I was late to the party in learning about aquaponics, but it made a big impression on me when I toured a massively creative food facility two years ago.
The slightly wild entrepreneurial founder had converted some cheap, remote industrial buildings in Loveland, Colorado into a spectacularly productive indoor farm. Expensive herbs, heirloom tomatoes and fluffy fish were popping out at high speed, with (mostly solar) energy and sparse human labor as the only inputs. With over 40% of the Earth’s land area already converted to farms, I was excited by the idea that someday we may be able to get much more food out of much less land with a lower input of oil and chemicals.
This kicked off a bit of an aquaponics reading binge on my part. And quite coincidentally, a reader named Jeremiah wrote to me towards the end of it to tell me about his own inventions in the field. I was impressed, because he has combined the art and science of Aquaponics with a Mustachian ethos of time and money efficiency. According to Jeremiah, you don’t need to be an advanced entrepreneur or scientist to build up a fancy food factory of your own.
So we collaborated over the past four months to create something worthy of sharing with you. And by “collaboration”, I mean I made the unrealistic demand of a “Zero to Hero” lesson in Aquaponics that would culminate in something readers could actually build, and Mr. Robinson diligently cranked it out with a summer of design and documentation. I am thankful for his generous work on your behalf, and I hope this great article he wrote becomes a primary source on the Internet for learning about the craft. It’s a great read.
High-Tech Gardening and the Kick-Ass ROI
by Jeremiah Robinson
Can you guess what it is?
I’ll give you a hint.
It was invented separately in ancient times by some badass farmers in both China and the Amazon.
In China, it allowed subsistence farmers to survive on plots of mountainside land that no traditional farmer could ever survive on.
It helped the indigenous residents of ancient Bolivia and others the power to develop a wealthy and sophistocated agricultural civilization atop worthless soil for 1000 years.
For the past 2 millenia, these farmers quietly developed the most efficient and sustainable method of growing food known to man. And nobody noticed.
Nobody, that is, till 40 years ago the New Alchemists and others put 2 and 2 together. Their modern methods, combined with the ancient techniques, got rid of most of the work associated with traditional growing (eg. weeding, watering, mulching, soil building, etc…), allowing for much higher production output at a much higher quality.
This ancient-turned-modern method of growing is called aquaponics.
It combines the raising of fish (aquaculture) with the growing of plants in nutrient-rich water (hydroponics). The fish fertilize the plants, and the plants clean the water.
Hotter than Carhartt, aquaponics is beginning to revolutionize the world of home-grown healthy food.
Now it’s much easier to grow your own safe, local, healthy food yourself in your own backyard, roof, balcony, or basement.
It doesn’t matter where you live. It works in the desert. It works in the tropics. You can do it urban or rural. I live in Wisconsin where the polar vortex gave us -25°F (-32°C), and it works here all winter long (actually improves the taste).
For the Zero-to-Hero system I’ll describe later, you just need an area that’s 5′ wide by 14′ long, exposure to either the sun or some fluorescent lights, and a weekend to build it. To make a smaller system, you just use smaller parts.
I haven’t run the Zero-to-Hero (Z-H) system long enough for good measured data on its output, so I’ll tell you about the larger system I use. The Z-H system should give proportional results until you decide to upgrade.
My 8’x16′ aquaponics greenhouse (which is about 2x larger than the Z-H system) cost me $3,000 to build, soup-to-nuts. In one year my system can grow the following fish and better-than-organic produce (local farmers’ market prices in parenthesis):
- 50 lbs of fresh trout fillets ($15/lb)
- 100 lbs of fresh, cold-finished, food-purged tilapia fillets (Not sold anywhere. If they were, $10/lb?)
- 75 lbs of pristine basil leaves for pesto ($20/lb)
- 50 lbs of winter spinach ($5/lb)
- 40 lbs of fresh unwashed lettuce ($4/lb)
Add all this up and I get a yearly gross output of $3,660, not to mention eating like Louis the XIV.
Here are my yearly costs:
- Electricity ($0.20/kWh) – $200
- Fish Feed ($40/bag) – $400
- 7-8″ Tilapia ($3/fish) – $300
- 7-8″ Trout ($2/fish) – $100
- Water ($2.80/1,000 gal) – $15
- Seeds (prices vary) – $15
Add these up and you’re looking at $1,030/yr.
As a good Mustachian who goes shopping with your middle finger, let’s say that somehow you find a way to pay half the farmers’ market price, or $1,830/yr. Subtracting out the $1,030, you still bank $790, for a simple ROI of 27% or a four-year simple payback, which is very good.
The Z-H system is ¼ the price for ½ the size, so your ROI would be even better.
- Building it is fun: With good instructions and ideally with the help of good friends, building an aquaponic system is one of the most fun projects you’ll ever do. It’s the sort of thing I hope to fill my time with after I quit the rat race. As MMM says, hard work can be joy-filled and life-giving, especially in small doses. This past weekend I built a Zero-to-Hero system with a group of 10 people in a few hours at a permaculture workshop. I’ve rarely had such an enjoyable time!
- Checking on my fish is the best part of my day: I love checking on my greenhouse, feeding my fish, and harvesting food, especially when the neighbor kids come and help. You’d have to pay me not to do it.
- Nearly zero ongoing labor: This is especially true compared to soil gardening. Unless you make some dumbass mistakes that you have to fix (which happens while you’re still learning how it works), the only time is daily feeding (5 minutes), weekly water testing (5 minutes), monthly planting (2 hours), twice/year runs to the fish hatchery (3 hours), and harvesting whenever you want to (5-20 minutes—you don’t have to clean your veggies, but you do have to clean your fish).
Another objection you might raise is that you want to visit your long-lost relatives in Azerbaijan, or attend the MMM gathering in Ecuador. Don’t you have to be home every day to feed your fish, or at least every week to check your water?
Actually, you don’t.
Fish routinely go for 3 to 5 months without eating. In my area, they do it every winter. They survive these fluctuations just fine, if a little leaner by the end. With no food in the system, the water chemistry remains stable as the plants slowly absorb all the excess fertilizer. So go ahead. Throw some basil or spinach seedlings in the system and come back in 3 months to full grown plants. If you want, find a neighbor kid and teach them to how to throw some food in the tank and use the water test kit once per week.
It’s high-tech, low-maintenance gardening.
The Zero-to-Hero Aquaponic System
The Zero-to-Hero system offers you a simple jumping-off point if you’re interested in this kind of growing. You can buy all the products in an afternoon for about $730, build it in a weekend, and grow a significant portion of the fresh greens and herbs that a family or a frat house can eat.
It will allow you to grow year-round in USDA zone 7 or warmer. To grow in winter in colder climates (like I do) you’ll need to make some additional improvements, such as a small hoop house to store it in. You can also shut down for the winter, and harvest your fish in October.
While you probably won’t see the kinds of outputs described above in year one, you will see them as you learn to operate your system better, which fish you can find locally, and what plants you eat the most of.
It’s difficult to exaggerate how convenient it is to have mostly maintenance-free and exceptionally fresh / tasty food right at your doorstep.
However, one point worth emphasizing is that while aquaponics is very easy and labor-free to manage once you’ve got it working, the process of making it work is a learning curve. It will take about a year and result in some dead fish, dead plants, and problems you’ve got to solve. I’ve never met anyone for whom it didn’t, though I’ve also never met an aquapon for whom solving these problems was beyond their reach.
On these occasions, your best resources are the online forums, which are full of helpful people eager to answer your questions. After that (or if you don’t have time) you can contact most any aquaponics instructor or product seller and they will help you for a reasonable fee. There are also a number of books that can help you on your journey as well.
Growing this way is a lot of fun, and can be habit-forming—in a good way.
The Zero-to-Hero system plans are available for download free for MMM readers at the page linked to below. To get them free, type in the coupon code mr_mmm at the checkout page.
Some of you might be thinking the following thought:
If this works so great on the small scale, I’m going to cash out of my bank account, scale up, and start farming!
If this is you, I offer this caution: Aquaponic farming is still farming. Nobody gets rich off it. If you have the unique combination of skills to make it work it can be profitable. But you still have to plant, harvest, market, transport, and sell your products, as well as manage employees. This is hard, challenging, sometimes unrewarding work. Many aquaponic farms go out of business after a few years.
Because the USDA is behind on their regulations regarding fish, organic certification is hard to get for aquaponic vegetables and nearly impossible for fish, even though any unhealthy fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, or fungicide (even those used on organic farms) would immediately kill all your fish. This means you have to convince your customers that your products carry a higher value than conventional produce and fish from China, in most cases without organic certification. This is more difficult than you might think.
Many aquaponic farmers live off grants and free intern labor, while a few market brilliantly and make a profit selling to high-end restaurants and grocers. If you’re interested in growing commercially, I recommend you do the following:
- First, build the zero-to-hero system, operate that for a while, read all you can on aquaculture, horticulture, and greenhouse design, visit some farms, and start getting involved in forums.
- Next, scale up your backyard greenhouse system, trying new designs and keeping up the research and experimentation.
- Once that’s running smoothly for a couple of years, contact Nelson & Pade, Pentair Aquatic Ecosystems, Friendly Aquaponics, and Green Acre Aquaponics, and ask if there are any farms you could contact to inquire about an apprenticeship.
- Also, make sure you find some farmers that have gone out of business and talk to them about what went wrong, asking them if they think your plans can work when theirs didn’t.
It can be done. Maybe you’re the one to do it.
There are a number of existing farms out there that would be happy to accept investment funding to expand their operations. It will take you a lot of due diligence to ensure that their farm is profitable and likely to remain so because – as I’ve said before – farming is tough!
One interesting investment opportunity I stumbled across this year is Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, a combination farm and tourist destination with a fascinating ownership structure. They are getting a lot of people interested in farming, which is a good thing as most farmers these days are late-middle-age or older. Currently expanding into aquaculture, they are likely to include aquaponics in the next couple of years. Give them a call to talk about investment opportunities if you’d like to invest in this space.
Because you and I know that it’s better-than-organic while not actually certified, we can get the high-quality food for a cheaper price.
While there’s no directory of aquaponic farms, you can google “aquaponic farm” in your area and find out where they sell, or if they sell direct.
Give it a shot. Once you go aquaponic you’ll never go back.
– Jeremiah Robinson
Frosty Fish Aquaponic Systems