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Friendly Aquaponics
Special Newsletter

Special Edition Newsletter Number 8
April 5th,  2011
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,

The question we address here is is a recurring theme in our inbox. We thought we would answer it in a special newsletter so everyone out there with the same question has access to good advice. (email inquiry to Friendly Aquaponics follows:)

I'm looking into starting a commercial aquaponics farm. I am going to purchase the do it yourself package. But I still have questions on some things.
1. What type of greenhouse should I purchase?
2. What plants are the most profitable?
3. What is the best system?
Any help you can give would be great.

Here is our reply:

"Thanks for your questions, they're good ones. Here are our suggestions:

1.      Purchase a used greenhouse, as it will be the most cost-effective. To find out how to do this (plus much more information about greenhouses), read the back issues of our newsletters numbered 60 through 66 (click here for back issues webpage). In the "Aquaponics Nugget" section, we provide a complete basic education in available greenhouse technology, including how to purchase an almost-new greenhouse for pennies on the dollar.
Our Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse Trainings cover how to incorporate as much of this technology as possible as retrofits to these existing greenhouses.

In addition, you may wish to look into our new Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse technology (click here to go to the Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse webpage). Here's a slide show that explains how the solar greenhouse is built, and why it is such an energy-efficient way to grow.

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.

We've attached a PDF file to this email that includes info on all the vegetable varieties we've tried. (click here to read the PDF version of this document). 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".

3. 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. Our 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. The lightweight newly replanted rafts go into the troughs at the far end from where you harvest; 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 come to you.

This is not a big deal if you're a backyard grower, and all you have is a couple of 4-foot by 6-foot media grow beds. When you have a commercial aquaponics farm with thousands of linear feet of 80-foot long media beds for your vegetables; then your employees have to do the corresponding thousands of feet of walking to or from the media beds to harvest or plant them, and you have to pay them.

So, using deep water raft systems cuts your labor costs for this work alone by at least half what they would be if you'd used media systems. This additional walking to-and-from the plants can add 5-7 seconds per plant to the time involved in harvesting raft-based systems. Doesn't seem like much, but read on.

An additional labor expense is involved for both harvesting and replanting media-based systems. We ran some media systems as a test until we realized how much labor was involved in working with them, and gave them up. This was confirmed by students of ours who have extensive experience with both types of systems.

They have estimated that the time to harvest a lettuce plant out of a Hydroton media-based system is around 1 to 2 minutes, which includes digging the lettuce plant out of the Hydroton with some kind of tool, then cleaning the Hydroton out of the lettuce roots to recover it, then cleaning the Hydroton of dead roots so it is ready for re-use, and finally using a tool to make a hole in the Hydroton to plant a newly-sprouted lettuce plant into. Of course, this all takes the same amount of time even if you're using something cheap such as expanded shale; it's just that the media itself is cheaper than Hydroton.

In contrast, our system takes about 10 seconds per lettuce plant to harvest, which includes picking off dead leaves, cutting the lettuce and putting it into a chill bath, and cleaning the root and potting media "plug" out of the net pot so the pot is ready for re-use. In our system, the lettuce is live, with its roots in water, right up to a minute or two before it gets cut and put into the 50-degree chill and wash bath. It never has a chance to warm up, so the lettuce quality stays very high.

Replanting into the rafts takes about 5 seconds per plant. What's the difference between the time involved here and that involved in each plant in a media bed, you ask? It can range from 1 to 2 minutes per plant. For our farm, that harvests 5,000 plants per week, it's 60 to 125 additional employee HOURS per week; not an inconsequential sum.

A bigger 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 potentially negative 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 your employee 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 your employee 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.

These are serious concerns for a commercial aquaponics venture. If you plan 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'd rather have every possible minute available to spend with our kids, even if we were just in aquaponics as a hobby.

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.

It's possible that a media based system could be designed to take advantage of evaporative cooling to keep system water temperatures as low as those of a deepwater raft system, but this would involve additional water usage to make up for the evaporation activity,
and wouldn't work well or at all in a humid environment..

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."

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


Click to see our new Video!

Purchase Trough Liner Directly From Manufacturer!


Pistou basil plants growing in our Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse


Large-leaf basil interplanted with tomatoes equals yummy pesto in the future!


Tim joking around, but really showing off the strength of the 20-foot curved beams used in the Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse.

Special Offer! Sign up for our June 28-29 Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse Training and receive our Micro System package for free so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)

More Information on Hawaii Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse Training


Tomatoes on the north wall of the Hawaii Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse; the wall reflects light and provides a built-in tomato trellis


Tim with the PV system charge controller, inverter, breakers, and cabling from the PV panels on the wall to the right. The roll-down white plastic cover (rolled-up in this picture) keeps all this (black) equipment from heating up too much on a sunny day.

In The Farmily

I'd like to acknowledge someone who has shown up in our lives to be as solid as a rock. Our current intern, Danny Seavey, has taken over the farm and is doing a GREAT job with it!

Tim and I have been extraordinarily busy this past month, with all our waking hours consumed with writing a book. Danny has stepped in and is flawlessly running the whole show with the part-time help of a couple of high school students, as well as Jack (10), Lucky (9), and Rose (7).

The farm looks wonderful, and we're putting out an amazing amount of food! In addition, Danny is running a number of experiments designed to test the "Verticalis Amicus", the "Friendly Verticals", as Tim has affectionately named them. He's planted hundreds of plants to run a side-by-side test in the verticals and the troughs, to compare growth rates.

Danny comes to us from Seattle, with a background in landscape design. He leaves behind a lovely wife, Ariane, and a just-turned-three-year-old daughter, Mila.

We extend our warmest aloha to these two as well, for loaning us such a smart, hard-working fun, and solid man. It must not be easy to have him gone for so long, and we are in deep appreciation! We love him!


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Friendly Aquaponics, Inc
PO Box 1196
Honoka'a, Hawaii 96727

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