I'm going to bump this thread because I'm new to the forums and commercial aquaponics is what I do. In the couple of years that has passed since this forum opened up there are more and more aquaponic farms, aquaponics receives more and more press, and there are more and more training courses to take. I will say this about the Friendly model: it works for us. We are operating 3 aquaponics hoop houses and a fourth using the fish water to feed tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and a few fruit trees. Exactly how much we make off them is a matter of confidentiality but I will tell you in no uncertain terms that it is viable and profitable.
A recent post about scale and local market conditions is by and large correct. Our farm is in central Texas but our main markets are in Dallas and Austin. It's not we grow too much or that we're in an area with a lot of competition (central Texas is not known for veggies, that's south Texas). The problem is that most rural people don't care about buying USDA organic, near-organic, quasi-organic, beyond-organic, local, living greens and lettuce. The best customers for this are educated, urban, health-conscious people. They generally live in cities. We are a 2-3 hour drive from our best customers. Knowing your local market is absolutely essential. But it's not true that it's the most important thing. It's one of the (equally) most important things. Along with a few others.
Commercial aquaponics can be successful but aside from the obvious skills such as business planning, marketing, agricultural experience, and the technical skills to build, understand, and troubleshoot an aquaponics system you need a few other things. The first is good people: Your business will fail without competent and conscientious people working for you. It's not possible to do everything yourself unless you are both of extremely fit and have no family or personal life to speak of. It will take up a lot of your time to do the routine work, the troubleshooting and problem-solving will take up a bit more time, and unless you have 8 arms, harvesting will be a serious pain alone. If you live in a location, like Texas, where the sun in September is so hot that your lettuce wilts by 10 in the morning - you'll never be able to harvest 1,500 heads alone, even if you start at dawn. You need good help.
You have to be able to adapt to change very quickly too. A sudden drop in temperature overnight could kill your fish. Do you have a plan if the electricity fails and your pumps stop working? Can you make critical repairs quickly? Some of your ability to adapt to change and unpredictable events depends on the First, Good People. If you're out buying supplies two hours away or doing a consultation or at your daughter's soccer game, Who is going to save your fish from dying or fix your blowers? Knowing how to be flexible and having flexible plans and backups is crucial.
That said, I'll put it out there that a viable commercial business can be created from as little as a $35,000 investment. Obviously this depends on location - for the cost of materials, utilities, available labor, distance to market. But these are questions that any right-thinking entrepreneur can and will be able to answer quickly. So I acknowledge that local market understanding is essential but I would even suggest that it's rather obvious that it is essential. Market research is essential for any business strategy. Without it, you don't even have a plan let alone a strategy.
Here in central Texas there are several aquaponics farms in business. Our main problem in the summer is heat. Our main problem in the winter is the short days from the beginning of December to the beginning of January. We have had other problems: mice, fire ants, actual fires, a cold spell this year, very costly errors in seeding, varieties that didn't take well, punctures and leaks, you name it. There is almost always something that isn't quite right if not downright wrong. When your system is going perfectly, you'll see leaves of green turn to leaves of money. But often there's just something wrong. Sometimes you won't even be able to figure it out. It's a constant battle, like any farming business, with everything nature is throwing at you. To sum it up: You need a bit of luck and intuition. Sometimes the right answer, or the right solution, to a problem was one you came across by chance or by gut feeling. But for the most part, sticking to a system, like a good poker player, is key. Understanding the odds against you is the other side of the coin, ie, the wisdom to understand the difference between what you can change and what you can't.
It's true that a successful commercial aquaponics business is difficult and not for most people. I can say with certainty that it works for me and that I wouldn't be able to do it without training through Friendly. Even if Friendly isn't the system one decides to choose, whatever you choose - choose it and stick with it. Take the lead from people who have succeeded. Emulate success. Chances are if someone fails it's because they deviated too far or they ignored their training or they arrogantly thought they'd solved a problem over night that many, many others have thought long and hard about for years.
It's also important for would-be commercial aquaponics producers to face facts: if you have no business experience, no agriculture or aquaculture experience, and couldn't, in your younger days at least, build a greenhouse yourself, this probably isn't for you. But say you do have business experience, you have unused and otherwise unproductive land, and you have rural or agricultural experience and contacts under your belt, then commercial aquaponics could work if you can hire some good people and have good leads on supplies and contractors to help you out. Like any start-up business, you have to know when to change course, when to persevere, and when to give up on your dream and move on to something else.
I'd be very happy to point amateurs in the right direction toward commercial aquaponics or toward economizing your home or backyard system so that it functions more efficiently, like a commercial system. I can debate the pros and cons of various systems but rafts, UVI, and the use most particularly of the Friendly system is what I know best. I can also answer specific questions if I know the answer or can look it up for you. Without this sounding like an ad, which one of my other posts did, I recommend to would-be commercial aquaponics producers: if you're serious about it, fork over the money for really good training from people who are in the business. This, that, and the other system or method promises results and DIY kits are everywhere but there's no replacement for training from someone who makes a living off aquaponics. Friendly was making a living off aquaponics alone before they got in to training programs. Beware of people who are just trying to sell equipment to you! If you're already considering putting up the $25 to over $100k for a commercial setup, do yourself a favor and spend $1500 or so for a real aquaponics course.
Lastly: Reading forums will take you a long way, though, and this one is a good place to start.