Aquaponic Gardening

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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 Yusuf Mario Germino on July 25, 2011 at 3:53am

Very nice article.  I like the idea of sharing knowledge even among commercial growers... Sylvia put it right... collaboration, very kind word to instill in the minds of business owners.

Comment by Gina Cavaliero on July 24, 2011 at 2:18pm

Our optimal size is going to be minimally 2000sqft of grow space with 100 vertical pots and we are converting 200sqft(to start!) of existing raft over to media.  We have found that in order to have good crop diversificaton, we need the media and verticals to grow crops not well supported by our existing DWC.  What is somewhat of a major factor for us that you don't have to deal with is drastically different yields in the summer.  We are still growing lettuce in July in Florida, but our yield is now 30% of what it was during the cooler months.  We may not have consistent year round yields, but the revenue generated through the cooler months will offset the lesser months.  So we just consider gross revenues for the year as opposed to monthly yields.  The problem then lies however with fulfilling client obligations, but so far chefs and produce club members understand that very little grows here in Florida this time of year and are happy with the fact that they are still getting locally grown organics and are dealing with the lesser quantities and availability.

As for details on our produce club, please check out our website for membership info at http://www.greenacreorganics.biz/index.php/what-we-offer/organics-f....  Let me know if you have any other questions! 

Comment by TCLynx on July 24, 2011 at 1:16pm

I'm not sure but perhaps this site would be a resource.  Not necessarily Aquaponic but I know the one in Orlando is selling produce from several Aquaponic operations including Green Sky Growers and hopefully soon Aquaponic Lynx LLC.

http://www.locallygrown.net/

Comment by Chris Smith on July 24, 2011 at 1:02pm
What is your optimal size? Can you share the details of your produce club? This information would be helpful for others trying to the same thing.
Comment by Gina Cavaliero on July 24, 2011 at 11:52am
MyKisa, can you elaborate on what you mean by the government will help themselves to you before they do anything for you?  If it is what I think you are meaning as far as the government becoming a problem and restricting aquaponic commercial farms, we are working towards establishing an Association that will address this very issue.  See http://aquaponicsassociation.org/about-us/ for more information and our proposed mission and goals. 
Comment by Gina Cavaliero on July 24, 2011 at 11:26am

Hey Chris, once we get our optimal size installed and producing, we are confident that we will be able to generate enough off of produce sales alone.  I imagine you have space limitations whereas we don't.  However, leading up to that point, we absolutely had to diversify to generate more revenue.   I haven't yet seen your discussion but will check it out. 

Good on you for teaching and inspiring.  We share the exact same philosophy and can't think of a better way to facilitate those multiple farms then to create that support network by teaching them ourselves and fostering that community.  Yes there can be much greater diversity with multiple farms and the co-op plans you have and that is essentially what we are building here.  We always say our goal is to see multiple small AP farms sprouting up everywhere!

We do already have a CSA underway.  We actually call it the Green Acre Organics For You! produce club and structured it a bit differently then a typical CSA to help members with the costs but at the same time securing an outlet for our product.  We are up to 44 members in only our second month and have done little to no marketing and all has pretty much been word of mouth.  In fact a couple members here are members of our club!  We partnered up with local health food stores for pickup locations and currently have two but will have a third coming online in about 4 weeks and plans to expand to a fourth and fifth within in the next few months.  Once we secure 100 members, the revenue from the buying club alone will easily produce enough income for us and the farm.  That doesn't even include the restaurants we supply, whom we currently can't even keep up with and the alternative living community near by that is waiting for us to supply their all vegetarian lifestyle.  Really there is no end in sight and what we need more than ever is more farms to partner up with.  We are currrently partnered up with traditional growers that grow chem free as we don't yet have near enough AP growers to help support us.  Too bad you weren't in Florida!  We'd make an awesome team!  :)  Thanks again for your input!

 

Comment by Chris Smith on July 24, 2011 at 10:34am

Gina, we too realized that we could not make as much as we wished on just produce sales alone. Our small farm has gone through quite an evolution and we now have multiple sources of income other than produce sales. I have started a discussion about this subject in the Coastview Aquaponics group. If you have not read it yet you might find it interesting.

We have taught a lot of people about aquaponics since we first began offering classes last summer. Many of our students have built systems and are growing great food. We have inspired many more to build systems on their own after seeing what we are doing here.

There are a few systems being built in our area that are in the size range as ours. We are working on forming a local aquaponics co-op to help us all sell produce and not be in competition with each other. In an area where most produce is flown in there is plenty of room for more farms to meet the local demand. If we work together we can provide a better diversity and more volume than a single farm can. A farm of our size is not quite big enough to supply a restaurant with all its produce but having several farms working together we could. We are also talking about CSA boxes. One of the new farms is very close to a large pre-school where our daughter attends. Having an easy pick up spot for boxes near to where many parents are going any way has lots of potential.

 

Comment by MyKisa on July 24, 2011 at 10:25am
I for one think that government will help themseles to you before they do anything for you
Comment by Earl ward on July 24, 2011 at 9:27am
Great post Gina I agree completely well said
Comment by TCLynx on July 24, 2011 at 9:23am

Yes very good post.  Building a good business is finding the right balance between doing what you do well and making sure you have the diversity to weather changing situations.

 

I expect the negative connotations of selling systems/training/consultation is that many people don't believe that the commercial aquaponics can be viable at all based on it's produce and they see the commercial operation as more of a front for selling the other things.  And they think that selling the other things is actually supporting the commercial aquaponics rather than just being supplemental income streams.  And since so many small commercial operations try to start up before or without the necessary business research or finding a market it tends to support the "naysayers" views that commercial aquaponics isn't viable.  Interesting thing is, few of the commercial operators have much time to post on forums like this so we really don't know much about them.  This particular site is slowly changing that thanks to Chris and Green Acres and hopefully some more operations soon.  Truth is most business start ups fail so it really shouldn't be a shock that a good portion of the start up Aquaponics businesses don't go anywhere either.  I don't think that is necessarily due to aquaponics not being commercially viable, just due to most new businesses being hard to get off the ground.

 

That said, I'm excited to see more and more aquaponics operations getting going and I hope many of them find their markets and hang in there through the first several years which are always hardest with a new business.

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