Commercial Aquaponics: What Plants are the most Profitable?

Coriander grown in Aquaponics

Recently a US dirt gardener decided to plant the most profitable plants per square foot of space and document their profitability on a chart.

The chart was quite extensive but the top seven plants that were the best money spinners per square foot stopped us in our tracks.

His conclusions made us think about commercial viability of aquaponics because the plants that proved to be the most profitable – all grow well in Aquaponics.

Because aquaponics is so new, there aren’t a lot of commercial systems out there and those that are successful don’t like to spread the word too far and wide.

Most people that start with commercial aquaponics adopt the UVI floating raft system pioneered by Dr James Rakocy of the Virgin Islands. Plants grown in floating raft grow consistently at a pretty uniform rate. Staggered planting means harvesting occurs at regular intervals throughout the year.

Dr Rakocy did a lot of test trials using the herb Basil in his Aquaponics system.

It grew very well. His research showed that Basil grew three times better in Aquaponics than it did in his dirt garden. He also tried Okara and found it grew 18 times as well in Aquaponics than in soil gardens.

The clincher was to find the most profitable plant per square foot. Limited space with floating raft means you want the best bang for your buck!

There is no guarantee that growing an acre of Basil in aquaponics will guarantee you a big return on your investment as Rakocy pointed out. Like any business, if your market is small and demand remains small – eventually even your family are going to get tired of eating pesto sauce (contains basil) with their pasta!

So lets take a look at the plants that grow well per square foot and see if we should also diversify our product?

Most profitable plants per square foot of space

Cilantro

Cilantro is also known as Coriander and is a plant that doesn’t get much coverage in Aquaponics circles here in Australia.

Now don’t take the prices on the chart as the Gospel truth. Read the information more like a trend as these prices slide up and down with market availability and seasonal demand.

Cilantro is the leafy part of coriander often used in Asian cooking. There are different strains of Coriander, some will bolt straight to seed if introduced from a seedling and transplanted directly into aquaponics. The temperature change can shock the plant especially if you’ve bought your seedlings from a nursery where its been watered intermittently. Most people have more success sowing the seeds directly into the media of your aquaponics system where it takes off and thrives.

Cilantro grows well in this small scale commercial farm in New Zealand.

A small scale aquaponic operation – people who have done their research and locked up their supply lines should give this plant a trial and see if it does well in your climate and local growing conditions and lives up to its profit potential. Cilantro/Coriander can be harvested in optimal conditions within 40 – 50 days. What other plants could you consider growing? Especially plants that grow fast, fetch a good price and most importantly have strong consumer demand?

Arugula-Roquette

Known also as just plain “Rocket” is a member of the Brassicaceae (mustard) family. Its edible leaves are characterized by a distinctive spicy, pungent flavor similar to mustard greens. Rocket can be harvest 6 weeks after planting or less if you decide to specialize in sales of ‘baby greens’ for the boutique salad market. Being sensitive to the trends of market forces and capitalizing on consumer tastes is a good way for the small operator to respond quickly to boutique demands.

Green Salad Mix

The old days of serving up a tossed salad using iceberg lettuce garnished with a few wedges of tomatoes and a slice of cucumber are no longer in vogue.

Presenting a mixed array of alternative salad variations is where the market is trending.

Health conscious consumers now prefer salads that are exotic, that offer a  wide range of leafy greens, colours, tastes and texture that also appeal to the eye. Packaged mixed greens have become popular, and now account for over 80% of leafy green produce sales.

Some savvy small scale growers like Gina Cavaliero from Green Acre Organics even grow nasturtiums in aquaponics for their flowers. Chefs pay 50c per flower head to decorate their dishes. Nasturtiums grow prolifically in aquaponics but beware that they need to be trained  up a trellis as they grow prolifically.

Medicinal Plants?

This new way of presenting greens has benefited the consumer with a greater variety of produce in fresh, usable portions.

With the popularity of raw food, marketing aquaponically grown plants and lesser know exotic greens known for their health and medicinal properties are also a great way to add value to your diverse product range.  Little known plants like Gotu Kola a plant reputedly said  to stimulate the brain could be used for example.

There are a myriad of herbal plants that also grow very well in aquaponics but are largely ignored. Maybe when you grow your lettuce and salad mix you could add a few exotic medicinal plants into the mix, and give them a flashy title “Aquaponically Grown Brainfood Salad Mix!”

Who knows, health conscious consumers may go for it?  We were recently given a book on raw food smoothies. All those leafy Kale, Watercress and Silverbeet plants we have growing in our aquaponics system now gets blended up first thing in the morning into a tasty green smoothy. Easier to drink than to chomp through I can tell you.

Gotu Kola - The Brain Boosting plant! Many herbalists have called gotu kola the finest of all herbal tonics.

Marketing

Clever growers know that not only do they wish to produce plants in premium condition but also plants at the best price. Sometimes a little clever marketing is needed and some product diversification.

Gina Cavaliero says, “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.”

Aquaponics may be new, but the old rules of business still apply.

Selling Basil at a growers market will only earn you so much. Turning it into Basil Vinaigrette and slapping a label on your product earns you a much higher price.

Thats what clever growers like Myles Harston from the AquaRanch are doing with their product. How successful his vinaigrette becomes depends on how well it tastes and how well his product is marketed.

The rest is just plain old fashioned business sense.

What plant would you choose to grow if you were going to make the plunge into setting your own small scale commercial system?

 

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