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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 39
June 2nd,  2011
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,
 
This newsletter is from Susanne, with some contributions from Tim. We are no longer selling to Costco (which we'll explain in the "Farmily" column in today's newsletter) and are in the process of replanting all three of our commercial systems into a variety of crops. I (Susanne) will have hard data to share with our friends on what we will earn from a CSA (community supported agriculture) in about a year. But there's a question that comes up so often we decided we needed to take the time to write a good explanation for this quite nebulous area first.

Susanne's take on this question (and the question itself) follows:
"How much money can I make from my Aquaponics System?". That's a lot like asking "how high is up?", but I wanted to give a better answer than that, so here goes.

The most salient factor in answering this question is the amount of food you can get from every unit of growing area (pounds per sq ft, kilos per sq meter, whatever), per unit of time. Lettuce cycles in our Hawaii systems in five weeks in the winter, or four weeks in the summer. Each plant also spends two weeks in the sprouting table before it goes into the system.

For most of this last year, each hole in our farm's systems produced 10.4 heads of lettuce per year. If each lettuce weighs .12 lb (we harvest them rather small, and average about 4 pounds from a 2-foot by 4-foot raft with 32 holes), then in one year, each hole produces a total of 1.25#. We were earning $5.92 from Costco per pound, so at this production level, each hole in the system would be worth $7.40 per year. And in normal operation we would have had 18,000 holes in operation producing a total of 22,500 pounds of lettuce, for a total of $133,200 per year.

Wait a minute, she said "in normal operation we would have had....."? Well, we had two system-wide "events" during that year that dropped our actual production from these numbers to the $96,000 we earned from the lettuce. The first event was when an unnamed intern sprayed a kelp concentrate spray on the lettuce leaves, and instead of diluting the concentrate the way they were supposed to at two tablespoons per gallon of water, this person unfortunately sprayed 3 gallons of this $85/gallon liquid full-strength onto the plants in all the systems! We noticed the black droplets on the lettuce the next day during a farm tour, but by then the damage had been done. The lettuce turned black, and we ripped it out of the system, threw it on the compost pile, and planted new lettuce seeds. Because we were able to salvage some of this lettuce, we only lost 7 weeks of production, or $15,000 of income, due to this "event".

We've covered the next "event" in previous newsletters, under the heading "
the diseased lettuce seed incident," but only just now have figured out the cost of this "event". We lost the whole crop and had to clean out and sterilize all our rafts and systems; this event cost us $24,000 of income. The lessons I learned from these events are that you have to be excruciatingly aware of what's happening on the farm, test ALL batches of seed, and so on.

Sticking with what I learned about lettuce, and going back to the "How much can I....?" question, I figured out after six months of experimentation how to reduce the time the plant has to spend in the system to only three weeks in the winter, and under two weeks in the summer. This information (which we have included in our current manuals in the "Seeding and Sprouting" section), changes the numbers substantially.

Although we had only used this new technique for a short time when the diseased seed incident hit us, I found that each hole under this regimen now produced a year-round average of 21.66 heads per year, for a total weight of 2.7 pounds per hole per year. The income we would have received would have changed as well, from $133,200 (assuming no "events"), to $288,511. But, because of changes in the Costco situation (explained in the "Farmily" column by Tim today), we don't have any buyer that will take that much lettuce mix anywhere on our island. So just as we perfected a better way of growing more lettuce in less area, our lettuce market was gone and we chose to plant a mix of crops. Even though we can't sell that much lettuce, aquaponic knowledge has still advanced as a result of our learning experience, and now anyone who wants to grow lettuce can use this new technique to grow two times as much in the same time and space.

You can see how aquaponic income changes, depending upon what is planted, how quickly it cycles, what we get for it, and changing conditions in the market.
There isn't a single answer that holds true for all seasons or for any single crop, because even in Hawaii, ANY kind of growing is hugely seasonal.

As a result of moving on from being Costco vendors, we've planted almost 200 different varieties of crops or "candidates" to select our CSA produce from. All existing commercial aquaponic.ventures we know of are growing lettuce or basil, which means there's little or no production data about any other species. This test planting will generate a ton of information about the productivity of different species in aquaponics that will be available for you to use to successfully run a commercial aquaponics business or just a good backyard project.


We've just completely a informal taro (Colocasia esculenta) growth test (click here for a video of us and the taro). Taro is used globally, especially in Oceania, Asia, and Africa and is considered a staple food in many cultures. The kalo (corms, root bulbs) are roasted, baked or boiled and the natural sugars give a sweet nutty flavor. The starch is easily digestible and often used for baby food, as taro is a completely hypo-allerganic food (meaning no one ever is allergic to taro). The leaves are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and actually contain more protein than the corms.

That taro I am holding up in the video (at about 18 seconds into the video), was grown on top of a Dow blue board raft in a 2" net pot(!), and it grew better than any other test we've made. The roots grew down thru the net pot and had to be cut off to even get the pot out of the raft. The entire kalo (bulb portion) grew on top of the raft. This made it unbelievably easy to harvest and clean, because kalo are usually leveraged out of the ground with an o'o bar - a 6' foot long Hawaiian crowbar - and then have to be washed because the kalo is so dirty. We've planted a few dozen more in the same manner, and we'll wait for the results. Click here to see a ten-minute video from one of our students of harvesting this aquaponic taro.

Taro grows on a much longer timeline than lettuce or basil, and proper raft spacing is currently uncertain. A single large raft is problematic (breakage, not all taro being ready to harvest at the same time, etc.) and the hole, once committed, is out of commission for perhaps four months. Best guess, based on a data sample of ONE is 3 pounds (very conservatively) per harvest in 4-6 months, or 6-9 pounds per year per hole. However, taro is real food that anyone can live on, as compared to lettuce which is kind of a tasty rich-person's condiment. If we make the taro into poi (which is a paste made from taro that is worth much more per pound than plain taro) that would bring us $6 per pound. But there are obstacles to overcome here: we need a commercial kitchen certified for cooking, and big systems planted out in taro. BUT, the real question is, how many holes per unit of space? In addition, there is the question of moving rafts; once a raft has taro on it, it is quite heavy, and cannot be picked up without breaking the raft.

We simply do not know enough yet. This is why we need to experiment more with taro (and the other 200 "candidates") before deciding it is feasible to grow it commercialy in aquaponics systems. If this was simply an emotional decision, we would grow taro, because we love it! But  sustainability for a business means it needs to still be in operation next year; and thus the owner needs to make hard decisions based on economics. It doesn't matter how green or sustainable your business WAS if it isn't still in business.

If we extrapolate the data from this taro experiment to a year's production on the whole farm, it looks like this: one 3# taro, in 4-6 months, or 2-3 per year, for a total of 6-9 pounds per hole per year. Let's say we have only 9,000 holes (this is an assumed greater hole spacing than lettuce uses), and we make the taro into poi and sell it for $4/pound (which is $1 per pound under what current market price is), then our farm is producing from 54,000 to 81,000 pounds of taro/poi per year, or $216-324,000 gross per year. Remember this is GROSS, and we also do not have ANY idea what the expenses would be for this because we haven't done it yet.

These numbers only show the gross income from the taro root, and do NOT reflect whatever value there is in stems ($1.49 for two stems in the market!), leaves, AND the value of the keiki (these are the suckers, or taro seed stock, that grow off the side of the mother taro plant, each of which can be planted to make new taro plants). NOWHERE has anyone seen oha grow like they do in aquaponics systems. This seems exclusive and rather specific to Hawaii, as taro is a beloved food here, as it is in other tropical regions around the world (it is known as dasheen in Africa), but taro is a staple food that can be grown in many places in the world, and may be one of the solutions to world hunger.

As we often do, both in our trainings as well as in our DIY Manuals, to compare my thinking with Tim's, here is his answer to the same question, specifically about how much someone could earn from a 1024 square foot system (click here to read more about our DIY "Small Commercial" Systems):

(Tim's comments follow): Depending on how hard the operator works (or doesn't), how smart you are about the species you select to plant, the amount of sunshine you get, how well you market, the part of the country you are in, whether you sell in a large affluent city or in a poor depressed area, you can get from $250 per month to $5,500 per month out of a good 1,024 square foot system. Depending on the type of crops, (exclusive of marketing and delivery time required), this system would take about 18-30 hours per week to plant, harvest, and maintain.

It's really simple: you can't make money at this unless you have business sense, make good decisions about what to grow and how to market it, AND work your butt off. The "failures" we've seen have come from people who got used to making $10,000 a month sitting behind a desk or behind the wheel of an SUV selling real estate in a boom economy; who are not willing to get their hands dirty, work hard, or learn something new and challenging. It's like anything else: you get out what you put in.

Aquaponics is just now catching on at a commercial level. A lot of people have been economically handicapped by the hugely expensive aquaponics "systems" they've bought from people selling tanks, pumps, and greenhouses who know little to nothing about the economic realities of making a living with aquaponics. These people are going to have a tough time making money because most of their gross has to go to paying off the note or ROI. We're the only ones we know of who offer affordable DIY systems based on our own experience selling aquaponic produce in the real-world.

Just as an example of the variability of this and how important it is to use good sense when setting up, we produce a little over 400 lbs of lettuce a week and get $5.92/lb for it, or $133,200 per year. We COULD grow chinese cabbage, which would produce a LOT more weight (our systems will produce 1,200 lbs a week of that), but we only get $0.59 per pound (even for organic), and would only earn $36,816 per year for it. It's a business, and if you have good business experience, you will be successful at aquaponics. If you don't have good business experience or sense (or ANY), it still grows food really amazingly well for your family with not much work, but you may have problems making a living with it.

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(Next week: "Startup Blues, Part 4"; we'll cover more of what NOT to do, plus what TO do!)

Click to see our new Video!
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Free Farm Tours
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Aquaponics tour at the Friendly farm!

This week's free workshop at the 10:00 Saturday farm tour on June 4th (sorry for the short notice!), is a FREE tilapia hatchery workshop showcasing our newly discovered method for successfully hatching tilapia eggs into swim-up fry. Farm tour is at 10, tilapia workshop starts AFTER the regular farm tour at about 11:30. After the tilapia workshop we're going to completely build a small aquaponics system from scratch!.  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!


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3-1/2 pound kalo (taro root) grown in a 2" net pot (little bump at bottom)



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4-month old prawn (macrobrachium rosenbergii) grown in hydroponics troughs of our aquaponics systems


Special Offer! Sign up for our October 2011 Hawaii Commercial Aquaponics Training OR our September 2011 Florida Commercial Aquaponics Training now, and we will email you our Micro System package so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)

Sign up for Hawaii and Florida Commercial Aquaponics Training

In The Farmily
Yes, we are no longer selling our lettuce mix in Costco. This is a sad thing for us, because we love all the Costco employees we've dealt with over the years, and they loved our lettuce. They even told us that they had people waiting on the floor for the delivery when it was rolled out of the cold storage, just like people waiting for movie tickets for a premiere.

Why did this happen? Costco requires Food Safety Certification for its vendors. We satisfied requirements and initially got Food Safety Certified through the State of Hawaii, who had been trained to give Food Safety Audits by a national food-safety certification company. As best  as we can tell, how they apply the Food Safety standards was reinterpreted sometime in the last year or so and aquaponically-grown produce is no longer able to qualify for certification.

This is because of two things inherent to aquaponics that can't be changed to meet the Food Safety standards (at least, can't be changed and have it still be aquaponics!). The rules for the Food Sa;fety audit say that "The presence of animals in the growing area is an automatic (complete) failure of the food safety audit", and "The presence of untreated manure in the growing area is also an automatic failure of the food safety audit".

There is fish poop in our systems, but there is never any of the deadly bacteria that concern the food safety agencies, ie E. coli H0157, Salmonella sp, and others that won't kill us but still make us sick. These bacteria are ONLY found in warm-blooded animal's digestive systems and manure, which we never have in contact with our aquaponics systems. Fish are cold-blooded and do not harbor these bacteria.

The fact that we drink the water and have never had any kind of illness or disease  as a result does not seem to matter. The fact that a study was done by  Dr. Nick Savidov, an Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (AAFRD) researcher at the Crop Diversification Centre South facilities about Food Safety in aquaponics confirming its safety and healthiness does not seem to matter; because what the agencies require is third-party peer-reviewed science as evidenced by papers published in scientific journals. Dr. Savidov's study does not meet these requirements.

The people from the national Food Safety company who inspected us, our Costco contacts, the University of Hawaii, and the Farmily at Friendly Aquaponics are all committed to continuing to work together to develop the knowledge of aquaponics so that it will be Food Safety certifiable at some point in the future.

It's the same with any new body of knowledge; not everyone understands the benefits right away. It is often difficult, and takes time and patience,  to overcome people's resistance to new ways of doing things.

We were honored to be Costco vendors; and it was a great achievement for a small Mom-and-Pop farm to take an account away from a major agribusiness, even if only for a year and a half. Our lettuce was a great product that received rave reviews, that we sold to a wholesaler who has good ethics, something rare in this day and age. It means a huge change for us, but we're excited about the new direction our farm is taking! We'll know SO much more at this time next year!.
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This email, our manuals and construction plans are all copyrighted by  Friendly Aquaponics, Inc, Susanne Friend and Tim Mann, 2008-2011

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