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Commercial Aquaponics and Profitability

The commercial viability of aquaponics is likely the hottest contested topic on most aquaponic forums today and is the million dollar question that everyone wants answered. While I'm still not willing to make my financial data public(you would be amazed how many people have asked), I will say that we are indeed a profitable farm based on revenue generated by the farm alone. Although our farm's revenue is derived in diverse ways, even after extracting any non farm related revenue from things such as consulting, education or system sales, our Green Acre farm is indeed profitable on it's farm generated merits alone. So it then begs the question, why have alternate streams of revenue if farming alone can be profitable? For several reasons. Let's take a look at each one.

 
Reason 1 - A business with multiple revenue streams is a more viable, resilient business model. Having multiple revenue streams means a business can be more nimble and weather setbacks more easily. Literally. Setbacks from the weather are a very real possibility and probability for any kind of farming venture unless you farm in a controlled environment setting but even in controlled ag, crop losses can occur due to pest damage or disease.  However having multiple streams can help insure there is still cash flow when a crop loss occurs. This is especially important for the aquaponic farmer as crop insurance isn't yet an option. When it comes to diversifying revenue though, even our traditional farmer friends follow the same model or at least the ones are that are still farming. In the last three years we've watched two local traditional small farms go under. And guess what those two farms had in common? Neither had alternate streams of revenue and when they experienced farm related setbacks, they had no alternate means to buffer the low points. Even the state of Florida Dept of Agriculture recently implemented a program to make funds available for small farms to build their agritourism focus or programs as the state has recognized that there is a need for small farms to diversify.
 

Reason 2 - Direct farm generated revenue from crops is rarely a consistent amount and alternate streams can supplement in between crop harvests and rotations. This actually is probably a little less true in aquaponic farming then in traditional Ag where all of a farms revenue might come in a two month  period when the watermelons are ready to harvest. For we aquaponic farmers though, a carefully planned crop schedule and rotation can help insure a constant and consistent harvest of some crops such as lettuce and herbs but even the revenue generated by these will fluctuate with the weather and season. Other crops that are more seasonal in nature or take a longer period of time before producing might mean a 60 day or longer time frame before it will generate revenue as opposed to the crop that can produce on a constant rotation. So what do you do when nearly 25% of your system is tied up in production but not yet producing a harvestable crop?  Wait and rely on your alternative streams of revenue!

 

Reason 3 - Alternate streams of revenue can subsidize a small farm business while it grows its operation to a size large enough to generate enough revenue on farm sales alone. Ah, now this is the ultimate goal for us and most likely for most aquaponic farming hopefuls; have a farm large enough to pay all the bills and then some. It's not that the farm is unsuccessful or not profitable right now but its simply not large enough yet to produce enough revenue to support two individuals entirely. Understand though that this is purely a function of not having enough start up or expansion capital for a small farm business to create a large enough farm right out of the gate. However, just because a farm's revenue is limited due to grow space and production does not mean it's not a profitable business.

 

Reason 4 - Alternate revenue streams can self fund farm growth and expansions. Lets face it, expanding an aquaponic farm can be pricey and certainly more then its soil counterpart. Have we stumbled on the one drawback of aquaponics? Perhaps, but I will save that discussion for another blog but adding on additional grow space can easily incur a capital outlay of $20k or more or as little as $15 a square foot just for the system or as much as $100 a square foot depending on how you build and source it. We would have to sell an awful lot of lettuce to fund expanding our farm from direct farm sales. Quite honestly, this is the single greatest driver for our alternate streams because our goal is to have enough grow space for the farm alone to support itself and us and so far 100% of our expansion has been self funded from alternate revenue streams.
 

Now that we have ascertained that aquaponic farming can be profitable, it brings us to the other side of the million dollar question. What then is the key to operating a profitable farm business and how much farm does one need to be profitable? Really, the answer to that is any size.  A 1000 sqft farm can make a profit however will that profit be great enough to be a viable business? In many cases that answer may be no, however factors such as market considerations, crops, clientele and location can make a tremendous difference in that 1000 sqft venture being being viable or not. The greatest factor though is economy of scale. If a 1000 sqft system will produce "x", then a 4000 sqft system should conceivably produce "4x".  Of course there are labor and material variables that will affect the bottom line but to keep things simple, we will maintain the above formula. We know what revenue we can generate at our current square footage and what the inputs are for that square footage and we therefore know what we could produce at twice that square footage.  The profitability is still there even when we increase operational size and overhead inputs.
 

As to the question of how much revenue a farm can generate, I can not answer.  Well, I can answer how much my farm can generate but folks generally want a one size fits all answer to this question and it is one I will never answer because I nor anyone else can without knowing multiple inputs. There are far too many variables that must be considered in this equation and all are specific to one's own location, market and farm plan.  How does one then make an informed decision about an aquaponic farming venture? This is actually one of the tools we empower students with that attend our GA Complete Course. Partner JD Sawyer of Colorado Aquaponics has developed a unique interactive financial modeling tool where prospective farm owners can project revenue based on inputs they can derive from their own market and conditions and their own business plan, not someone else's miles away. No one can answer this question for you and those that claim production or revenue numbers for their systems cannot accurately do so and are simply projecting unrealistic and unproven numbers unless they know the correct variables for your particular situation to plug into the equation. That is why we believe in using the tools and metrics to generate those numbers for oneself.
 

At Green Acre, we know that aquaponic farming absolutely can be viable, however we also know it takes several key pieces to run a successful farm business. First and foremost, one must obviously have a very good understanding of aquaponics and system operations but also understand the ins and outs of marketing and advertising and be capable of efficiently managing a small business. We touch on all of these things in our GA course and it comprises a four day, jam packed interactive session but if I had to say what tops our list for managing a successful aquaponics farm, this would have to be it:

  1. Get an education. No matter how fun, innovative and cutting edge aquaponics is, this is a business. Do your research and get informed and be willing to invest in your farms future. And if you can take more then one!
  2. Diversify!  Not only revenue but what you grow.  More crops translates into more business.
  3. Hybridize. Incorporate multiple systems to maximize your crop variety and efficiency of your farming operation.
  4. Set realistic goals. Don't jump into a farm venture with no capital in reserves and expect it to pay your bills in a few short months.
  5. Sell, sell, sell! And do that before you grow it!  Become very familiar with your market and build a tribe with your community.
  6. Always err on the side of caution. Both JD and I will always paint a conservative picture of the potential of these systems and small farms. It's always better to exceed conservative estimates then fall short on over zealous ones. It also will help insure success.
  7. Last, minimize overhead. Our philosophy here is simple. Overhead should and can be minimized as much as possible without compromising productivity. Also be sure that your model will be viable if you have to factor in significant overhead costs form things such as lighting or heat.


So there it is. Is aquaponic farming viable? YES!  Will every farm survive? Unfortunately no. Let's not forget that this is a business and more then a third of all businesses will fail within their first two years.  That's not to say though that in these cases it was the aquaponic farming element that failed, whereas we can be pretty certain the business side of it did.  The short answer is yes, it is indeed doable; you just have to do it right.

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Comment by Rob Nash on May 25, 2013 at 10:24am

im with Gina on this one... Aquaponic farming is viable... its just that "profit" is an elusive answer..

my farm has paid for itself for four plus years... but only this year have we finally expanded enough to start really making a living.

And yes.. our supplemental income sources, were a huge factor in making it all happen.

 

we just landed our first ever "contract production", where i had a pickler ask us to produce his cukes...

he offered up a construction investment and i had a group of interns help put it all together..

everyone wins.. interns learned something new, pickle guy gets high quality cukes, and i get a guaranteed customer.    ...this is not as regular as we would all hope.

 

Im happy to report that our farm is only at 75% production and is clearing a worth while annual income.. for my wife and i, as well as a helper.

However, i feel obligated to warn folks, that farming is a hard life.. it takes more than a passion for growing food. 

for what ever reason ... when were sitting at our desk jobs and thinking... i cant do this for the rest of my life, i have to find something more meaningful, that i feel good about doing day in and day out... farming with efficient, sustainable methods seems to appear the best answer to many..

i must say, ..of all the folks Ive trained, consulted, etc.. it has been made very clear to me that farming is not for everyone.

even the guy with the most enthusiasm, comes to intern for about four weeks and realizes that the work never stops.. he asked me, when are we going to do anything but seeds, transplants, harvesting and cleaning?  i asked him.. do you feel like you could do this for the rest of your life.. he rolled his eyes and said "HELL NO! ...when i told him that this is it, this is farming.. and you dont even have to make the calls, deliveries, pay the bills, keep the employees moving, or any of the business side of things, your only doing the easy part, he said, ..man i dont know if this is the job for me... he called the next day and said he had a change of heart, that farming was not what he thought it would be..

...that was a valuable lesson for this guy, as he had $200k he was about to start investing into his farm.

 

Soo... intern if you can. get a feel for what you are going to be doing. take as many trainings as you can afford..

it will all be less expensive than trial and error... and then to realize you dont like the type of work after investing your savings... what a disaster that would be... and then one may say.. aquaponics isnt profitable.. well, no business is, if you dont know what to expect, or how to make it happen.

as Gina stated, its a business.. even the person with the best business mind, may not be willing to grind through the thousands of lettuce seedings, transplants, harvests, deliveries, farmers markets..(which equals about 100 transactions in four hours), bugs, weather etc... and after all that effort, and loss of sleep.. still have a crop failure that sets you back about 2 months. ...and then do it day after day after day, with very little chance of a vacation, bonus, promotion etc.   ...so long as making money is not your main motivator, then growing food for the masses might be doable.

 

i have said it before and will say it again...  Aquaponics Rocks, Farming still sucks!

 

i think all to often, aquaponic food production is perceived as a big money maker, and within a few months or even years, that a group of investors will be getting rich... if you have the money to make that happen,, you should keep your money and grow your own food.

its not for everyone, but like all things.. if you get it down to an art, it can be a great way to spend your day..(more like,, the rest of your life)

not trying to be a downer and talk people out of trying aquaponics on a large scale.. but i do caution all who are thinking about it to consider the big (long term) picture.

Cheers, im off to the greenhouse to harvest lettuce for the Sunday morning market... 

 

Comment by George on May 16, 2013 at 6:54am

I think I'll start small, such as trading basil for an appetiser at a good restaurant

Thanks for the insight on commercial viability of aquaponics.

Comment by Gina Cavaliero on May 13, 2013 at 12:32pm

Hey Chris!  Thanks and great to hear from you!  We will definitely keep it going and growing.  :)  

Comment by Alex Veidel on May 12, 2013 at 8:06am

Glad to hear you have some more time to yourself. Don't spend it all on us aquapons!

Comment by Chris Smith on May 11, 2013 at 12:39am

Great blog Gina! I came to the same conclusions that you have stated above. Location and economy of scale were huge factors for me. It has been great to follow your farms growth. Too bad your teachers can't appreciate your success! Keep it going. Can't wait to see what comes next....

Comment by Gina Cavaliero on May 10, 2013 at 5:57pm

Thanks Alex. Well I never really intended not to blog consistently.  Lol. I just finally have some time freed up and blogging consistently was at the top of my list of things to do when I had more time. Now that I know you are paying attention, I better keep it up!  

Comment by Alex Veidel on May 10, 2013 at 1:29pm

Posts are lookin' good Gina! Keep up the good work. What made you decide to start blogging consistently again?

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