arachdog

Is Aquaponics really the most economical way to grow anything ?

87 posts in this topic

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of aquaponics in terms of sustainability and I think it works well as backyard food production method. However I've got this niggling feeling that compromises made during the merging of hydroponics and aquaculture have actually produced a overall system that can't really compete in either field.

Now I'll attempt to explain why I'm starting to feel this way. Firstly the main product from aquaponics comes from the growbeds. I'm sure it varies from system to system but the figures I've seen put the income split at 80% from selling the fruits and\or vegetables, and only 20% from the fish. So really what you have is predominately hydroponic system, but is it efficient one ?. Fish food is expensive, nutrients however are dirt cheap, so even taking into account that the fish food also gives you an extra product does it really turn out to be more cost effective ?

Then even if you answered yes to that question there's the bigger problem. Fish effluent is never going to be as productive as hydroponic solution specifically engineered for your chosen crop. Now I honestly don't know how close you can get to the perfect solution, But lets say you could achieve 70%. Now even if your hydroponic nutrients cost the same as the fish food (it doesn't) it terms of overall profit, your still better of using it.

To give you an idea of how cheap nutrients really are, take a look at the biggest hydroponic installation in the world, Eurofresh Farms. They actually use a Run To Waste system, that means the nutrients only get a single pass through the media before being discarded. So even though the solution probably contains at least 90% of its nutrients still after one pass the extra productivity you get from using brand new solution actually justifies the cost.

So in the hydroponic field it doesn't seem to be a winner to me. But what if your already growing the fish, is it worth adding a hydroponic component to diversify you income stream? If you could do it for free, sure. But it reality your talking significant extra infrastructure and land costs. Then once you've shelled out for an expensive array of growbeds. You look at it and say "Well there's a lot of money tied up here, I can't really afford to run this thing at 70% capacity, I better get in some proper nutrients."

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If you are so worried about it... don't do it!!

Well I don't intend to bb, not on a commercial scale. Unless of course someone can point out an obvious flaw in my logic. Which to be honest I hope they can because as I said, I do like the concept as it has potential to be more environmentally responsible (although high protein fish feed is still typically composed of some percentage of over exploited 'trash' fish, ie.anything they can catch easy and can't sell anywhere else).

Also let me be clear, on a backyard scale I think it works great. You getting fresh fish and veges that you otherwise have to pay retail for, so that gives you one over the commercial grower who only gets wholesale. You also don't have to start your car and go to the shops every week. It's easier to maintain than a hydroponics setup. You don't have to keep buying nutrients. All these advantages swamp the fact that its not the most efficient use of your resources. Not so for the commercial grower.

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Hi Arachdog,

To give you an idea of how cheap nutrients really are, take a look at the biggest hydroponic installation in the world, Eurofresh Farms. They actually use a Run To Waste system, that means the nutrients only get a single pass through the media before being discarded. So even though the solution probably contains at least 90% of its nutrients still after one pass the extra productivity you get from using brand new solution actually justifies the cost.

Run to waste doesn't mean that they dump all of the solution after a single pass. In fact, a correctly tuned run to waste system will actually waste very little nutrient solution.....and, even then, the bit that is drained off at the end will often be directed to other plants.

Non-recirculating hydroponics systems are very common.....and they have a role to play in aquaponics, too......particularly with growing media that holds water very well......like vermiculite and coco coir. Tailormade Farms is/was Australia's largest commercial aquaponics farm and it ran a non-recirculating NFT system using water from its aquaculture operation.

The question.....Is Aquaponics really the most economical way to grow anything?.....is an interesting one.

I'd probably narrow it a little and ask "Is the commonly used recirculating flood and drain aquaponics system the most economical way to grow anything?"

The answer......probably not!

Advocates of the Speraneo model (flood and drain grow beds) often forget that aquaponics is the combination of recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics.....in all of its forms.

Gary

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Hi,

The most expensive part of most aquaponics systems is the plant growing system.

At around $300 to $400 each, large plastic or fibreglass grow beds (averaging about 2 square metres in area) are particularly expensive plant production real estate.

In a well-designed system, these grow beds are effective (and at that price they'd need to be) but they are not essential for aquaponics.

Using something like a mega bin and a couple of plastic drums for trickling bio-filters, you can build a small recirculating aquaculture system that will enable you to grow your own fish. Depending on where you live, this little unit will cost you $500 (or less) using off-the-shelf components and requiring little in the way of skills or tools to assemble.

This system will enable you to grow useful quantities of fish and all you need to do to maintain water quality is water your existing gardens from the fish tank.......and then top it up with fresh water.

If growing a few fish is your only goal......then this is the easiest way to do it. If you are a successful home gardener, you will get your fish and your plants for the same amount of water that you were previously using just to grow the plants.

Adding a small recirculating growing system to this basic RAS makes it an aquaponics system and that's a good thing for the reasons that I've spoken about......here. This growing system can be as simple as a duckweed tank.

Duckweed Aquaponics bestows all of the microbiological benefits of an aquaponics system and will cost very little to attach to the basic RAS.

Of course, if you've been bitten by the aquaponics bug (and who hasn't), you can use recycled bath tubs or blue plastic barrels.....for less than a tenth of the cost of the large commercially-produced grow beds.

You can make your own grow beds (using brand new materials) of a similar size to the plastic or fibreglass ones for about half the price.

You can use a wide variety of tubs and pots.....and opt for an open loop system using vermiculite or coco coir.

You can use square foot beds, or wicking beds, and water them using water from your fish tank.

Aquaponics can be cost effective. It comes down to the choices you make.

Gary

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Run to waste doesn't mean that they dump all of the solution after a single pass.

Well everything I've read tells me that's exactly what it means.

In fact, a correctly tuned run to waste system will actually waste very little nutrient solution

I'm not sure if that's true or not. I think its more of an intrinsically wasteful system. If it is true then they must be very hard to tune because RTW certainly has a polluting reputation.

.....and, even then, the bit that is drained off at the end will often be directed to other plants.

Then's its not a true RTW system.

But anyway I've had a re-think and decided my argument about the cost of nutrients was poorly phrased. I should have acknowledged that aquaponics (assuming that the aquaculture portion is profitable in its own right) produces nutrients for free. Which is obviously cheaper than a commercial hydroponic solution. It's just I think that the savings (including the profit from the fish) made here aren't that significant when you look at the whole system.

I'd probably narrow it a little and ask "Is the commonly used recirculating flood and drain aquaponics system the most economical way to grow anything?"

None of what I'm saying here is a comment on any particular design of aquaponics system.

What I'm talking about is the efficiency of the nutrient solution that can aquaponics can create. Until that starts to approach (it can be slightly less, since there are savings made elsewhere in the system) what a commercial hydroponic solution can achieve then hydroponics is always going to produce a better return on investment no matter how cheap you can get obtain the grow beds.

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The message that is coming out of many commercial operations is that the plants are the main game and that the fish are simply the means to an end.......to provide nutrients and to meet a given portion of the system costs.

If the financial modelling of a commercial operation is premised on the vegetable or herb production, then the fish, having provided the nutrient solution for the plants, are a bonus.

Interestingly, this is also the message that's starting to emerge from the more sensible end of the backyard food production front, too. What experience (particularly with Australian species) has taught us is that successful (and that means consistently safe) operation of a standard small flood and drain system requires very modest stocking.

Anything else requires solids removal and rigorous management.......just like any other type of aquaculture.

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Hi everyone,

Very interesting question arachadog.

Rather than get down to specifics and figures, I thought I would talk generally,about this, and see what people think.

My understanding of aquaponics and its benifits are, the systems both privately and commercially at the same ratio,as you mentioned are, mainly used for the plants and the benefits of the fish to our bodies and pockets are secondary.

I've read, the main non benefits of aquaponics, mainly coming from people who are opposed to them are,

financially - the costs of purchasing and implementing the systems and,

environmentally - the amount of energy used to make the systems.

I've also noted that a lot of people who are for aquaponics don't talk about this aspect much.

I guess, if you are considering aquaponics as a commercial venture,the same viability and environmental impact rules apply,as with any other commercial venture.

It's interesting to note that some people are prepared to go to solely aquponics commercially in Australia,whist there are still a lot of people still keeping to hydroponic only.

On a slightly different tack.The largest or tallest building in the world is either being constructed at the moment or about to be constructed in China, has employed the hydroponic technique solely to feed the building's substantial garden.

I would of thought the building's engineers, would of considered aquaponics along with other techniques before deciding on hydroponics.

I just thought I would throw those thoughts out there for you guys to think and talk about.

Cheers.

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Hydroponics is easier. Thats the only reason it is preferred over AP. Nothing alive to kill in Hydro.

My commercial system is fully AP, and it is going to be highly stocked. I am getting around the need for mechanical filtration by running a ratio of around 4:1. The advent of sequencing valves has enabled this to become viable.

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Hydroponics is easier. Thats the only reason it is preferred over AP. Nothing alive to kill in Hydro.

My commercial system is fully AP, and it is going to be highly stocked. I am getting around the need for mechanical filtration by running a ratio of around 4:1. The advent of sequencing valves has enabled this to become viable.

Yeah I dont know ozzie. Run to waste is probably easier but I think recirculating hydroponics is actually more complicated. Daily pH, and nutrient adjustments as apposed to lobbing a bit of food in once a day and perhaps weekly pH adjustments.

I don't think you've got the right idea by trying to avoid mechanical filtration. Increasing you growbed ratio is only going to delay the inevitable. Eventually your growbeds are still going to block up and become anerobic. Backwashing a filter once a day is a damn sight easier than trying to manually clean the **** out of tonnes and tonnes of media.

I'm not sure what sure what you mean by the advent of sequencing valves. I don't know why you would want to use them, and I wasn't aware that there was anything new about them.

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http://www.greenhousecanada.com/content/view/965/38/

Interesting read.

The fact that a FORD motor company plant may turn into an aquaponics plant also makes one wonder. Vermiponics is probably the way to go if you dont want fish. But if you want fish or know people that do... then aquaponics is better, hands down.

Very interesting Ravis. That study would seem to give cause for hope. Although it needs to be properly examined and then independently repeated before any real conclusions can be drawn. There's a lot of places where an experiment like this could go wrong. Was it really a world class hydroponic nutrient tailor made for the crop?. Was the optimum concentration and pH maintained at all times ?. etc. If it holds up to that sort of scrutiny then that's great news.

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I read in a hydro mag that nutrients had increased in cost by 1300% and that was a couple of years ago. And as the cost of oil goes up it might be better to put infrastructure in now. CSIRO are developing plants to be used as fish feed to replace the fish meal. Sequence valves are handy for covering more gb's with less water. I don't have that problem but still run an 8 way valve. In theory I could run all these gb's from one small ft.

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Hi,

I think that the work that people (like mornings) are doing with vermiponics (or whatever your pet name for it is) is valuable for the fact that it is an environmentally-appropriate approach to hydroponics.

Aside from the cost of hydroponic nutrients, there's the question of sustainability.........since many of them are chemical elements that are by-products of mining or oil/gas production.

Vermiponics puts control of the nutrient supply back in the hands of the backyard farmer......a good thing.

Gary

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I read in a hydro mag that nutrients had increased in cost by 1300% and that was a couple of years ago. And as the cost of oil goes up it might be better to put infrastructure in now. CSIRO are developing plants to be used as fish feed to replace the fish meal. Sequence valves are handy for covering more gb's with less water. I don't have that problem but still run an 8 way valve. In theory I could run all these gb's from one small ft.

1300% over what time period ? I'm presume your talking a reasonably short time period since it worthy of note. I also presume this doesn't apply to broad acre farming fertilizer either since I think I would have noticed the impact that would have had on my grocery bill.

If all that's true then it sounds like demand is outstripping supply a bit and the hydro-nutrients suppliers are profiteering. The market should balance out eventually.

Where did you here about this CSIRO research ? I'd be very interested in finding out more about it. Historically plant derived protein has always been a poor substitute for fish meal in food for many types of fish. If they've managed to fix that somehow then they have cracked a massive problem. Nobel prize material!

OK I understand what you mean now. Have you considered using NFT, or perhaps adding individual drip feed system to your current grow bed? Then you wouldn't need any sequencing valves.

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I think that a commercial op. should be respectful enough to the environment to grow some if not all of its fish food. this might seem cost prohibitive(more space and energy) but all the food systems would have other advantages for the plants or the fish. Paying some large company to do this for you put it in to plastic, and truck it long distances may save money, but at what cost to the planet. I think the fact that AP is an economical way to grow food should be incentive enough to persue commercially.

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I'm looking at getting into aquaponics for myself and for a profit...I'm looking at tilapia fish because I can grow my own food...I want to build something that once built...Has very little input costs...For me...Space isn't a problem...I have 320 acres...heating isn't either...I have many cheap sources...like cutting my own wood or burning straw...

My main cost at the moment is the setup...Though I will admit I am looking at this on a much larger scale...I'm looking at a greenhouse that's 48 feet by 96 feet...and thus with the right sized boiler my budget for those two items hits near the $30,000 CAD mark...

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Beelove, I doubt that the margins are large enough to go about in such an uneconomical way. Also I'm not sure what you are suggesting on using as an input but whatever it is it has to come from somewhere which is still food-miles. I guess your talking about some sought of fertilizer, in which case your probably better off (in a commercial sense) using it directly with pure hydroponics. To convert it into algae to feed to your tilapia to create fertilizer for you hydroponics just seems perverse.

I understand what your saying in general. If you can make a profit in an ethical way, it doesn't really matter that its not the maximum profit you could be making. I agree with that, however there's a definite risk that someone will come along and be prepared to accept similarly small profit margins using more economical (possibly less ethical) methods and drive you out of the market.

If I had that much land Kaduda, I think I would be looking more into extensive aquaculture. You should be able to turn a healthy profit with far less management, running costs, and capital investment.

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I'm just in the planning stages at the moment...I'm looking at building a gutter connected greenhouse for future expansion...If I can set things up right...My profits will go back into the greenhouse...

Now if only I had a pile of tomatoes ready to go...Because of the weather in Florida...Some tomatoes have doubled in price...

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Arachdog,

Tilapia will eat grass. Growth is 1/4th of the rate as it is with high protien fish feed. It is one of few fish currently known that can assimilate all essential amino acids from plant matter and still have a high growth rate. Pacu would be better and have same temp requirements, but has great difficulty breeding in captivity and requires hormonal treatment. THey also eat hen scratch , so they can be fed quite cheaply. Of course these different feeds will impact growth rates which will directly impact profits. It becomes a matter of balancing production needs with overhead. A fundamental of any manufacturing business be it food or anything else. If reports of fish stocks being depleted does indeed become a reality, then being able to grow ones own fish feed will become the profitable business.

I have to agree with your recommendation to kaduda about extensive aquaculture if fish production is the main goal. All the studies I have read on the matter show that pond raising of fish is more economical than recirculating aquaculture. He would have to pick a species other than tilapia for that though as they would not survive winter in a pond and recirculating systems is about the only way to ensure survival during that time with that species. I do rather like recirculating systems for one key reason, ease of harvesting although a pond could be drained as well.

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Hey Ravnis,

Yeah I was aware that their are some fish that will assimilate plant protein. In fact a lot of fish can have at least some of their protein requirements met by plants and still get reasonable growth. Unfortunately the fish that will accept the cheapest diet also turn out to be the cheapest fish. It's called the markup system and to be honest I've never really understood why people put up with it. But basically you pass on all your costs to the consumer plus a % markup. So the more you spend on inputs the greater your profits (within reason obviously, people probably won't be happy paying 25% markup for shredded Mona Lisa pond lining. Although if it was marketed correctly, I wouldn't rule it out :)). It's bizarre really.

Also it wouldn't surprise me, even with a low value fish like Tilapia, when you take into account interest on capital investment and all that, if it's still worth feeding them the high protein diet to get the 4 times faster growth.

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My concerns at this moment is the return upon investment...

If I dump say $50,000 CAD into this project...How long will it take to recoup the investment?

One of the reason I'm looking at Tilapia is because I can grow my own food...Once I have things up and running, I want to keep the operating costs to a minimum...

For me to spend $3000 to put hydro in...I can spend the same..maybe a bit more for solar panels and never have to worry about a hydro bill...

For heat, I can use a wood boiler....I can go on my own place and cut all the wood I need for a season...I even have the space to store the wood to season it well...Something I've been doing most of my life for my grandparents and now my dad...Plus I can "borrow" his saw mandrel...lol...

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Thats something you will have to research yourself Kaduda. Unfortunately, not to many people are willing to share profitable business plans.

I live in Western Australia, and if had $50,000 (which is almost the same amount) and the land, quality water supply, planning permission, licenses etc. Then I think I would build a couple of marron (a type of freshwater crayfish) ponds. There is an insatiable market demand for them and the price is going up. $40-$60 a kg depending on the size, and a purpose built semi-intensive pond can produce up to 4T/hectare. But I can't tell you how big a pond you can actually build for $50,000 in Canada. Or what a suitable alternative to marron might be.

In australia we department of fisheries that actually provides a lot of information about suitable species.

http://www.fish.wa.gov.au/docs/aq/aq004/index.php?0308.

There may well be a Canadian alternative.

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With my land being fairly flat...And the winter conditions here...I think that a greenhouse would be the way to go...Although I am also considering building a large dugout to water my cattle from and to stock trout in...Plus I may use it for geothermal...

I've already been talking to various forms of government...from the Department of Water Stewardship (Fisheries Branch) to Manitoba Conservation To MAFRI...

What I find funny is that I might have to do a risk assessment to see if my fish can escape into the ocean...And I'm smack dab in the middle of the country...Closet ocean for me would be about 1000 KM and it would be the Arctic Ocean...lol...

Just wondering if there has been success with having Tilapia in one tank and a crayfish (Marron) in a DWC with rafts above...

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