Aquaponic Gardening

A Community and Forum For Aquaponic Gardeners

Aquaponics is a fascinating method of growing.  Creating a micro-eco-system (can you double hyphenate?) is a challenging, interesting, and often expensive endeavor.  I enjoyed the research and the fruits of that labor.  But, in the Northwest, I found it to be a greater challenge to make it economically practical on a small scale. 


Perhaps if I were to use native species of fish and allowed the system to go dormant during the cold and dark season, it may have been more practical.  But I wanted to grow year-round and grow whatever I wanted.  This turned out to not be financially practical.  Heating and lighting were expensive no matter the method.


My original goal was to build a system at a cost, size, productivity, simple to run, and level of labor consumption that was practical for the average household.  I was relatively successful other than cost and productivity.


In the Northwest, we receive the lowest amount of BTUs of sunlight in the continental US.  So in a greenhouse, supplemental lighting and heat were essential.  Bio-mass or wood/pellets is pretty much the least expensive fuel.  But electricity is still necessary to move the water and operate the lights.  So operating costs for our 12 x 15 greenhouse and 1000 gallons of water was about $200 - $250 a month for October through March/April.


Therefore for seven months or so out of the year there were significant costs to operate and little return.  Some of that is due to experimenting, and choices of produce.  But most of the deficiency was due to inadequate light.  To increase the light to the levels recommended for  optimal plant growth would have doubled our operating costs, not to mention equipment costs.


I think some of that could have been remedied by plant selection again, but I wanted to grow what I like to eat.  The reality is that to have changed the plants to that which would have grown would mean growing a low dollar crop in a high dollar environment.  So it still wouldn't have made economical sense.


From the perspective of nutritional value reaped, it would make more sense for me to support a commercial greenhouse farmer and get the produce I wanted for less cost than what I was producing.  This is based on fresh produce grown out of season in a high dollar environment.


If I were to dedicate enough time and space, I could grow all I would need in a soil garden in a seasons time.  Provided I was willing to can, freeze, and dry that food that would spoil before used.  This could all be done at a fraction of the cost of that produce grown aquaponically.  BECAUSE I have an abundant amount of fresh water, good soil, a mild climate, and the space to do it in. 


For those without access to produce at a reasonable cost, or those that have a poor, scarce, or an expensive water supply, surrounded by depleted and/or toxic soil, lack access to soil,  and have a warm climate aquaponics may be a part of the solution. I also think that aquaponics is viable on a very large scale.  Hydroponics has already proven itself profitable, aquaponics is not that much of a leap.


Environments where space or resources are shared may be another solution.  Adding a solarium to the home where heat is shared, industrial waste heat, access to geo-thermal, etc. may also remedy some of which made it difficult.


I will be producing a considerable amount of waste heat and organic nutrients with my new business.  I will take advantage of that with my new greenhouse.


I write this for the new aquaponic enthusiast so they look at all the costs and evaluate them critically before starting.  I write this for the experienced practioners so they may evaluate what they are doing, and if they have found solutions to some of these issues to share them.


I am still enthusiastic about aquaponics.  But I believe there are a number of issues to be addressed before it will replace conventional methods.  Also year-round production on a small scale needs to be evaluated to make sure you are getting better nutritional value for your dollars spent.  Those of you that enjoy what you are doing and care less of the cost should ignore all that I have said.


This is only my opinion and my experiences in my region, with my limited resources.  I realize other regions, financial depth, experience, expertise, and perspective will greatly affect what can be done.  I welcome your thoughts and comments.  I hope this will develop a positive and engaging dialogue.  I do not want to offend anyone or dampen their enthusiasm.

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Comment by Vlad Jovanovic on June 5, 2013 at 1:56am

Hi Rick, While I certainly agree that AP is a pretty expensive way to grow some plants, it seems like you would have to contend with at least some portion of those expenses that you mentioned while using any soil-less culture a greenhouse...out of season.

With or without fish you still need lights, heat, pumping of water (and possibly pumping of air). Just that with fish, it seems like you need a lot more of each (except light, the fish don't seem to tax you on that front)...So more electricity is used, more heat (esp if you use a tropical fish in a temperate climate) more energy in general is used with AP as opposed to other bioponic or hydroponic methods. So it might be much more "fair" to compare AP to those types of systems (vermionic, pee-ponic, mineral hydro, the many various forms of organic hydro etc)...than to dirt gardening. 

Also, this spring I reared over 500 tomato plants, tons of summer squash, cucumbers and peppers all lovingly from took a lot of time invested as well as money (sowing, watering, sprouting, supplemental lighting, transplanting, I make my own substrate mixtures for all of this, so that takes time and money as well, and finally planting out into the field/garden, not before plowing, roto-tilling and setting up the irrigation system of course)...The last two weeks in April and the beginning of May temps were consistently in the mid 80's...then on May 25 we got pounded by 2 hail storms in one day. Many of my almost 1000 or so plants looked like they've gone through a wood chipper Three days later we got nailed by hail again..For a number of weeks now daytime high temps have been in the low 50's...nights in the low to mid 40's and constant flooding rains. So the few plants that did survive are not doing so well...Septoria, alternaria, early blight etc...will certainly reign...

On the otherhand, my plants in the GH are still doing great. Huge growth, tons of fruit etc...I've been selling produce consistently all winter and spring long out of the GH...and all of a sudden my dirt garden isn't looking as cheap anymore. So I guess that everything has it's positive and negative sides...

In the winter I heat the GH just enough so that things don't freeze, and I choose cultivars that will still thrive or do well in that environment. This helps immensely to keep costs down. So does not relying on fish and fish food as your main source of plant essential elements during the winter months. There are free minerals all around us locked up in complex organic matter, as long as you have a bio-filter you have a way to 'un-lock' their plant growing potential...Usually for free...but yes, you do still need to pump some water around and burn a bit of wood.

Good luck with your brewing venture. It's cool that you are integrating those various processes. 'Waste' really is just  'wasted' potential resource.

Comment by Carey Ma on May 29, 2013 at 11:16pm

Rick, you make me proud to call you friend. By the power I invest in myself, I pronounce you a fellow Ecolonomists. It is our purpose to find uses for waste whether industrial or personal, organic or inorganic, to make THE best possible use of each resource available. The word waste should be struck from our dictionary.




Comment by Rick Stillwagon on May 25, 2013 at 8:25am

I will be soon running my distillery, of which there will be a considerable amount of electricity used.  But, the result will be hundreds of gallons of boiling hot spent wash. This will have to go somewhere. My intention is to use the heat to keep the greenhouse warm by putting that spent wash in tanks, that will warm the greenhouse and the system. Then the cooled wash will be put into a bio-digester. There it will be processed into an organic fertilizer. The process will also produce a significant amount of methane. This methane can be used just like natural gas, and during the off times will be used to heat with as well. The processed effluent will be used to feed plants throughout the property and local farmers.  An additional byproduct of the distillery is CO2. Another plan is to capture this for use in the greenhouse as well as to market it to local home brewers and greenhouse growers.  So, by using the byproducts of my business, I believe the cost of my year-round vegetable production will be negligible.

Comment by Christian Skierski on May 24, 2013 at 7:38pm
Rick I have to agree with you in some regards. The operational cost of running a aquaponics system can run high. I too have seen an increase in power consumption which drive up my cost. I will be switching into a greenhouse in order to cut back on those costs since I live in the Northeast I should get adequate sun light. There really isn't any info out there regarding the cause and effect of start up cost and how it impacts your operating cost. Good luck and I hope you find inexpensive alternatives to keep your system operational.
Comment by Rick Stillwagon on May 23, 2013 at 9:53am

I agree.  Aquaponics is fun.  I have raised koi and other fish all my life.  I enjoy watching them, it is very peaceful.  The gardening aspect is very similar in both systems, it is satisfying to plant something, watch it grow, and harvest it. So, for me the economics is the only difference.  I can have a pond, interact with my fish, and have a garden, both at a negligible cost.  Eventually, my AP system will be as such too.

Comment by George on May 23, 2013 at 9:21am

Our aquaponic situation is different in that no heating is required, so long as native fish are used.  We change some plants with the seasons and gardening continues year round. 

Gardening in soil is dirt cheap compared to aquaponics and less complicated.  Most of the cost of aquaponics is start up (which varies) but there are also ongoing costs of test kits, fish food, PH adjustment components and electricity.  Inputs in our soil are minimal in comparison, just minerals, free compost and water.

Productivity is something to consider.  Some vegetables simply grow better in aquaponics.  Our system is too young to speak fully to this but comparisons are ongoing and I hope to say more in another year or two.

I’m unable to put a value on my wife’s continuing statement that aquaponic strawberries are the best she’s ever eaten.  To me, that’s priceless.  She loves kale too and it grows extremely well in our system; therefore, I recently planted more of it.  Fresh from yard to table is difficult to quantify.

Brother Bob Terrell says aquaponics is fun and I agree.  It’s another aspect of my gardening hobby and I enjoy it.  There is much more to this, in my view, than cost analysis. 

Happy gardening


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