Commercial Aquaponics: Why you should go small first
There’s been a lot of interest about commercial aquaponics recently and some discussion about how big should such a system be to become viable? Big is always best right? Not necessarily. If you envisage one of those broad acre hydroponic farms that seems to run for acres and acres off into the distance then you might be surprised that this is not the solution or even the future of aquaponics.
Speaking with Murray Hallam recently about commercial aquaponics, he sees this future very differently. Murray is big on small scale aquaponics that offers a secure future to the mum and dad operators running their own relaxed lifestyle but selling their produce not to big agri-business food chains, but directly into the community. Farmers markets, produce sold directly to restaurants, even food sold to other local food suppliers that redistribute your produce directly to the community.
This method seems to be the way to go forward.
Gina Cavaliero from Green Acre Organics is one such person doing the direct to restaurants route. If you thought the process would be difficult to secure a contract of direct sales like we did, then you are in for a surprise. Gina cannot supply enough food to meet the need in her local community. It seems fresh produce in peak condition is a much sought after commodity.
One of the smart things Gina did was to first build a mini micro aquaponics system. In her backyard you will find a very small floating raft system connected to a round outdoor pool fish tank. Here Gina is able to cleverly test out a range of produce from herbs to lettuce to test and discover what grows well in her neck of the woods. Living in Florida helps too. But until you test a range of of boutique produce you will never know exactly how well those greens will grow based on your climate conditions. A micro floating raft system gave Gina the necessary clues to what would work well in her larger system.
Building a small micro-system first is a clever inexpensive thing to do. No sales person or marketing guru can tell you exactly what to grow in your climate. You will need to do your own homework first. Some level of filtration is needed on even a basic small system like this.
The plants and fish are a litmus test to the experimental nature of determining the optimal growing conditions for her test plants. Of course in her main greenhouse the usual rules of filtration apply. Gina features even a degassing tank to heavily oxygenate any methane present in the system before the water is sent off to her floating rafts. But building a micro system is a terrific idea before taking the heavy investment in up-scaling to a larger more expensive commercial system.
Gina even lightly stocks her big tank with tilapia. There is no problem with the fish supplying enough nutrients to keep the plants well fed. Lightly stocking your tank with fish can also be less stressful to the farmer should something break down resulting in heavy fish losses which seems to have a compounding problem in heavily stocked tanks. Heavily stocked tanks also require critical attention to filtration and fish oxygen demand. Sometimes a lighter approach to aquaponic farming can be less stressful and more therapeutic and still yield good plant growth.
Incidentally Gina Cavaliero along with Sylvia Bernstein and Murray Hallam will join forces for a small scale commercial aquaponics class next April in 2012 in Florida. Murray Hallam will also reveal how to build a hybrid media system he calls FloMedia right into your floating raft system. The idea is that for the small commercial farmer wanting to grow a broader range of plants and vegetables, even root crops, FloMedia can be expanded to use fish nutrients along with your conventional system. This raises the opportunity for farmers to trial a broader range of fruit trees and larger plants in their locality.