Commercial Aquaponics Failures
First, if you’re interested in starting a commercial aquaponics operation, the most important thing you should know is this: one person can easily run 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of aquaponics system, performing all the tasks required: planting, transplanting, harvesting, feeding fish, cleaning and replanting rafts, weedwhacking around the perimeter, performing regular required maintenance, packing and transporting your produce, including delivering to your wholesalers or selling at Farmer’s Markets, in a total of 40 hours a week.
Second: each 2,500 square feet of aquaponics system requires 4,000 square feet of greenhouse (or more) to house it. Anyone who tells you that you can make a full-time living with 600 square feet of aquaponics or a 20-foot by 40-foot greenhouse is pulling your leg.
Having said that, a smaller system like the 600 square foot system just referred to is a great way to get started in commercial aquaponics. With a small, relatively inexpensive system this size, you can do your due diligence and gain experience and confidence while making some money, and without taking too big a risk. As you build your knowledge, experience, and confidence, you can then develop a commercial AP venture that will give you a full-time income, because you have eliminated as much of the uncertainty from the equation as possible.
Our point is that when you do take the plunge and invest thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in an aquaponics venture designed to support you and your family, you want to have all your ducks in a row. Starting a commercial AP venture at a small size gets the ducks lined up beautifully, and gives you lots of opportunities to adjust focus and direction as necessary to succeed.
Third: commercial aquaponics is a business. To be successful, you need business experience, or need to involve someone who has it. Getting all excited and carried away by the newness and coolness of aquaponics does not guarantee success; hard-headed business decisions based on experience and knowledge do.
A lot of aquaponics newcomers who lack business experience see their vegetables growing and fish eating, and believe that’s all that’s necessary: they don’t realize they’re slowly circling the drain. Some of the better-funded ones don’t even realize this until their second or third round of investors, because they’ve still got money in the bank; and they’re sure it will be profitable soon. Because there are no economic models for aquaponics yet, as there are for other businesses, the investors often get taken in by the excitement and hype too, until in the second or third year they realize they’ve funded a business that is set up to lose money and they bail out.
Here’s an example of this phenomenon: we used the UVI (University of the Virgin Islands) system for a year after we took their course in 2007, and at the end of that year (because we kept good records) we realized that we’d grown 6,000 pounds of fish. Good, right? No, not good: we had a $2/pound loss on each and every pound; we lost $12,000 our first year just on the fish because we got carried away by the romance of “growing lots of fish”, had learned our technology from an institution that had no requirement of turning a profit on the aquaponics, and hadn’t realized the economic realities of the situation.
Ever since, we’ve focused on keeping costs and labor expenses low and profits as high as possible; and this theme runs through all our courses, materials, and all of the technology we’ve developed. We’re the only ones we’re aware of who can show (and are willing to show), that our commercial aquaponics technology and students are profitable.
Because you’re careful and intelligent, we would be surprised if you did not check all the following resources to verify what we just said:
Here are our profitable students who are using our designs and operating technology: Click here for a list of 20 of our students who are successful in commercial aquaponics, and Click here for a more in-depth look at five of our successful students..
Several examples of how people often approach commercial aquaponics are in this PowerPoint slideshow (click here to download to your computer): it’s called “Aquaponics Failures” and details the failures of several commercial aquaponic startups who lost from $350,000 to $13,500,000. You too can fail just like this, if you don’t do careful enough research, try out your ideas at a small scale first to make sure they’re profitable, or rely on consultants and advisors who really don’t know what they’re talking about.
Our advice? Don’t be in a hurry to throw your money away. All of these failures could have tested out their “great ideas” thoroughly for less than $10,000 in a pilot project, and realized they lost money in the real world. Or, they could simply click here to download and fill in our “Single Crop Projection Tool V1.1.xlsx” spreadsheet with their local expense and income numbers, and find out they also lost money on paper, without even spending the $10,000! (Click here for the instructions for this spreadsheet).
Instead, they were in a hurry to make the big bucks that the salesmen, consultants, and dreamers promised them, and they used technology that had not been proven to be profitable. Two of these hopefuls lost everything: their savings, their houses, and were forced into bankruptcy; a third is still in litigation initiated by the investors. There are more coming down the road, for as P. T. Barnum said: “There’s a sucker born every minute”.
The critical thing to understand here is the phrase “technology that had not been proven to be profitable”; because all these technologies grew beautiful fish and vegetables, they simply could not turn a profit doing so.
They looked great in the greenhouse, but they looked horrible on paper. The moral of this story? Don’t be a sucker for a good-looking aquaponics system or greenhouse!