Aquaponic Gardening

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Prior and Proper Preparation Prevents Pee Poor Performance

In a little over a year, we have had over 500 people visit our farm and answered countless emails and phone calls from those interested in starting a commercial aquaponic farm.  The questions are varied, from how much did it cost to start up, to how much money can you make to how many fish do I need.   Interestingly though, people often ask what we would have done differently when setting up our system or starting our business.  I never have an earth shattering answer.    There are definitely a couple mistakes we wouldn’t want to repeat but I always wonder why no one ever asks, what would we absolutely have done the same? 


In addition to co-managing an aquaponic farm, I also do some farrier work as a certified barefoot horse trimmer and do a little bit of horse training too. One of the natural horse trainers I’ve followed and studied for years has a favorite saying that really applies to handling and working around horses.  He always says, “Prior and proper preparation prevents pee poor performance.”  It makes perfect sense.   After the training I have had, I could never imagine walking up to a horse, picking up its foot and knifing away at its sole or nipping away their hoof wall.  I probably wouldn’t know what to do, how to use the tools, or have any confidence.  Most importantly, if I didn't know how to approach a horse the right way, there’s a good chance I’d get myself kicked.  That is certainly something to avoid; as anyone that has even been kicked by a horse knows it hurts!   Handling horses is definitely a situation where prior and proper preparation has a direct impact on the success of the situation.   I have looked at pictures, watched videos, read books and done research, but nothing parallels the hands on training I received from professional farriers and courses.         


When we started doing the research for our commercial venture, we of course took the typical early steps when starting a new venture and developed a business plan, a budget and did mass amounts of research.  One of the things we immediately factored into our budget was an education expense and began researching our options.   There were a couple programs that we found at first, but none really seemed quite what we were looking for as they lacked what to us was an essential ingredient; experience operating a commercial farm.  We were just coming out of years in the construction industry and were quite resourceful but wanted a training that could provide a road map on how to build and operate a commercial aquaponic farm, not just a system. 


Much like my horsemanship training, applying the same philosophy of prior and proper preparation to growing commercially has helped to set us up for success.  We often talk to people willing to invest plenty of money and time in a new aquaponic venture but not allocate funds to what we consider the single most important component, a good education.  It’s insurance for your investment.    


I am certain it is possible to achieve success without securing an education, but it definitely can help minimize mistakes and drastically alter the learning curve.  Additional benefits can include on ongoing source of mentoring from instructors that are operating a commercial operation and willing to share what they too are still learning.  It certainly seems to me the most logical plan to follow and it can minimize the likelihood of pee poor performance.  Without it, I imagine there's a good chance you may find out that a commercial aquaponic venture can kick much like a horse if you approach it the wrong way.   I bet it can smart too.

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Comment by Gina Cavaliero on August 24, 2011 at 4:02pm
Damn, the older I got, I hope it would temper that a bit more.  But I am not as old as you, so perhaps there is time!  ;-)  I do actually have an answer for that now.  We are in the midst of converting over our first trough to a media bed so that we can have better growing diversity and also get the nutrient build/boost that media systems invariably have. It would have been much easier to incorporate this into a new system as opposed to trying to retrofit an existing one, as it is posing quite the challenges when it is a 200sqft media bed!
Comment by David Waite on August 24, 2011 at 3:37pm
You are right of course. Excitement will override common sense. I still do it at age 47. I am curious though. What would you have done different on your system. You threw it out there hehe.
Comment by Gina Cavaliero on August 24, 2011 at 3:17pm

@David - Thanks.  Sadly I think for many it is an huge oversight and lapse in judgement.  I can not relay to you the excitement we had when we found Friendly's course.  You are right that they may be just fly by nights that fail. Unfortunately they are part of the ones that culminate those numbers that make this appear not viable.  No one takes into consideration whether or not the new entrepreneur took all the steps to insure success, but just see that the venture failed. 


@Kobus - Thanks for your thoughts as always.  We are working on producing that data as well as it is what people want  and as a facilitator what I desperately want to be able to provide.  However I don't think anything I could provide yet would be concrete enough just based on time frame alone. I would like to see statistics that are proven over an extended period of time and until time has passed, I can not yet produce that.  

I find that auro of infalability for universities amusing. For one to consider business related data from an establishment that is funded and has an unyielding supply of graduate student labor, none of which are probably very concerned about fine tuning expenses and revenues, to me has little viable data for those desiring commercial info.  Surely UVI has an excellent 'system' training however that was the extent of their course offerings at the time we were researching one.  I don't know if that has changed now.  I have had the pleasure of meeting Jim Rackocy and am actually expecting a visit from him next month, so deeply respect his accomplishments and program, but it just paled in comparison when we were looking for a training that offered what we thought was the whole package.  

As far as your comment that what we need is a knowledge of what each type of system costs to build, what it costs to run and what you get out of it.  I agree, but I doubt that that last component is entirely possible as there are so many variables that affect the production and its revenues.  From enviromental factors, to market demands and operational effectiveness, I think these numbers that so many want, need to be segmented to only apply to very particular parameters.  


@ Carey - I so thoroughly share your views regarding retrofitting jobs.  We used to say we wouldn't touch any of the R's, repaint, refurbish, remodel, etc.  It always invariably included something under the surface you couldn't account for when estimating the job.  However, you can certainly be the hero when correcting all the issues left behind by your predecessor.  True, true though, the tarnish they leave behind is often hard to buff away.

It is my hope and my co-organizer Sylvia's that the Association that is being formed will fulfill the roles you propose.  It certainly has the agenda of promoting aquaponics and educating about the benefits of aquaponics and aquaponically grown food.  It would also offer some validation for those enterprises that choose to be members and uphold practices that are in the best interest of the industry.  

@Cosmo - I tried, only got it out once!


Comment by M Cosmo on August 24, 2011 at 5:47am

We praise your perfect prose presented to us poor pupils by prodigious partner pundits.

Say that 5 times fast. 

Comment by Carey Ma on August 22, 2011 at 8:57am

@ Gina: I couldn't agree more. Prior and proper preparation makes all the difference in the world. As a consultant I hate taking retrofit jobs because there is only so much one can do after the foundations are laid. I always try to consult to meet with all the other planning members before a single line is drawn on paper. However, life is seldom cooperative.

In some ways I love to do corrections (re-doing/ correcting competitors mistakes) because it makes me look better than good and word does get out that so and so company cost the investors X amount on their re-do. However, the downside is that it becomes a rippling tarnish on the industry.


@ David: Only the wise or the foolish spend the proper amount of time in preparation, thus the statistics of failed enterprises.


@ Kobus: Agreed, agree, agree. I think it would behoove us to unite in cooperation to form an alliance to better protect the industry from bad business and bad government in this world of …hmmm, self preservation (sound politically correct). There is little chance of for profit companies to divulge any research information so we can count most of them out which leaves NGOs, Universities and independent tinkerrers like us.

The traditional problem with NGOs, in the scale of the bigger picture is that each is too focused on their own little window of interest to be much use to other groups. University research is actually an extension of big business so is usually not even in the same direction. So…it seems it is left to us crazy independents to cooperate, to bring sustainability from an agreeable concept into reality.


I believe AP is the lost bridge; the missing piece of the puzzle to acceptance of urban food source by the general public, and therefore changes the habits and lifestyle. If this is true, there is more than enough pie for everyone to share. So I urge the members of this site not to loose focus on what is important.


Comment by Kobus Jooste on August 21, 2011 at 10:46pm

Very nice post.  Being so far seperated from your service providers and trainers, I may not be 100% the person to respond about individuals, but I would like to add a few cents worth on concepts.

1. People like me want to see data when researching commercial options.  Last time I checked, only UVI / Alberta long-term data sets were available in terms of crop output proven on paper.  When I started researching, the Friendly Aquaponics group was extremely helpful and provided as much info as they could without basically handing all their work over for free (I'm a consultant and I know you don't do that).  I still felt more comfortable looking at long term data sets though.  I'm not sure if they now have proven yields with their plans yet but it was always something I was looking for.

2. Having said what I did above, people also seem to think that there is some kind of auro of infalibility associated with anything "University" linked.  They keep on asking which one I'm affiliated with and give me a puzzled stare when I say "none".  You somehow have to be university based to research.  Over here, Universities are good with knowledge but typically crap with real-world economic feasibility of concepts.  That is where I believe the Aquaponic Association can play an important role.  The industry needs to foster people that know what they are doing and clearly identify individuals or groups that are problematic.  This should not be confused with a turf war over customers, but rather like an industry association that protects the industry itsself and not just own interests.  If people market kits, then you want to know that they work and that they are backed up by experienced people etc.  Same for training and commercial consultation.  Aquaponics is a very young industry and all we need is a couple of well publicised nasty instances for the whole industry to take a knock.

3. As you stated in your example - there is a a right way and a wrong way to treat a horse, and a right way and a wrong way to approach aquaponic systems.  In the past, however, kit and system designers picked battles with each other over issues that should not matter.  The underlying principles of what makes aquaponics work will allow many different designs.  Marketing down the line of "ours is the only method that works" (I'm not suggesting anyone is doing it right now - just making a point) is not fair to people that just start looking into the method.  I like the fact that the forum is not turning into a partisan bickering zone thus far, and hope that the industry will grow in this manner into the future.


Ultimately, what we need is a knowledge of what each type of system costs to build, what it costs to run and what you get out of it.  Once the market throws that info out there, I'm sure the number of chancers will also rapidly drop. 

Comment by David Waite on August 21, 2011 at 10:37pm
I am always amazed at how many people will start a venture without knowing a cent about it. It took me 4 years to learn landscaping before I got a license and did it on my own. I could see starting if no training was available but to start a growing operation that will cost 30000 plus with a greenhouse and not spend a couple of thousand on a course or two seems foolish. Great read Gina. I have also found those types of people that start something half baked are flash in the pan types and rarely finish anything.

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