Three Things to Know When Developing an Aquaponics Project

Fourth Economy recently completed a feasibility study for an aquaponics facility designed to provide fresh produce and fish in a food desert. Through our work with programs like Invest Health, we know that there are many communities out there interested in similar projects. If that sounds like you, here are three things to know.

Because the world of community and economic development is so broad, our team supports organizations that are addressing a myriad of challenges and opportunities: reforming vacant land policies; growing emerging industries like ed tech; coordinating workforce development systemsthe list goes on! This year, we had the opportunity to support a community trying to develop an aquaponics facility to provide fresh produce and protein in a food desert. Through our work with programs like Invest Health, we know that there are many communities out there interested in similar projects. Based on our feasibility study, here are three things you should know:

Know Your Fish

There are real limitations in a commercial aquaponics facility’s ability to operate without incurring a net loss on the fish-rearing portion of the facility. Despite the cost savings represented by the considerable water conservation benefit, at the core of this issue is a low share of fixed costs relative to variable costs, which limits opportunities for economies of scale. In other words, producers in many industries can save money at higher volumes because the fixed costs (e.g. facilities, utilities, and equipment) are high but the actual cost of producing one additional units (i.e., more fish) are low. Unfortunately, in a commercial aquaponics facility, the cost of producing one more pound of food is high. The fish, feed, growing medium, staff time, and supplies needed for growing and transporting the food all influence the cost of production. Fish need to be checked on often, pH levels need to be balanced, fish needs to stay cold on its way to market, and water needs to be drained often enough to ensure the roots can get oxygen during growth. Managing these systems requires serious expertise.

Among fish raised in commercial aquaponics facilities, tilapia are by far the most common and highest revenue-producing choice because they can be harvested more frequently and are not as sensitive to their conditions as many other fish, including catfish and bass.

Know Your Community

Of course you know this already! But it’s tough to make these projects work, and the more you can do to engage your community and partner with other organizations and initiatives, the easier it will be. Are there other underutilized commercial kitchens you can use for processing? What products are doing well at farmer’s markets, and what is in short supply? Are there community or education organizations that could provide volunteers? Who else is using an aquaponics system, and how can you complement and learn from them? These questions should be asked early in the feasibility process, and potential partners should be engaged to help ensure the success of your project.

Know Your Buyers

If you want to sell to grocery stores, schools, or other commercial or institutional buyers, there are a number of considerations. The following is true of most, but not all, buyers:

  • You must be GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified.
  • The fish must be butchered; this requires special facilities and perhaps adherence to additional codes and regulations.
  • You must adhere to specific packaging and delivery requirements (for example, will you need access to refrigerated trucks?).
  • You must have liability insurance.

The good thing is that there are often resources to support new producers. Food hubs, Agricultural Extension offices, and increasingly-specialized incubators (like this one!) often provide training and technical assistance.

Despite the financial and operational challenges associated with aquaponics, these systems continue to gain popularity due to their ability to transform underutilized spaces into production sites for fresh food, spurring community and economic development. Hopefully considering these variables will ensure that your aquaponics project is a success!

Tax-rolls, Triple Bottom Line, and Trust: Thoughts on Inclusive Growth from Detroit

burket-092016Last month, I attended the NeighborWorks Training Institute in Detroit, which featured a daylong symposium on inclusive growth. Inclusive growth was defined broadly as growing the economy while simultaneously decreasing income inequality. As RW Ventures put it, decreasing income inequality in and of itself is a worthy economic goal – people are assets, and poverty is expensive; therefore, investing in programs and reforms that increase access to good jobs for people with barriers to employment should be a central goal of our economic development efforts. While a major finding of the symposium was that we don’t yet have many good examples of how this can be done, there was no shortage of food for thought. Continue reading “Tax-rolls, Triple Bottom Line, and Trust: Thoughts on Inclusive Growth from Detroit”

Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana

IndianaBlogImageOn Tuesday, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) announced $126 million in state matching funds to support three regions in pursuing their visions for growth. The Regional Cities Initiative was developed based on a study of regions that have experienced transformational growth, performed last year by Fourth Economy, and is being funded by a tax amnesty program. Tuesday’s announcement was the culmination of months of planning on the part of Indiana’s regions, and Fourth Economy was fortunate enough to facilitate and advise on the strategy for two of the winning regions in those efforts – Northeast Indiana (home to Fort Wayne) and Michiana (home to South Bend). Here are a few lessons learned from our work helping multi-county, cross-sector partnerships identify and prioritize quality-of-life investments meant to attract and retain population.
Continue reading “Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana”

Education Innovation

Remake-LearningI think that few among our readers would argue that fostering an innovative K-12 education ecosystem plays a critical role in economic development. Employers and economic development officials from any industry will tell you that the critical skills for a modern workforce begin at the K-12 level. They will also tell you that attracting and retaining their current workforce means creating a community in which employees want to live, and education is a major factor in creating livable communities. However, influencing K-12 education to ensure that it’s creating an intelligent and creative next generation workforce often feels like an overwhelming challenge given the systemic barriers. Continue reading “Education Innovation”

Increasing the Economic Impact of Trails

Economic-Impact-Trails

Across the country, communities are beginning to understand the economic value of developing trails. Though trail advocates and economic development organizations still often speak different languages, they are beginning to speak a shared language of talent attraction, tourism, and business development.

Different types of trails offer different economic opportunities. Continue reading “Increasing the Economic Impact of Trails”

Preparing your Local Economy for Climate Change

Climate-Change-&-Economic-DevelopmentMany state governments have devoted a great deal of resources over the past decade to mitigating and responding to climate change through energy and urban planning related efforts. Planners and energy experts are fluent in the language of sustainability, adaptation, resiliency, and mitigation. But ask an economic development official what climate change means to them and it’s possible that they can barely utter the word. Many in the business community have feared that climate change will simply mean more costly equipment upgrades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In too many communities, time is still spent debating the veracity of climate science instead of recognizing the impacts already occurring. Economic development officials have a responsibility to help businesses understand the greater implications of climate change – how they can protect themselves from the effects of climate change; how they could develop new products or services in response to climate change; and how they should prepare themselves to recover from climate-related events. Continue reading “Preparing your Local Economy for Climate Change”

Economic Development: What I Didn’t Learn in Planning School

131114-Teaching-PlanningI received my Master’s in Urban Planning with a focus on Community Development. I learned a lot about how to design “great places” as the American Planning Association calls them. Characteristics of a Great Neighborhood include… Continue reading “Economic Development: What I Didn’t Learn in Planning School”

Witnessing Collaboration Across the Nation

131022-Regional-CollaborationRight now, Fourth Economy is fortunate enough to be working in two communities on private sector-led regional economic development. The first is a group of self-organized group of private sector and higher education leader in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota (the major metropolitan areas are Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks).  This group known as the Valley Prosperity Partnership is looking in to identify regional economic security interests and leverage the booming energy economy in Western North Dakota. The second community involves a group of private sector stakeholders convened by the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and the Rhode Island Foundation to inform both the Statewide Sustainable Communities planning and the work of the sponsoring organizations. Continue reading “Witnessing Collaboration Across the Nation”

Sustainable Communities in the Fourth Economy

Integrated-Economic-DevelopmentEconomic development has traditionally been a tool for relatively well-off communities to improve their lot by attracting new jobs and increasing their tax base. Relatively well-off, that is, compared to low-income communities of color, and in particular, urban communities. For them, community development has been the primarily tool, working primarily through real estate development and social service programs. However, it turns out that real estate and social service programs have not sufficiently improved the lot of many of the poorest neighborhoods. In fact, one in six Americans now lives in poverty, the highest in half a century. Furthermore, it turns out that all communities, regardless of class or color, need more than just jobs. Therefore, at Fourth Economy, we are interested in continually pushing for a more integrated approach to community and economic development. Continue reading “Sustainable Communities in the Fourth Economy”

Using Data to Make Smarter Transportation Systems (and Happier People)

I’ll be honest; the transportation system in Pittsburgh is one of my least favorite things about this city. If I drive to work, I begin and end my day in a state of stress and frustration from sitting in traffic and yelling at signals. If I take the bus, I have to have exact cash and, like this morning, have to stand in the pouring rain waiting – who knows how long? My guess is that you may feel the same about your city, wherever that may be. However, it turns out it doesn’t have to be that way! Continue reading “Using Data to Make Smarter Transportation Systems (and Happier People)”