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Friendly Aquaponics
Special Newsletter

Number 20
May 17th,  2013
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm

Aloha Friend,


We regularly get questions about using a combination of media beds and deepwater rafts. We decided to put the answer in a special newsletter so everyone with the same question has access to good advice. (email inquiry to Friendly Aquaponics follows, I’ve numbered the questions to make reading this reply a bit easier:)



1. I’m thinking of starting a commercial aquaponics farm using a combination of media beds and deepwater rafts. What is your opinion of this?


2. Also, I’d like to know what varieties of plants I can grow in my aquaponics system to make money from.

Any help you can give would be great.

Here is our reply:

Thanks for your question, it’s a good one. Here are our suggestions:

1. In our opinion, the best systems are deep water raft systems with the vegetable troughs located right on the ground, for the following reasons:

A. They are less expensive to build by a factor of three to four than media-based flood and drain systems. You don't need to build sturdy (and thus expensive!) raised tables or fill them with Hydroton or other expensive media. Deep water raft systems are cheap because the supporting structure (the ground) is cheap, and they are filled with water (instead of Hydroton), which is quite affordable.

B. Raft systems have far lower labor costs to operate than raised media-based systems, because you can remove entire rafts from the vegetable troughs to harvest and replant them at waist height on sawhorses or other supports at a convenient central “harvesting facility”. This is the reason that these troughs don’t need to be at waist level; the rafts are easily moved, even when full of vegetables, and this is a huge labor savings.


Here’s how it works: the lightweight newly replanted rafts go into the troughs at the far end from where you harvest. Now, every time you harvest and remove rafts from the "harvest" end of the troughs, the remaining rafts float down towards the harvest end of the troughs, so that when they're mature they are as close as possible to where you are doing the harvesting process. This way, you don't have to walk to the vegetables to harvest them, they float to you.

We experimented with small media bed systems for a year and a half before determining they had no advantages for commercial growers. But then we had an experience that made us realize how huge their drawbacks were; and it allowed us to actually put a number on them. Here’s what happened:


We were all having breakfast one day when we noticed one of our interns sitting at the far end of the table and crying. So of course, we asked: “Mark, are you OK?”. Mark looked up and said: “Yes; these are tears of joy!”. Mark had only been on the farm for three days, planting and harvesting into and out of our systems, when the breakfast table incident happened.


We were puzzled, of course, so we bugged him until he gave us the explanation: He and his brother had been planning to invest $200,000 of their own money into a commercial media-bed aquaponics system, based on systems he used. Mark had run his own small media systems for almost two years. He had even made some significant improvements to them over the standard “Murray Hallam-type” flood and drain type media bed systems; they were as good as media bed systems get.


But even with those improvements, the performance of his systems still fell far short of what he’d experienced with our deepwater raft systems. Here’s how Mark explained it: “I timed how long it took to harvest a bunch of lettuce the other day, then the next day I timed how long it took to plant them. I averaged the times out, and came out with 10 to 15 seconds, total time, to both plant and harvest a lettuce plant in your systems.


The same process in my system could take from a minute and a half to two and a half minutes. This is because instead of just cutting the lettuce off the raft and plunking it into the chill bath, I had to pull it out of the Hydroton, then clean as many of the lettuce roots out of the Hydroton as I could, then put it in a basket, then take it over to the sink to chill it.

I also had to clean the Hydroton some more before replanting, then had to dig a hole in the Hydroton to hold the sprouted rockwool cube that held the baby lettuce plant to sit in. This is all a lot of work!


With a system the size of yours, where you harvest 5,000 plants per week, this would have meant an additional 110 to 160 hours of labor a week, that I would have had to pay for on my farm!”


Mark went on to compare the cost per square foot of our troughs (including rafts) to what he knew his system cost, and told us that his system cost four times as much!

So, simply by using deep water raft systems, Mark would have 110 to 160 hours less labor costs than if he used media bed systems. This might not seem like much (unless you’ve been an employer in the past), but read on.


An additional problem for a commercial aquaponics farm growing in media beds is the fact that your worker will be cutting warm lettuce into a basket a couple of hundred feet from your processing facility. This is because the lettuce in the media beds doesn't "come to the processing facility" the way lettuce in rafts floats down to the end of a 100-foot long deep water trough.

This means two things for the farmer: one, when harvesting lettuce in a media bed system, your worker can't put more than three or four pounds of lettuce into a basket or container without the lettuce on top damaging the quality of the lettuce on the bottom, so the worker has to make frequent trips from the harvesting area to processing. So your labor costs are increased here as compared to a deepwater raft system, where the lettuce comes to the harvesting area alive and with roots intact.

Secondly, even if the worker makes frequent trips with small amounts of lettuce (that cost you more money), you may still end up with lower quality lettuce than that which comes from a deepwater raft system. Because of the longer distance and time between the harvest area and the processing area in large media bed systems, your lettuce is warmer for much longer. It will decrease in quality because of this time spent warming up, and no one can predict exactly how much. On a hot day, you may experience both of these; increased labor costs AND reduced quality.


There’s another concern that makes all of these pale by comparison: the cost per square foot of media bed systems. When we compare the cost of both materials and labor, a waist-high supported media bed system costs about four times as much as a deepwater raft system supported on the ground. For Mark, this meant that his $200,000 would only buy the same area of media bed system that $50,000 would buy of deepwater raft system. Starting out a new business with this kind of built-in inefficiency can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

These are serious concerns for a commercial aquaponics venture. If you have a small system, using media simply means you will be working a little more for your food, so it is not a huge concern. But we've got a large commercial aquaponics farm: we'd rather have every possible minute available to spend with our kids.

C. We noticed that the water temperature in our flood and drain media based test system was running several degrees warmer than the similarly-sized deepwater raft system right next to it. Why? Every time the media bed "drained", warm ambient air was brought down in between the media spaces, where it warmed the media up. The next time the bed flooded, the heat the media had absorbed from the warm air was transmitted immediately to the system water.

Depending on how much water your media-based system has in it, and how much of your media area is exposed to warm air during flood and drain cycles, this could mean higher system water temperatures that result in poorer growth, less healthy plants, lower yields, or all of the above. In an extreme case it might mean that a system has to be shut down or be artificially cooled in really hot weather if the water heats up too much.

You also get the opposite effect in cold weather: the media bed will get cooled by the cold ambient air, sometimes to the point where the water gets so cold that it kills the fish in the system. We had this happen to a Maui friend, and the air temperature only got down to around 55 degrees at that  location. Imagine what could happen to a media bed system in a mainland location with colder temperatures.

D. The deepwater troughs in our systems allow you to grow freshwater prawns for an additional income from the system. This is impossible to do in media-based systems."


2. The most profitable plants will be very specific to your locale. Not only do different plants grow differently in different locations and climates, but "profitable" also depends on what is worth the most in your market. It takes two steps to determine "what plants are the most profitable"; the first step is to do a test grow in your aquaponics system. This will give you information on what grows well and what doesn't, in your area.

The second step is to test-market your vegetables from your test grow, in your area. This is something you need to research personally,  for we don't have information on vegetable sales prices for your area. You may get better than standard prices for your produce, for you will find that aquaponic produce is generally much higher quality, with better taste and longer shelf life than its soil-grown counterparts, which brings premium prices for it.

If you email us and request it, we'll be happy to send you our latest "Planting Trials Results". This is a section right out of our DIY manuals that gives planting densities, success rates, what did and didn't grow well in our location, and much more. This should help you choose what to test first in your "test grow".

We hope this has been useful to you. If you have any additional questions you would like us to answer in the newsletter,
please email them to Tim.

With our Aloha, Tim and Susanne

2013 Training Schedule:

3 One-Day Benefit Trainings:

One-day Micro System and TableTop System Benefit Trainings taught in person by Susanne and Tim at the following locations and dates:

Oakland, California, Sunday May 26th: To benefit Planting Justice, an Oakland non-profit dedicated to teaching inner-city residents how to grow their own food.
Register on this page. Cost: $100

Orlando, Florida, Saturday June 1st: To benefit Feed Hunger Now, an Orlando non-profit dedicated to "feeding the villages" in rural India. Register on this page. Cost: $100

New York; Saturday, June 8th: To benefit The Point, a Bronx non-profit teaching inner-city residents how to grow their own food. Register on this page. Cost: $100

5-Day Commercial Trainings:

New York Commercial Training; June 10-14 (Monday thru Friday)
, the 5-day Commercial Aquaponics and Energy Efficient Greenhouse Training, $1,495 per person (we extended this special $1,000 off discount until the course date).
Click here to register for the New York Training!

Click here to find out more about the New York Training!

Commercial Aquaponics and Energy Efficient Greenhouse Training, $1,495 per person (we extended this special $1,000 off discount until the course date). First 5-day  training: June 17-21st (register here for first Tennessee training). Second 5-day training: June 24-28th (register here for Tennessee second training).

(Click here for more information on Tennessee trainings).

These five-day trainings allow you to travel during the weekend so that you only need to take a week off your busy life to attend.

All of these five-day trainings include our $999 DIY Commercial Aquaponics package, $998 DIY Farmer's Market Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse package, $1,998 DIY Commercial Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse package, and new $295 DIY Commercial Tilapia Hatchery manual as course materials, plus our Plywood/Epoxy/ Tank manual, CAD construction drawings for all greenhouses and aquaponics systems, and much more!

If you're located near Tennessee, Randy and Katie give regular free farm tours of their aquaponics systems and greenhouses to introduce the public to the benefits of aquaponics and energy-efficient greenhouse growing. Call Randy and Katie at 256-679-9488 or email Randy to find out when the next farm tour is scheduled.

More details of the Aquaponics Technology course here.

More details of the Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse course here.

More details of the Commercial Aquaponics course here.

For smaller home backyard and apartment systems, please read on:
The photo below is our Second Generation Solar Greenhouse, at ten in the morning in the Tennessee winter. It's growing plants inside right now, and you have to take your jacket off because it's so warm! It's cool when it's hot, and warm when it's cold (hope that makes sense to you, it's the best greenhouse we've ever seen!).

GreenhouseSnow3Small 2

Watch The Friendly  Aquaponics Intro Video!
Back Issues Of Newsletters Now Available, Click Here!
Purchase Trough Liner Directly From Manufacturer!

New Source! Trout Fry/Fingerlings Shipped Directly From the Hatchery To You!

Free Farm Tours
Aquaponics tour at the Friendly farm!

We hold a free workshop on our farm the FIRST Saturday of every month at 10:00,  focused on growing food with aquaponics and permaculture.  Click here for information. See you there!

If you are a school, a non-profit organization, an organization working with the poor, Native Hawaiians, or ex-inmates, or if you are a church, we will hold a free farm tour for you anytime. You DO need to email us first to schedule, or we might be out on errands!


Thousands of inch-long "fifty-cent" baby tilapia from our "backyard" hatchery


What they turn into about a year later: a beautiful 2-pound white tilapia grown in the fish tanks of our aquaponics systems

Sign up for New York!

Sign up for the New York June 10-14th, 2013 Commercial Aquaponics and Solar Greenhouse Training
NOW, and get a $1,000 discount, plus you receive a free Micro System DIY package so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)


Sign yourself up for the FIRST

Or sign yourself up for the SECOND

TENNESSEE June 2013 Commercial Aquaponics and Solar Greenhouse Trainings
NOW, and get a $1,000 discount, plus you receive a free Micro System DIY package so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)

The Politics Of Aquaponics:

We're going to step into fuzzy new territory today. We're not going to talk about religion (Heaven forbid!); we're not going to talk about sex (this is a Family newsletter!). But we are going to talk about politics!


The Politics Of Aquaponics:


No one thinks about politics when they first get interested in aquaponics (you're thinking fish and vegetables, right?), but you'll get bushwhacked by it pretty quick as soon as you spend a little time on one of the forums or chat groups; or if you purchase a hugely-marked-up "kit" aquaponics system from one of the kit sellers.


The biggest problem with aquaponics is that it isn't common knowledge yet, and as a result, most people can't tell the difference between nonsense and good technology.

For example: universities commonly have departments that teach technical subjects to the students, and offer them doctorates in those subjects. Some common subjects taught at the university level are math, engineering, and physics.

TBMK, there are no PhD’s in aquaponics yet, and no university departments of aquaponics. There are plenty of departments of engineering, math, or physics, because these are areas where a lot of knowledge exists; no one can come along and claim to know something in one of those subjects unless they really do.


But aquaponics is relatively new: it's not like a washing machine or a car; we've had those around for so long that even people who don't know anything can still buy a  washing machine or a decent car without getting cheated. Here's an example to make this clearer:


Imagine you just heard about something called a "car"; then found out you can buy one for only $25,795 from a "car consultant". You are so excited you write a check immediately!

You don't even think twice about your new car having solid rubber wheels, only one speed (forward, no reverse!), no top (so you’re out in the weather all the time, take an umbrella!), or a hand cranked engine instead of an electric starter motor, because you didn't know anything about cars yet, and the guy who sold it to you told you it was "state of the art".


Imagine (at the same time) that your consultant knew about a second “car”  that also sells for $25,795, but which has a nice suspension, automatic transmission, power steering, brakes, and windows, air conditioning, electric starter motor, and a solid top (known in “car” circles as a “coupe”). This car  seats five adults, is comfortable and easy to drive, and even has a huge trunk for carrying stuff.


Ethical people might change their line of work (or even start selling the second type of car instead); but unfortunately many involved in aquaponics are not ethical. What they do instead is tell you how inadequate that "other" car is; how the supplier's claims are misleading, and how their car is based on many years of experience in the business.


That's true, it is. It's based on many years of selling primitive systems (similar to our “car” example above) to people who can't make an informed decision about the quality and value of what they're buying because they don't know anything about aquaponics yet.

This is why we say: "The politics of aquaponics is about people trying to sell you nonsense at a 500% markup".


This is a fairly accurate snapshot of the current situation in aquaponics: there are lots of self-proclaimed “experts” who have never done much with aquaponics but who all sound as if they have. And where the politics come in is when these “experts” start talking others down so they can sell more of their stuff.


We do our best to simply tell the truth. We don’t have time to chase down all the liars and cheats in this new business, even if we wanted to; we figure you will do your own careful and thorough due diligence before selecting a course to go to or a system technology to use. After all, it’s your money you’ll be spending.

Aloha, Tim.....

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This email, our manuals and construction plans are all copyrighted by  Friendly Aquaponics, Inc, Susanne Friend and Tim Mann, 2008-2013

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Honoka'a, Hawaii 96727

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