Aquaponic Gardening

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Transitioning from Hoop Greenhouse Soil Organic Gardening to either Hydroponics or Aquaponics?

A bit of background both about my location and desires. For those who are interested in such things, I can be found on Google Earth at Lat: N40º13.33’, Long: 75º26’. As with any hobbyist gardener I am interested in getting veggies as early in the spring as is possible. The idea of building a Hoop Greenhouse that would permit starting and harvesting produce earlier than what came from the outdoor garden was a great incentive. Two years ago, I built a twelve-foot wide by twenty-four foot Hoop Greenhouse for that purpose. But like everything else it too is not a perfect solution. Attempts to maintain ideal soil conditions, controlling very high ambient greenhouse temperature levels from late June through early August, and keeping insects and other pests at bay has proven to be quite taxing.


Two months ago in my continuing search to produce high quality veggies and reduce labor, I started researching both Hydroponic and Aquaponic regimens. I joined a number of both Hydroponic and Aquaponic forums that I continually refer to for both insight and information, have read as much material that I could lay my hands on, have viewed as many You Tube videos that I could find, and have toured a local commercial Hydroponic installation that raises both Lettuce products and Tomatoes.


Early in my research, I became very enthusiastic about Aquaponics. What a great concept. Raise fish for the table, yet let the fish provide the nutrients for raising the veggies and let the veggies clean the nutrients for the fish to survive. Yet, there was something in this concept that was not quite adding up. Mother Nature has a way of taking what seems to be a simple and reliable concept into something quite a bit more complex and not quite as reliable. Where I live, energy and infrastructure costs become a huge factor in making any decision about making a game change. Whether you are a hobbyist or are planning to become a commercial operation, it’s all about the scale of dollars that can be invested and what you can get back in return.


If you work in a greenhouse, keeping air temperature down in the summer is huge and what follows is water temperature for the fish. A circulating fan will help to maintain outdoor ambient temperature, but a water evaporator can reduce temperature by upwards of twenty to thirty degrees. A chiller may be needed to control water temperature. If you are working in the house, it’s mostly all about grow lights, including sub-panel, wiring, and operating costs. Whichever way you work


Now, about the fish.  As a hobbyist, I have looked into Yellow Perch, Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, Nile Tilapia, Gold Fish, Koi, Channel Cat Fish, and Blue Gill. Due to fish optimum temperature ranges, availability, purchase order requirements, delivery charges and over wintering costs, it comes down to where you live, how you plan to operate, and what risk you are willing to take.



 I use Google Earth for a lot of research. I have formed my own opinions about the viability and the future growth of both Hydroponics and Aquaponics. World wide, Aquaponics appears to be the most profitable, productive, and easiest to operate between the Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn. Real profitability and productivity can still be had when extended to both North and South 35º latitude. Hydroponics appears to be better suited for more northern and southern latitudes. An exception to this is when warm ocean currents come into play. The pacific current has an impact upon Japan and the West Coast of the United States. The Mediterranean Sea appears to impact most of the Northern coast.


So, to all the great people working to develop the Aquaponic model, keep up the great work, for me and sorry to say, Aquaponics just does not seem to fit. 

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Comment by Zachary Larson on October 2, 2012 at 10:13am

In Baldwin, WI there is is a place called Future Farm. He told me it took $1.3 million to build his facility. He also mentioned that the greenhouse brings in $500,000/yr before expenses. He did not share what his profits are after expenses but he was very optimistic. He uses methane from the dairy farm across the road to pay for all his heat. I did some math and figured he brought in maybe $40,000/yr after expenses but the figures I used are full of assumptions and I am sure there are expenses I have haven't thought of as that is usually how it goes. That's enough to live on but then leaves little to reinvest into the company which, in my opinion, is always a must.

I have noticed that most smaller aquaponics greenhouses with inexpensive DIY systems do not do very well. The owners usually are unwilling to admit that they aren't seeing any profit while in operation but in a few years they always close down or switch to nonprofit status to try and stay afloat. I haven't seen a single exception to this in Wisconsin. Usually these people either did not do a market outlook, lack a business plan, or failed to realize the complexity of an aquaponics system's environment. I really do think that aquaponics has the potential to enter the market as a very profitable business and in some places and in some forms it already is; but alot of work needs to be done to refine this new industry before a Mom and Pop can make a living doing this anywhere. Unfortunately  not many people seem to realize this and lose their shirts trying.

Comment by Wayne Schultz on September 24, 2012 at 6:50am

Zachary - Thanks for responding to my post. Your return post has more than enough food for thought that would allow us to talk for several days. 

You wrote, "a model that offers expensive training courses, or a model that spent a million dollars to maximized production capacity and efficiency." Following is a link to a commercial operation that's close to me. This is an installation provided by "Crop King." and goes to the root of your remarks. By the way, this is the site that I referred to in my original post.

This is strictly a Hydroponic installation that has every conceivable goody that today's current technology offers. It was built four years ago, and just this year has turned the corner. The lettuce house is comprised of two houses joined together and uses a fully automated computer controlled environment and nutrient mixing and feed system. The system is an NFT system using the Crop King Gully Channels. The adjoining Tomato House uses Barto Dutch Buckets for the indeterminate tomatoes, and cucumbers. I can only speculate on the cost for this entire operation, but it has to be in the high six number category.  OH, and by the way, 80% of the heating comes from a massive underground geothermal system. 

Tomato plants are pulled at the end of October, everything is then cleaned and the greenhouse is shut down to conserve energy until February, when new plants are installed for the next season.

The big kicker with Crop King is their support package. It isn't cheap.

Closer to Philadelphia, there is a commercial Aquaponic business that specializes in growing Basil in a DWC raft system and raising Tilapia, that appears outwardly to be successful. 

When I look at both of the businesses and their start up costs, and than consider the costs that I am running into, along with my operating expenses, I believe that the current state of technology has a long ways to go and that the system costs have to become more price competitive.

I see no justification for the price point of a head of lettuce grown either hydroponically or aquaponically to be artificially pegged at a premium in excess of a $1.  The consumer neither knows little about either disciplines, nor really cares that much. When shoppers look at both products side by side and whichever costs less, that is usually what ends up in the shopping cart.   




Comment by Zachary Larson on September 23, 2012 at 8:46am

Great post. I was in a similar situation recently. I loved the idea of aquaponics and had plans to open my own commercial greenhouse. All my previous education and experience is in business; I have started and operated multiple successful businesses. A successful business takes massive amounts of research and market analyzing to be successful, so after a few years if both internet research and real world networking I came to a conclusion about the profitability of aquaponics. There are only four types of aquaponics business models that are successful:  a model on a tropical type island with water limiting laws, a nonprofit model with a cause that attracts boat loads of grant money, a model that offers expensive training courses, or a model that spent a million dollars to maximized production capacity and efficiency.

There have been numerous aquaponics greenhouses here in Wisconsin that have started up and not one that I am aware of that does not follow one of those four models have been or is successful. People tend to jump into aquaponics around here without any market analization. I recently left my previous business endeavors behind to gain further education and to head a project that aimed to transition a greenhouse from a compost grower to an aquaponics grower. The business had everything it needed to become successful. Unfortunately, despite my objections, the "higher ups" made some very poor and irreversible business decisions that, according to my research, doomed the operation to failure. So I resigned to focus more on personal education.

I believe, someday, aquaponics as a whole will become profitable but it will take a lot more research to make it so. It is my opinion that system efficiency and waste utilization is the key. I still plan on opening a commercial aquaponics facility in the following years. I have already developed a hybrid business model I believe will be successful in a temperate climate and have raised all the funds I need to do so, but that is the easy part. Before I start a greenhouse, I have plans to gain an education in biology so that I myself can perform scientific research in aquaponics with a business mindset.  Small scale research begins in about 2 months and will greatly expand next fall. Wish me luck.

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