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!