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Commercial Aquaponics - A Pimp's Approach

I was recently thinking about how operating a commercial aquaponic farm had similarities to my former business.  Having run a huge construction firm when housing and commercial construction was booming far greater than it ever should have, we used to joke that we were pimps.  People were always incredulous that two women operated a company that did trades as diverse as drywall and stucco to insulation, painting and metal framing.  One look at me and they couldn’t imagine me on drywall stilts hanging sheetrock on a ceiling and neither could I!  But what few realized was that we didn’t hang the drywall or the insulation or install the metal studs, we managed it.  We solicited the sale, ‘pimped’ the labor and made it happen; all the while insuring it was done well.

 

How does this relate to commercial aquaponic farming?  A few ways and I will tie it all in shortly, but first a couple things.  Many want to know if commercial aquaponic farming is viable and so many still are of the opinion that it isn’t.  Just recently, a longtime industry aquapon commented to me, “You can’t make any money with aquaponics!  You know that now, right?”, he asked, inferring that we couldn’t possibly be successful.  I said no, you are wrong.  We are definitely figuring out how to do it.  It is not easy but it is undeniably possible as long as you think outside the box.  You must be nimble and innovative and willing to take risks.  I don’t think that is a recipe akin to just an aquaponic endeavor, but any business venture, and absolutely essential ingredients for any entrepreneur.

 

With a young operation, insuring a profit soley on selling the produce can be a challenge, as a clientele needs to be secured, viable and desirable crops determined and much more.  When we and others eeking out a living at commercial aquaponics are criticized for utilizing trainings or system sales or consultations as additional streams of revenue, I am amazed at the short sightedness of that criticism.  For some reason, the expectation is that you must solely weigh your success by selling only the fruits of your system, literally, and that diversification is frowned upon.  To me diversification spells a good, rock solid business model that can weather setbacks because it has multiple revenue streams especially when pioneering a new industry.  Yet when it comes to commercial AP, it seems to be tainted and criticized. 

 

I do realize that the more that join our ranks, there will be less of a possibility for many to tap into things such as trainings or consultations.  However, the more that join in my opinion will  minimize the need to rely on these very things as more data will come available and the risks will be minimized and the path made clear.  Perhaps the trainings and the consultations will lie with the pioneers or trend setters, the ones that boldly went forward into unchartered aquaponic waters and mapped out the unknown.  . 

 

Speaking of risks, some are of the opinion that teaching this very business of commercial aquaponic farming is a risk.  Some think we are crazy for creating what they consider our own competition.  Often folks will reassure me, as they pick my brain for essential commercial information, that they are geographically far enough away to not be my competition.  I laugh.  There is so much demand for local, chem free, organically grown, good food, that it will be a very long time before this market is flooded.  I welcome them.  In fact I tell them that I wish they were closer so we could partner up and optimize our output by specializing crop plantings to supply local needs.  You grow x, y, z and I grow a, b, c.  That is over simplifying it, but essentially multiple farms could collaborate and support each other while supplying the local market.  Unlike in my former cutthroat industry, I hope to foster an atmosphere of collaboration instead of competition.

 

I am always excited when others we inspire and teach and then replicate our raft type systems are close by as now I can rely on them to help supply the demand of our local market that we have already tapped into.  Hmm, not too unlike what we did with construction.  We solicit the sale, “pimp” the produce and make sure it is all done well, while also helping other commercial farms get established and become successful as well.  Nothing wrong with that at all.   

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Comment by David Waite on July 27, 2011 at 11:16am
Gina those of us who work in the trades have a little thicker skin and understand sattire.
Comment by Gina Cavaliero on July 27, 2011 at 11:05am
Thanks for your thoughts Ellen.  No offense was meant to anyone in the constuction field nor did I mean to imply anyone working in construction was a whore!   I do realize what the literal translation of the word pimp is, but the context I was using was more of an urban/slang connotation.  That term was referenced often in the construction industry throughout the Southeast, where construction was booming and there was a huge influx of contract labor.  Even the insurance industry referred to this type of contracting with the same terminology!  I guess some that were a little more reserved, said we were 'brokers'.   Sorry, meant no offense! 
Comment by Ellen Roelofs on July 27, 2011 at 10:40am
It's nice to read your approach and pick up on your excitement!  Just as a side note, I work in construction... but I don't like to think of myself as anyone's whore.  Additionally, pimps have a reputation for being abusive bastards. So I guess the pimp analogy doesn't really work for me.
Comment by Gina Cavaliero on July 27, 2011 at 7:04am
Yes, flexibility is essential and that's all great news TC!  I knew you'd be a convert before too long ;)  Actually, I do know businesses that were run out of a residential neighborhood that received their aquaculture cert.  The Dept of Aquaculture doesn't really care about that as much as your own municipality might.  A big Tilapia breeders ran his operation out of his backyard in Orlando for years.  Now he is over here in Brooksville.  Love the live herb idea, BTW.
Comment by TCLynx on July 27, 2011 at 6:56am
Gotta be flexible.  I'd resisted the commercial aquaponic farming since I'm on a tiny bit of Residential property and at least on the fish side don't think I could get the aquacutlure permit here (some one correct me if I'm wrong but I don't really want to invite state inspectors to my home.)  But anyway, as life changes and new opportunities crop up.  Looks like I may be doing some commercial farming anyway.  Not selling the fish but the veggies as there is a homegrown co-op I'm now somewhat involved with and they want a display system at the market.  Fresh herbs, pick your own right at the market.  Well to manage Zipgrow towers at their market, I'm going to have to be growing enough of them to swap towers as they are harvested.  Hence, I've now diversified from just selling system components to people wanting to do Aquaponics at home to now growing commercially myself.
Comment by Kobus Jooste on July 26, 2011 at 11:51pm

Just a thought on business models.  I am not an expert, but have not had my head in the ground in the last few years either.  There is a lot to be said about robust business models based on a diverse product line and, conversely, the risk of being a one horse backer.  Spread betting is not somehow "uncooth" if you are not in an absolute cut throught specialist business.  There are countless examples of robust businesses having to diversify to stay functional, and of other ventures that changed tack with the times in order to retain a market for their product.  In my latest South African version of the Popular Mechanics there is a reference to one such a company that used to supply big diesel engines to ship yards, but now have a new market in ultra large mining trucks.  If anyone said in the 1970's that they will build 45 liter engines into trucks the world would also have dismissed them, but they are making money that way now. 

 

I know many people that had a "stable" income and a "hobby income", and in time, the "hobby" grew to the point that it could become the main income. 

 

I can go on and on but the bottom line for me is simple: Design a business model that makes financial sense on the core product alone, and then diversify the feathers off it just to be sure that you have your nose above water in bad times and are capable of shifting with the times when those gaps open up.

 

Anyone following this advise now owe me a consulting fee.................

Comment by David Waite on July 26, 2011 at 10:08pm
Gina to think that you might someday run out of people to train is kind of like saying the universities and trade schools are going to run out of students someday. I think or hope that aquaponics becomes a way of growing similar to hydroponics. There will always be people wanting to learn to garden as they grow a little older and want slow down and eat better food. As for the critics there have always been two types of people in the world. The naysayers and the movers and shakers like yourself. People who are critics of your multiple stream approach have never owned a business period. In my contracting business people hire me to design build and consult. They hire me to fix there sprinklers system and they hire me to guide them in doing there own. You, Chris and Friendly are in a lead spot on your business model to show that it works and there is some pressure with that. I say do whatever it takes to survive and if that makes you a pimp well Im your who--
Comment by Barry Dehart on July 25, 2011 at 5:13pm
I like your approach and agree whole heartedly that in todays market place thinking out of the box and diversification are absolute necessities, if not just to survive. Hopefully I can learn to more than survive. I also "pimp" in the construction field and no longer love it. I want to do something I love and this is becoming more than an infatuation. Can't believe I said that. We'll see what happens. Thanks again.
Comment by Gina Cavaliero on July 25, 2011 at 4:12pm

So true Molly!  I can absolutely relate to struggling with available time to maintain a strong online presence despite running our commercial farm, planning the conference, trainings, our buying club and everything else!  However, it is an incredibly important aspect for us and much of our sharing and outreach occurs via the net. 

Our goal is undeniably to have the farm be our primary source of revenue and it will be, but in the meantime have had to rely on other revenue streams.  Soon we will be splitting the training/consulting/sales side off of Green Acre into a seperate entity so that Green Acre will be focused soley on produce and fish sales and distribution.  However even when it is producing enough income, I can't imagine ever giving up the training side as that part is so much of what we love doing.  There's nothing better than teaching people how to do this and inspiring them to join us.  Besides teaching others is a significant part of our vision and mission to help decentralize our food supply by relocalizing it with multiple commercial farms. 

I can't wait to see what you and Jesse do!   

Comment by Molly Stanek on July 25, 2011 at 11:02am

I agree with TCLynx as well - Jesse and I have been so completely absorbed with planning and designing our system that we have not had as much time to check in here on the forum as we would like.

We are truly aspiring to make our system profitable from the sales of  fish and vegetables alone, because we do feel that it's necessary in order for aquaponics to really move into the mainstream.  That said, we're definitely not looking down on others who are making ends meet by consulting, training and holding workshops.  Those activities are all going to be necessary if we want to grow as an industry - we can't grow without sharing some knowledge and information!

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