Imagine a way of farming fish with plants that has little to no impact on the environment—no runoff, soil loss, no need to even develop land. That’s aquaponics. And while it seems ideal, there’s a reason why current operations are small, few, and far between.
As its name suggests, aquaponics is a a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Like with hydroponics, plants are grown with their roots directly in water. But where hydroponics introduces necessary nutrients artificially, aquaponics takes advantage of a symbiotic relationship between aquatic animals, bacteria, and plants. Normally aquaculture tanks need to be filtered to prevent waste byproducts from reaching harmful levels, but with aquaponics, bacteria convert these byproducts into the necessary nutrients for healthy plant growth. The plants are fed, and the water is filtered.
But there’s one important problem. For an aquaponics operation to be successful, it has to turn a profit. Most operations occupy a niche market in urban centers where fresh fish and veggies are either expensive or hard to come by—the Virgin Islands, Tucson, Chicago, and St. Paul to name a few. Tilapia and basil are a typical combination—tilapia because they’re hardy and easy to grow, and basil because of its high value. But as hardy as tilapia is, it’s still a tropical fish, meaning operations in colder climates have to cope with high energy costs to keep water temperatures warm. And while basil may be a high-value plant, the profit margin is still slim. Some operations have sought to circumvent these high energy costs by resorting to yellow perch and lettuce, but to little avail.
Operations in warmer climates like the ones in Tuscon and the Virgin Islands tend to see more success than those farther from the equator. Higher average temperatures help maintain stability in systems that are inherently unstable, giving operators more leeway as they try to balance the water chemistry. And its this stability that’s key for an operation to be economically viable.
The issue of stability is tricky enough to work out on a small scale. But to be profitable, producers must attempt larger operations, complicating something that was fragile and complex to begin with. That’s the catch-22 of aquaponics. Producers are faced with two options: either have a working system and watch the operation go bankrupt, or go bankrupt figuring out how to make the system work. And until this dilemma is resolved, aquaponics will continue to struggle to break into the mainstream.
For more information on aquaponics, contact Kwamena Quagrainie. Interested producers can also learn about practices that can improve the chance of success in this video created in partnership with Purdue Extension.
A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. Aquaculture plays an increasingly vital role in securing long-term food supplies, and the Midwest is poised to help. In fact, a rich supply of raw materials and proximity to large markets makes Illinois and Indiana prime locations for aquaculture farms and related industries. To help producers cash in on these benefits, IISG, University of Illinois Extension, and Purdue Extension teamed up to create Aquaculture Economics and Marketing Resources. The site provides leading research and how-to information for developing a productive, innovative, and profitable aquaculture business. Visitors interested in starting a new business will find resources on everything from establishing an organizational structure to creating a business plan to securing financing. New and veteran producers can also find tips for connecting with consumers and tapping into niche markets. Aquaculture Economics and Marketing Resources is one of several tools IISG uses to help aquaculture producers define markets and create value-added opportunities for their products. Since 2005, Kwamena Quagrainie has held roughly 40 workshops with over 1,200 participants. These and other efforts in Indiana resulted in about $15 million in farm sales of aquaculture products in 2013, a nearly five-fold increase over 2005. To learn more about how aquaculture is strengthening Indiana’s economy, read our 2013 program impacts.