. feet of grow beds, with proper lighting, fish to plant population etc. will output, say 10,000 heads a month?

am I missing something here? (again, forgive my lack of knowledge regarding aquaponics, growth times)

I'd love to dive in and learn aquaponics, grow year-round for the many, many local restaurants that "do" source locally but simply cannot find them.

I guess I am trying to figure out what one could expect out of total production, then discuss the input costs etc.

Would love to hear your opinions.

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Averan, are you forgeting that...

We too "need to buy all sorts of pH balancers" i.e Potassium BiCarb KHCO3; Potassium Hydroxide KOH; Calcium Hydroxide CaOH, and that's just for alkaline buffering...

For treating top-up water many folks are using Muratic or hydrochloric acid HCl; or Sulfuric acid H2SO4, or Nitric acid HNO3...

These are the same price to purchase weather used for an AP operation or a hydro one...

We too need to buy "other weird chemicas"  for instance: 

Ethylenediamine-di(o-hydroxyphenylacetiz) acid, Fe-EDDHA one of the most common Iron chelates, used in AP, or Diethylenetriaminepentaacetic acid, the Fe-DTPA Iron chelate...hardly qualifies as 'non-weird' chemicals... 

MgSO4 7H2O is a common supplement (though much more benign than the chelates or some of the other stuff to be sure...

And I believe the old GI-GO (garbage in-garbage out) principle still applies to AP as far as "cheap" fish food goes... 

Crappy poorly formulated fish food will likely result in poor plant performance. Not to mention the way in which the fish food is manufactured and where it comes from. Arguably as bad or worse than the mining of phospates or other minerals used in hydro...

Don't get me wrong now...I love the idea of AP, but I did not get into it thinking that it was a less expensive way to grow food than organic soil gardening or classical hydro...And I think it may be unfair to present it in that light.

AP has it's selling points, but being 'cheap' is certainly NOT one of them. Especially in the context of Dino's original post... Which is Commercial AP...

And if it turns out that AP is in fact NOT certifiable under current protocol...well that just sucks egss because it is highly unlikely that wholesale/retail suppliers (who will be buying your product) will give a rat's ass that you grew your lettuce using fish.

Personally I do feel that AP grown food can be better than organic, and much more environmentally friendly than some of the Big Organic Ag suppliers to the U.S (i.e "Organic" certified companies usurping Mexican water tables with no regard as to how that effects the indigenous population)...but how I feel doesn't make a lick of difference as to the viability of commercial AP. 



Averan said:

Why would hydroponics be cheaper than aquaponics?  I thought that was the whole point, we only need to buy cheap fish food whereas they're buying all sorts of chemical fertilizers and pH balancers and other weird chemicals that are much more expensive.

Peter, do you know the name of the place in Emeryville?

I don't know what kind of AP system you're running, but I sure as heck don't have to add any chemicals of any kind to my system.  If you build it right and take a truly biological/ecological approach to maintaining your system you shouldn't need to constantly poke and prod by adding weird inorganic chemicals.

That's the beauty of AP.  Create a healthy balanced ecosystem and all the little critters that flourish will do the work for you!

imo, if you're dumping any of the chemicals you listed into your system, you are not following nature's example, but rather taking shortcuts that are old habits from hydroponics and aquaculture.  This approach will likely lead to trouble or at the very least create a system that is unstable and addicted to these constant chemical infusions.

I think a lot of folks come at this from the world of pre-packaged goods and a western science mindset and they treat AP like a mechanical profit-making machine.  Personally, I prefer the permaculture/living-machine approach that replaces artificial ingredients and processes with living biological organisms.  Scaling this approach up commercially requires a very different way of designing your system from what folks are used to.  (e.g. - algae in the fish tank is bad vs. algae in the fish tank = fish food + O2 + habitat for other beneficial micro organisms)

If you do not create habitats for these organisms to thrive in, then you'll have to constantly replace their missing function in your artificial ecosystem with man-made chemicals and machines which do not have the benefit of replicating and reproducing themselves!  In that case your operating costs will be higher.

Averan, that's reasonable in theory, but in application falls far short.  I think I have an incredibly sustainable system, but the mechanics of operation mean that not everything is conserved and some things need to be supplemented.  While "self-contained systems" may work for home-growers who can afford to spend an hour on a head of lettuce over the course of it's production cycle, or who don't mind if their lettuce is a little yellow, that's a fine mentality.  But I have to sell what I produce, if I can't, I'm not economically sustainable.  It's really a multi-dimensional issue.  The whole low-input approach is complete nonsense from a commercial standpoint, and borderline nonsense from a home production standpoint.  It's just like your garden or any other agricultural ecosystem, outputs will always be an equivalent value or fraction of inputs, conservation of energy and matter, and all that. . .

Really, you're not arguing against fish food introduction- but what is not clear is that the dietary needs of fish and the nutritional requirements of plants are not the same.  And the process of biological translation of fish produced substances to plant available ones is not always efficient. 

@Averan. You mean to tell me you have never buffered your pH up? Even with crushed egg shells or sea shells (Calcium carbonate)? Or Slaked/builders/hydrated lime, (Calcium Hydroxide CaOH)

Averan, every single commercial or even semi-commercial (and dare I say most backyarders even) AP operation uses many of those chemicals (not at the same time of course) From UVI to Nelson & Pade...many MANY people on this here forum WAAAAY to many folks to list...

Anyone who has ever buffered their pH back up has. Anyone who has EVER added ANY Iron product has...Anyone who has EVER treated 'hard/high pH' top up water...tannic acid not-withstanding...

That is part of the reality of (esp commercial) AP as it stands...Commercial AP is NOT permaculture.

By the way none of those chemicals I listed are inorganic compounds (I'm not sure about the some of the Iron chelates)...and they do not inhibit any organisms from thriving and replicating themeselves and filling a niche.

Salicylic acid methyl ester, C8H8O3... is just the chemical name for wintergreen mint oil, so don't let that throw you...


I wholeheartedly agree with much of your thinking, and am probably even more extreme in my views of such things, but unfortunately COMMERCIAL AP will not be taking the permaculture route any time in the foreseeable future, as commercial interests will not allow such a development in a commercial sphere. It is contradictory...(Like saying Millitary Intelligence)

To survive as a commercial outfit (in the Western sense at the present time) one must be competitive in the marketplace and profitable, ABOVE ALL ELSE. An AP-Permiculture venture could never function as a truly "commercial entity" surviving own (non existent) profits while being subjected to the forces of the marketplace

Actually, I know of no AP system on the planet currently that is a "profit making machine". As a matter of fact, I would LOVE to know of just one that is even turning any kind of a profit from the sales of vegatables and fish. (NO classes, NO courses, NO consulting or system sales and not part of a school/government program)...it just doesn't seem to exist. (you don't see hydro greenhouses having to give tours or sell classes in order to make a profit do you. No you don't because it's cheaper than AP...Not BETTER or more quality,  but CHEAPER)?

I truly wish it were different, but it's not.

I agree with Averan. According to Dr Rakocy the only missing "elements" in an aquaponic system are iron, potassium, and calcium. Celated iron is added for the first 6 months or so and then calcium carbonate and potassium carbonate to buffer the PH levels.

Also as Dr Wilson has said (he was talking about seasol/maxicrop) if you add extra fertilizers to your system then you have a hydroponic system with fish swimming in it.

I have added nothing else and don't plan to.

 

Todd

That's mostly true Todd.  Some systems will vary though, depending on pH and feed.  Dr. Rakocy always added chelated iron (not just the first 6 mo.s) and KOH and CaOH continuously.  No one operating large systems does any differently.  I don't add much else (Mg on occasion), but the three above must be added.  There's no way around it.  Ask anyone operating systems long term and you won't hear anything different.  Vlad merely described these inputs as well as Epsom salts (an Mg source) and a few acids.  

If anyone thinks they can run a system without these additions they're fooling themselves, and the reality is this:  When your crop is on the line, and a deficiency shows, you treat it and save your crop.  When your livelihood isn't on the line, then you can afford to sit back and see what happens.

Todd Sowell said:

I agree with Averan. According to Dr Rakocy the only missing "elements" in an aquaponic system are iron, potassium, and calcium. Celated iron is added for the first 6 months or so and then calcium carbonate and potassium carbonate to buffer the PH levels.

Also as Dr Wilson has said (he was talking about seasol/maxicrop) if you add extra fertilizers to your system then you have a hydroponic system with fish swimming in it.

I have added nothing else and don't plan to.

 

Todd

One thing I also do is find the best food available. I have Koi in my system now and looked for the best quality I could. I actually met the owner of one of those companies at a local koi show and bought some food from him.

Something I did not know is that there are different qualities of fish meal. The koi food I bought had "White Fish Meal"

in it. It is a higher grade of fish meal. Now if we could just get some organic fish food.

 

Todd

I think there are some folks on this forum who are working on getting a high quality organic fish food to market.

Though i doubt that something like that will make AP any more commercially viable, or cheaper than hydro. I bet that when high quality organic fish food does go on sale... it will, as a plant input, cost a good deal more than the comparable hydro nutrients you'd need to grow the same amount of plants in the same conditions...

So, once again... maybe great for a backyard, or even small owner operator/hobby farm setting, not so much for a commercial AP outfit.

@Nate: my point is that there are 2 very different ways to supply the inputs.  1. 'artificially', by dumping in some specific chemical at the time you think it is needed. 2. 'pseudo-naturally', via slow-release or other bio-activity of a resident component in the system.  The first approach is prone to constant oversight and adjustment and prodding.  The second mimics nature more closely and tends to smooth out changes in any particular chemical/nutrient.

Just look at what happens in nature:  a system with low diversity/complexity is much more prone to failure/disaster than one with higher complexity.  The built-in complexity creates backup systems that help to buffer changes.  Its like having a basketball team with only starter players and no bench.  A single source of food/nutrient is another good example of this.  Redundancy is the name of the game.

@ Vlad: no.  but then i purposely have gravel and wood in my fish habitat that are natural equivalents.

I'm not suggesting we can ever create an artifical aquaponic ecosystem that doesn't need any external inputs, but rather that the more you integrate these inputs into your system as resident components the more stable and sustain-able it will be.

Some natural processes require a minimum scale to function though, which we can never totally replicate without reverting society back to hunter-gatherers!

imo, the future of commercial aquaponics will look very different from what we tend to imagine when we think of a farm or greenhouse.  and, imo, trying to take this amazing natural system and force it into a manmade box of preconceptions, trying to make it work the way we want when we want, is going to cause quite a bit of frustration and disappointment.  i'm merely suggesting we seriously consider breaking out of this box as we move forward imagining a healthy sustainable future.

Take my rant with a big grain of salt, it'll taste better.  :D  haha!

sorry, yes that should be $0.066/kWh

Peter Shaw said:

your original comment : 

(Why NOT aquaponics? (forgive my lack of knowledge)

But if you've got say, 4000 sq. feet of grow beds, ample lighting etc. and you follow what most of the experts are saying. (ie. say 27 holes per 2X4 raft)and decide to grow, say buttercrunch lettuce

4000 sq. feet should technically give you a gross production of 13,500 heads of lettuce?

obviously you stagger the harvest cycles, have an ample amount of seedlings ready to replace the harvest.

Is it unrealistic that 4000. sq. feet of grow beds, with proper lighting, fish to plant population etc. will output, say 10,000 heads a month?

am I missing something here? (again, forgive my lack of knowledge regarding aquaponics, growth times)"


I just wanted to say that you can not use UVI numbers in your estimates, in plant or fish growth, they have 80 temps and that pushes fish and plant growth way beyond any place in the continental US. Even those in Hawaii are not anything you can use. Fish and plant growth is temperature dependent. There is no way you can run water temps of 75 -80 in a greenhouse in Canada or Northern US without going broke. Ian was getting his electricity for 6 cents a KWatt, he wrote $0.66 but i am thinking he is not paying 66 cents, most of use are paying 19-20 cents, and yes 220V is way more economical, uses less amps)

Your plant production numbers seem very high to me. i dont agree with the experts on your density, especially in areas of lower light in the winter. 

i dont think 2.25 plants per sq ft (8 x 8" spacing)  is too conservative, might be for high light year round production but Canada in the winter, you are dreaming. You could cut holes in another set of rafts, using one in the summer and a second in the winter.

5 week production cycle average is also a fair estimate. In winter it may likely extend to 7-8 week.

So, lets assume a 5 week average production cycle, that's 10.5 crops a year, with 2.25 plants per sqft for a total of 23.5 plants per sqft per year, without any losses,,,,, take out 10% for low qualtiy, and you are at 20 heads per foot per year, so at $1.00 per head sales wholesale (as you can not sell 15K heads at a farmers market), that $20 per sqft per year.

Now, a greenhouse will cost you about $0.21 per sqft per week for all overhead (I am not making this up, Rutgers Univ has done huge economic studies on greenhouse production costs link at bottom of the post and my discussions with many in the business agree) , which includes labor. so your costs per sqft per year totals about $11 per sqft per year. Now your sales were $20 so you made $9. per sqft per year. 

You want to make 50K a year, Sounds fine with me, you need 5600 sqft of bed area for that amount. 

Assuming nothing goes wrong, you never have a sales issue, you never lose more than 10% and your energy costs do not spiral.

  http://aesop.rutgers.edu/~farmmgmt/green-house/greenhouse-index.html)  This is for standard gh crops but try the interactive page, works pretty cool if you want to see about your total expenses.

Again Avery, I don't disagree with you.  But the difference in our opinions is that you are describing a natural ecosystem, whereas I am describing agriculture.

Averan said:

@Nate: my point is that there are 2 very different ways to supply the inputs.  1. 'artificially', by dumping in some specific chemical at the time you think it is needed. 2. 'pseudo-naturally', via slow-release or other bio-activity of a resident component in the system.  The first approach is prone to constant oversight and adjustment and prodding.  The second mimics nature more closely and tends to smooth out changes in any particular chemical/nutrient.

Just look at what happens in nature:  a system with low diversity/complexity is much more prone to failure/disaster than one with higher complexity.  The built-in complexity creates backup systems that help to buffer changes.  Its like having a basketball team with only starter players and no bench.  A single source of food/nutrient is another good example of this.  Redundancy is the name of the game.

@ Vlad: no.  but then i purposely have gravel and wood in my fish habitat that are natural equivalents.

I'm not suggesting we can ever create an artifical aquaponic ecosystem that doesn't need any external inputs, but rather that the more you integrate these inputs into your system as resident components the more stable and sustain-able it will be.

Some natural processes require a minimum scale to function though, which we can never totally replicate without reverting society back to hunter-gatherers!

imo, the future of commercial aquaponics will look very different from what we tend to imagine when we think of a farm or greenhouse.  and, imo, trying to take this amazing natural system and force it into a manmade box of preconceptions, trying to make it work the way we want when we want, is going to cause quite a bit of frustration and disappointment.  i'm merely suggesting we seriously consider breaking out of this box as we move forward imagining a healthy sustainable future.

Take my rant with a big grain of salt, it'll taste better.  :D  haha!

I acknowledge that not many people will really understand what I'm proposing.  The typical modern human looks at nature as a resource to use as they see fit, usually forcing nature to fit their manmade desires and preconceptions.  I'd love to see more people let go of that a little and experiment with adapting their desires and needs to fit with what nature already does so well (permaculture).

Unfortunately, paradigm shifts like this aren't easy and may require that we completely redefine civilization and the way that we relate to food, each other and our natural resources.  This is actually one of the most inspiring aspects of aquaponics for me!  It is also why I think we will continue to have trouble making AP fit into the commercial agricultural box that is currently the accepted norm.  It might just be that AP can never be fully assimilated into mainstream agriculture and that we may need to approach the 'problem' of food production and acquiring the resources we need to live happily (currently = make $ to buy stuff) from an entirely different angle.

Is commercial aquaponics a viable business?  Yes.  No.  Sometimes.  It depends.  Currently though, I don't think the time and conditions are right for it to be viable universally across-the-board at the scale necessary in order to earn the 6-figure salary people want.

It all comes back to scale and niche.  At the right scale and in the right niche, it totally works.  But do you want to live in that niche?

That said, I hope pioneering folks continue to explore and experiment as they just might figure out how to make it work!

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