Aquaponic Gardening

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Some thoughts on the marketing aspect of commercial aquaponics farms. I'm currently trying to conduct market research about which plants or fish to grow in Boston. What are your experiences or thoughts on this topic? I personally have found that marketing direct to consumers often positions the farm in direct competition with food service companies and large grocery chains. It's an interesting topic because there are currently very few industry studies and case analysis papers regarding soil-less agriculture.

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Hi Austin, Greg here in Atlanta, GA. I too am trying to discover other venues. Phil is correct in stating the local farmers market springing up all over small town America these days is the preferred venue. I am in the process of trying to write a business plan that requires much research and development in the area of "Where and Who" will you sell your produce too? It's not an easy answer. You are right in asking are we in direct competition with the Big box chains like Kroger, Publics, Whole foods, and CostCo by selling to the local farmers markets. Restaurants tend to buy from wholesale produce suppliers. I see there trucks zipping up and down the freeway everyday as I am out building my ponds. I plan to invite a few of these companies like http://www.myproduceguy.com/foodservice/products.htm to our little farm to gauge there interest.  Or, here I found at our Largest state farmers market  http://www.atlantaproducedealers.org/ which has a list of local wholesale buyers and sellers. I simply googled  wholesale produce in Atlanta and found a zillion ideas on where to start. We hope to start a small, commercial operation soon here in Alpharetta, GA. So please stay in touch so we can compare notes. Regards, Greg McCord

Wow, thats awesome Phil. Sounds like you have found quite a nich... We too are trying to "specialize" in just 2 or 3 products and be very good at providing just those Items. And in Large volume too. Consistancey is so important to your buyers. They want to count on you to have the same product,at top quality, every time...

Look for chef's running restaurants that are targeting "fresh, local, seasonal, etc" as their marketing angle as this is aligns with your marketing angle as well. If you can make an arrangement with some where you can deliver product picked that morning they will be willing to pay a premium for it to support you. Depending on your system setup you may also be able to be flexible enough to grow some things on request for them. Many commercial setups are doing this already in addition to the farmers markets mentioned and buying "clubs" such as CSAs. Your best chance of commercial success is to target the end customer exclusively, but from multiple angles.

It is a really nice system Phil, but not sure what it has to do with this thread about how to market produce. Maybe moving it to a blog post would be more appropriate?

I'm going after the "local" market definitely.  Now I think Phil was talking about selling fish which might be a little off topic when talking about marketing aquaponics produce but only just slightly since selling fish is also part of marketing the products of the aquaponics system.

As for myself, I expect that I will have more than enough customers to sell fish to Just in the neighborhood so I think I'll probably stick to selling the fish as direct farm sales.  Interest seems high to the point that just to serve the neighborhood and ourselves enough fish, I need to expand the aquaponics operation considerably.

And to that end, I will need to market the produce.  I have done farm market sales but that was slow going since I wasn't there long enough to have really gained enough of a following.  You need to be there consistently for a while for the customers to really find you and get to know your products (at least at the market I had been at.)  I am also going to try to target the "u-pick" option to have days at the farm where customers can come pick their own produce or perhaps order produce that we pick and have ready for them to pick up on the "farm tour" day.  Other marketing will be to the local bakery (berries) produce stand/market and local resort restaurants.

I certainly consider fish as agricultural produce. Do live fish at farmers' markets generally sell well?

Phil Slaton said:

Not a problem.  As soon as I read an objection to anything I post, I remove it.  I also remove all my posts and topics after 48-hours so as not to clutter up the blog.


If people need more info on what I posted and removed, they can contact me directly.

Hi Greg, I was thinking of leveraging the strengths of aquaponics to be able to produce off-season produce for the specific region as a starting point for my research. This may be where the greatest pain points for many local businesses are and many of their solutions are to import from other states or countries. Farmers' markets for me feels somewhat restrictive in potential market size, but may be a good place to start building brand recognition within the community.

Greg McCord said:

Hi Austin, Greg here in Atlanta, GA. I too am trying to discover other venues. Phil is correct in stating the local farmers market springing up all over small town America these days is the preferred venue. I am in the process of trying to write a business plan that requires much research and development in the area of "Where and Who" will you sell your produce too? It's not an easy answer. You are right in asking are we in direct competition with the Big box chains like Kroger, Publics, Whole foods, and CostCo by selling to the local farmers markets. Restaurants tend to buy from wholesale produce suppliers. I see there trucks zipping up and down the freeway everyday as I am out building my ponds. I plan to invite a few of these companies like http://www.myproduceguy.com/foodservice/products.htm to our little farm to gauge there interest.  Or, here I found at our Largest state farmers market  http://www.atlantaproducedealers.org/ which has a list of local wholesale buyers and sellers. I simply googled  wholesale produce in Atlanta and found a zillion ideas on where to start. We hope to start a small, commercial operation soon here in Alpharetta, GA. So please stay in touch so we can compare notes. Regards, Greg McCord

There is a matter of scale that may divide the direct sale to consumers group of producers from the ones that sell wholesale.  There has been some discussions in a few places that look at this a bit.

See a small operation that mostly runs only on the labor of the owner and perhaps a part time intern or two is probably not really big enough to supply wholesale accounts.  In order to make it, they probably need to be selling direct to customers and niche clients like local restaurants since with such a small labor force and the smaller scale operation, they probably can't produce the quantity needed on a bi-weekly basis to fill the wholesale distributor's demand nor is it very safe to have only one customer (loose that one customer due to some quirk in their insurance regulations or a system or disease break down causing a product shortage a couple times and the farm could be in very dire straights.)

To make wholesale really work the operation probably needs to be really scaled up big time to compete with some of the really huge hydroponic operations since to be stable an operation needs to have more than one client and wholesale clients are usually dealing in thousands of pounds of product each week.  Working 10 hour days, I doubt a lone person would be able to keep up with more than 5000 lb per week of lettuce under ideal conditions and earning only what you can get off even a premium wholesale product while having to work long hours every day isn't very appealing to most people.  Now if you can sell direct to the customers or do CSA or have niche clients like local restaurants, then you are cutting out the middle man (the wholesale distributors and grocery stores) so even if you are selling your product for about the same as what the customer would pay for it at the grocery, you are still getting more money for each pound of product sold.  The drawback here is you spend more of your time marketing/selling and you have less time for the planting so the trick is to find the balance point for the type of operation that works for your market or the market that works for your operation.

And of course it could take several more years to really figure out what works for commercial aquaponics since most of the commercial aquaponics operations are less than a few years old.

I apologize Phil. I wasn't intending to be a party pooper. I think your farm is awesome, and I appreciate you sharing but my point was your reply was "my farm is awesome, look!" and I really do want to look, just not in this thread about selling either the plants or the fish :) You mentioned you had IBC totes on casters for bringing them to market or is that a future plan? Would be cool to see how that looks. How do you power the aeration?

Phil Slaton said:

Not a problem.  As soon as I read an objection to anything I post, I remove it.  I also remove all my posts and topics after 48-hours so as not to clutter up the blog.


If people need more info on what I posted and removed, they can contact me directly.

I think this situation is true of all small-scale farms. Wholesale and retail chains are much more consolidated and have much more leverage in this industry. I have read somewhere that independent restaurants prefer all their supplies to be delivered in one truck loads and a consolidated billing system. In that case, supplying to independent restaurants would mean that, as you said, essentially cutting out the middle-man, but will an AP farm be able to supply a large enough portion of their needs to convince them to change a system that already works for them? And if not, this presents a significant barrier to market direct to restaurants specifically. Perhaps working with niche food service providers that are not competing based on price could be an alternative approach?

TCLynx said:

There is a matter of scale that may divide the direct sale to consumers group of producers from the ones that sell wholesale.  There has been some discussions in a few places that look at this a bit.

See a small operation that mostly runs only on the labor of the owner and perhaps a part time intern or two is probably not really big enough to supply wholesale accounts.  In order to make it, they probably need to be selling direct to customers and niche clients like local restaurants since with such a small labor force and the smaller scale operation, they probably can't produce the quantity needed on a bi-weekly basis to fill the wholesale distributor's demand nor is it very safe to have only one customer (loose that one customer due to some quirk in their insurance regulations or a system or disease break down causing a product shortage a couple times and the farm could be in very dire straights.)

To make wholesale really work the operation probably needs to be really scaled up big time to compete with some of the really huge hydroponic operations since to be stable an operation needs to have more than one client and wholesale clients are usually dealing in thousands of pounds of product each week.  Working 10 hour days, I doubt a lone person would be able to keep up with more than 5000 lb per week of lettuce under ideal conditions and earning only what you can get off even a premium wholesale product while having to work long hours every day isn't very appealing to most people.  Now if you can sell direct to the customers or do CSA or have niche clients like local restaurants, then you are cutting out the middle man (the wholesale distributors and grocery stores) so even if you are selling your product for about the same as what the customer would pay for it at the grocery, you are still getting more money for each pound of product sold.  The drawback here is you spend more of your time marketing/selling and you have less time for the planting so the trick is to find the balance point for the type of operation that works for your market or the market that works for your operation.

And of course it could take several more years to really figure out what works for commercial aquaponics since most of the commercial aquaponics operations are less than a few years old.

Yes, Austin, that is a huge barrier to small farms really selling their produce.  Many of the distributors don't want to deal small and many of the grocery stores and restaurants want their deliveries consolidated (believe me this is actually a really big deal in the warehousing business to be able to pick orders and load pallets and trucks to the customer's specifications since the grocery stores want the pallets loaded so that it is easy for them to re-stock their shelves efficiently.)

Anyway, to sell from a small farm one needs to find buyers for small quantities of produce and many times that means selling direct to the end customers (if you can) or finding a niche.  Finding restaurants that want LOCAL is a big one now days.  Or finding local businesses that would buy certain products if they were grown local and then grow those for them.  This is not likely to be something that gets formulated into a cookie cutter operation unless you are really going big enough to really go wholesale (and if you go wholesale the organic certification becomes more important since the produce will sell for more.)

Sorry, I'm probably starting to repeat myself, I'll go try to get some work done now.

I understand what you are talking about.  Theres little information out there about marketing the product.  I am conducting research also for my business plan.  I think its almost easier to set your system and let the product speak for it self.  We have several farmers markets around and i think thats where im gonna start.  We also here in Va have the department of agriculture marketing services.  I already talked to my contact for this area and she gave me some valuable information.

She put me in contact with Dr. Brian Nerrie at Virginia State University which obtained a land grant for aquaculture and small farming.  He gave me some good info on marketing tilapia in this area, since we live in an area where seafood in abundant.

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