My visit to the 2017 Putting Down Roots Aquaponics Association Conference in Portland Oregon this past weekend has me thinking about a few things...
Many of us on the 'outside' of the aquaponics industry have been wondering when (or if) this method of growing is ever going to hit the mainstream consumer market in a big way.
I had more basic questions I still didn't have fully answered - 'Was aquaponics currently viable on a small to medium scale? Is the idea of the mom and pop aquaponics shop realistic?'
Not just that, but I wanted to find PROFITABLE aquaponic businesses running for several years WITHOUT relying on farm tours for income. And by no means is this a shot at those that do tours & education, but, in order to be replicable & scalable to thousands of new farm entrepreneurs, it needs to PROVE it can work without tours/education in SOME locations first.
Over time, we (as in 'the market') will find the models that work in comparable local economies. Only then can we rinse and repeat these systems in the way all franchises do. Once a model can be proven with relative success, wider access to business loans for an aquaponic farm will become available, then boom- the industry takes off.
We got to see both a budding and an established farm in the morning, and got to learn from industry leaders during afternoon breakout sessions. Equally as interesting were the times in between sessions where everyone chatted and shared personal projects and ambitions. Several countries were represented where enthusiasts, business owners and educators involved in variety of projects all had the opportunity to learn from and network with each other.
My first thought about the conference overall is that it’s encouraging to know there are so many good people doing so many great things. There is clearly a legion of aquaponic teachers around the world that are establishing themselves as skilled mentors teaching the next generation of farmers. While the industry isn’t as far along as I would’ve hoped it would be in a commercial/mainstream sense, that’s only perhaps due to my impatience from knowing it’s potential to benefit the world.
High-quality teachers have been running aquaponics training courses for a while now and many of them were on hand (including the great Murray Hallam!). It was pretty obvious to an 'outsider' like me, everyone here is doing their bit to get aquaponics commercially thriving to the point where we can see aquaponics farms in all parts of the no matter the local economy.
This is what I was most interested in learning about at this conference, and it did not disappoint. I found examples of businesses working in aquaponics from almost every angle. Here are just a few examples:
Kaben Smallwood of Symbiotic Aquaponics might be the best example to demonstrate why it takes time to establish a solid aquaponics business in such a young industry. By repeatedly reinvesting into improving his enclosed system for the last several years, Kaben has been able to develop what has now become a very ingenious simple and scalable aquaponics system for educational or business use. Now communities all over Oklahoma are now participating in the benefits from his years of tinkering.
Traveling from Canada was Christopher Hatch of the Mississauga Food Bank where, nestled inside the warehouse, is AquaGrow Farms, a 500 square foot urban aquaponic farm. This awesome organization provides food for over 244,000 meals each month through a network of 48 member agencies. Aquaponics doesn’t need to be 100% of the equation, but it can certainly be part of it. Christopher, the leader of this organization, wouldn't consider himself a ‘farmer’, but what he is able to do, in part by using aquaponics, has allowed him to leverage funding in ways that will have a positive impact on the aquaponics industry and his community far beyond the food bank.
Then there’s Ryan Chatterson of Chatterson Farms, who seems to have nailed the aquaponics business model in his economically stable area and is now scaling it appropriately to his big thinking and big restaurant base outside of the Orlando area. As well as having proven an almost immediate success in his own locality, he’s spent the last few years helping other aquaponics farmers around the world get established using his proven system. When one successful business can be replicated into another, this industry can take one giant step towards standardization, making business loans more accessible.
One last example is Tanya Sawyer of Colorado Aquaponics, who has been building an aquaponics business in a food desert in Denver, CO for several years now. In her presentation, she talked about The Growhaus , which has become the model example of how to make aquaponics work, even in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the United States.
Different locations require their own types of relationships and partners. The Growhaus works with the local community in about a hundred different ways, such as utilizing community grants and volunteers. Tayna’s client base is way different than Ryan’s so she is here showing and telling everyone how it’s done and how to make it work in even some of the toughest situations. My first real look at an aquaponics business was several years ago at Tanya & JD Sawyers training, which was eye-opening, to say the least. Seeing that as the only example at the time, it felt too risky for me to go commercial and I went a different direction.
Aquaponic farmers and business owners are surviving and thriving in all sorts of ways, and the attendees at this conference highlighted and proved that. The growth and acceptance of this industry will come from these leaders teaching farmers the right way to grow aquaponics commercially. One of the few things that was unanimous at this conference was the desire to get the best quality information in front of the next generation. I'll include myself too and I say 'we' want to bury all of those old whacky ideas tossed around on YouTube videos that have been the source of the inevitable death of too many aquaponic farms.
I left this conference fully convinced that if you’re willing to learn from those who’ve already done it successfully and put in tons of hard work, an aquaponic farm is absolutely viable. I can't friggin wait until we replace all these unhealthy fast food joints with walk-through aquaponic farms with a food truck (or something like that....).
The highlight of the event, in my mind, was a panel led by Lyf Gildersleeve of Flying Fish Company and Andre Uribe, Executive Chef at Bon Appetit and Willamette University. In addition to the few things already discussed, They shared a few of these tips to help commercial aquaponic growers:
It’s never been ‘easier’ to start an aquaponics business than it is now. Not to say it’s easy, because it’s not, BUT at least now we have proven systems you can learn from. It’s obvious to everyone in the industry that the biggest failures come from those who haven’t taken the time to learn from others that have done it before. YouTube learning does not count here. If you’re not willing to invest $1000-$5000 to educate yourself via on farm-trainings and direct consulting, you definitely shouldn’t start an aquaponics business. In fact, that principle applies to MOST serious business endeavors.
Businesses everywhere are being built on providing an ever deeper array of niche products. Aquaponics is perfect to meet this desire. From a unique way to source fish, grow tomatoes, cannabis or specialty herbs, the possibilities are endless. Why try and compete with everyone else for the same product? Aquaponics allows you to market an endless variety of products, standing apart from your competition.
Aquaponics is unique and you are unique. We can connect with customers in ways that large corporations will never be able to match. By connecting with your customers with an authentic human experience, you’ll be engaging in a relationship that won’t have the price as the most important concern. This applies to all businesses but it’s especially true for farmers - the relationships you build with those such as chefs or CSA customers are absolutely critical to your business.
This is highly important and perhaps not discussed enough, even though it seems obvious. Your. Local. Market. Matters. It really should determine the rest of your approach before you spend a dime. Know your market BEFORE you start an aquaponics business. What works for Ryan Chatterson is not what would work for Tanya Sawyer because their markets are completely different. Understand that first, and plan the rest around what’s possible within the limitations (or possibilities) in your particular market. Clearly, aquaponics can work anywhere, so it’s not really about whether aquaponics is viable, it’s about strategy and execution.
I think most commercial aquaponic farmers will agree with the following advice:
You've got a real opportunity here, but, start small and learn first. Your first batch of fish will have a premature death. Only once you're dialed in on your home system should you even consider thinking you're ready to go commercial. Even with that, it's crucial to leverage the skills and systems from those who've done it successfully. Don't reinvent the wheel. There will be time to tinker & experiment, but that should be so far secondary to a proven model when starting out.
There are many more topics I touched on that we will explore perhaps in a later post. For now, it feels good to know the industry is being led by many great people doing many amazing things.
Till next time...
Founder, Bootstrap Farmer