Photo courtesy of Greener Scenes Aquaponics

Worldwide and in North America, both the aquaculture and greenhouse industries are growing, and for good reason. Water availability is a global concern, world population is rising and high-quality protein is in high demand. The effects of climate change are also being felt on fields around the world, and food safety issues related to field agriculture and livestock farming abound.

Combining aquaculture and hydroponics would therefore seem to make sense. The practice of aquaponics involves feeding fish and using the water containing their wastes as a plant nutrient solution. The water is then recycled back to the fish through (often very simple) water treatment systems. Beyond the obvious efficiencies, fish offer the most efficient feed conversion of any livestock — as little as 1.5 pounds of feed per pound gained. In addition, various sources report that aquaponic plant production uses only about three percent of the water needed for field-grown crops and enables plant growth as much as three times faster.

What’s more, aquaponics systems can be built anywhere using a wide variety of designs, including vertically-integrated. Some systems have the plants growing in floating beds in the fish tanks, but un-coupled systems (interconnected but separate greenhouse and aquaculture operations) such as the one at Superior Fresh in Northfield, Wisconsin, are gaining interest. Right now, Superior Fresh is perfecting its production processes. But by 2018, the firm aims to annually harvest 120,000 pounds of salmon, 40,000 pounds of trout and 1.8 million pounds of greens. The greenhouse is about three acres with a water tank of 850,000 gallons. The company has stated that any fish waste that cannot be handled by the greenhouse plants will be applied to fields or composted for application later, with only a small amount of water recycled back to the fish.

Greener Scenes aquaponics in Brazil, Indiana started selling a mix that includes kale, spinach and more in April 2017.
Photo courtesy of Greener Scenes Aquaponics

Feasibility of aquaponics

Measuring the feasibility of aquaponics is not an easy thing to do. Dr. David Love (a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in Baltimore) and his colleagues took a stab at it in 2015, publishing a survey of 257 commercial aquaponics operations (81 percent in the U.S., and the rest in 22 other countries) in the journal Aquaculture (see sidebar for details). The results indicate an overall economic advantage in putting the focus on plant production. “Plants reach point of harvest sooner than fish,” Love explains. “With fish, we found that you either lose money or break even. This is also supported by a 2015 USDA Southern Regional Aquaculture Center publication called ‘Economics of Aquaponics’ by economist Carole Engle, who has studied the topic extensively.”

In concert with this finding, Aqua Greens in Toronto, Ontario (which was not surveyed; it began operation in December 2015) has delayed fish harvest. Since the company began, it has delivered 12,000 plants (greens, basil, etc.) a month to upscale downtown restaurants and resorts north of the city, but is scaling back its restaurant count and is building a retail base to make deliveries simpler. Owners Craig Petten and Pablo Alvarez decided on which greens to produce by asking chefs what they wanted, and their roster now includes basil, lettuce and a kale blend. “We’ve spent the last two years on a learning curve to perfect all aspects of greenhouse operation,” says Petten. “We are now looking into markets for the tilapia, and also have to make sure processing will be done correctly by a third party. It may be that we will produce smaller dinner plate-sized fish. Right now, we have the same fish we’ve had since the start and they will be harvested at some point and replaced with our first market production run.”

Before opening, the pair of entrepreneurs enrolled in a three-year ‘Sustainable Energy Building Technology’ program at a local community college and completed planning of an aquaponics operation as their final project. Afterwards, they studied aquaponics ventures in three U.S. cities, took more courses, and settled on a vertical version of a design developed at the University of the Virgin Islands.

They’re using high-pressure sodium lights (HPS), which Petten and Alvarez say are economical and do a good job meeting the needs of their non-flowering greens. However, they are trialing LEDs right now as they will be using these in the expansion. “Work on that will start by the end of the year,” says Petten. “We are selling all the plants we produce and the demand is there for more.”

Greener Scenes Aquaponics in Brazil, Indiana is another operation waiting to market its fish. In April 2017, the venture started selling salad mix greens to a local store called Baesler’s Market. “Our current projections are 300 pounds of mix per week and no fish for at least the next year,” says CEO Zachariah Chambers. “It’s a no-brainer. Lettuce has a very quick turn-around and it’s profitable. By July, when we have more plants growing, the entire business will be self-sustaining just based on income from the greens.”

At the end of 2017, GSA will reach its current site maximum production of about 100 pounds of greens every second day. Expansion to the second floor, a rooftop greenhouse, and/or a second site may someday be in the cards.

Other success factors

While the survey by Love and his colleagues found only 31 percent of surveyed commercial aquaponics operations were profitable during the prior 12 months, those who sold aquaponics equipment and/or consulting services were the most profitable. “Whether it’s doing this or offering courses or integrating agritourism,” Love says, “it can have a big benefit on the bottom line.”

Noa Fisheries near Toronto partly illustrates this. While the operation produces fry and fingerlings of two tilapia varieties for aquaponics hobbyists and commercial facilities, it markets no plants of its own — the only aquaponics systems onsite are solely for training purposes. And although it’s not a commercial aquaponics facility, the owners have offered a three-day aquaponics course over a dozen times since they started the business in 2010 and market an online version.

Love and his team also found that most aquaponics producers they surveyed tended towards smaller scale due to limited investment, limited space and other factors. However, Love does not wish “to point-blank advise all those planning an aquaponics operation to invest large amounts of money and have a huge venture.” He notes that “there is a lot wrapped up in the decision of how big to go, and the business plan must be carefully developed.”

Superior Fresh in Hixton, Wisconsin has an “un-coupled” aquaponics operation with a fish building and three-acre greenhouse with plants growing on top of a water tank.
Photo courtesy of Superior Fresh

One aquaponics venture in Quebec, near Montreal, is going big, but construction is on hold for the moment. The story starts with Marc Laberge, who from 2005 to 2014, owned and operated M.L Aquaponics in the vicinity, producing a very popular locally-branded Boston lettuce and smoked trout fillets. Laberge has spent much of the two years since involved in getting another similar operation — of over 30 times the size — off the ground. The greenhouse and the fish tanks are in place, but further work is now on hold until an upcoming clarification vote this summer about organic certification of plants under the Canadian Aquaculture Organic Standard (CAOS). “Organic certification is worth pursuing in order to secure demand,” notes Laberge. “We need to have every plant we produce sell. We can’t store our greens. It’s not that we have to charge much of a premium because our system will be extremely efficient, but having the organic label means being in demand.”

The valued-added trout fillets are also important to the venture’s future success. Laberge will produce both hot-smoked and cold-smoked trout, the former having a flaky texture and the latter the traditional well-known raw texture. (Tilapia production is not presently allowed in Quebec due to fears they will enter natural waterways and outcompete native species.) Smoked trout is worth 50 percent more than fresh trout, but Laberge says economies of scale are extremely important to make the extra work and equipment worthwhile. Indeed, circling back to the idea that bigger is better, Laberge believes economies of scale are critical for overall aquaponics success. “System design is very important, but you need excellent personnel with experience with water chemistry and so on, and if you are too small,” he explains, “you won’t attract good people and you can’t pay them what they are worth anyway. You get what you pay for.”

Chambers also advises putting together a strong team. “Have core expertise in fish, plants, operations, finance and marketing,” he says, “and plan for delays. While we kept our budget in check, buildout and ramp-up took about nine months longer than anticipated, resulting in pay going out the door with no revenue.”

On the whole, Chambers also believes everyone involved must have strength of character and a fundamental conviction in the vision. “The light is always at the end of the tunnel but the tunnel just keeps getting longer as you hit challenges and obstacles,” he says. “And when tomorrow happens, you need to have a team, the team that doesn’t give up.” He adds, “Starting a business is hard, especially when it requires infrastructure and multiple levels of expertise. Aquaponics takes all of the challenges of hydroponics and aquaculture and elevates the difficulty. Our collective expertise is aquaponics, and without it, we would fail.”

Treena is an Ontario-based national and international award-winning writer who focuses on science, technology and industry issues.