Is Commercial Aquaponics Sustainable & Profitable?

Last Updated on December 14, 2018

Aquaponics is a blend of hydroponics (growing plants in water) and aquaculture (raising fish). This is a new and “innovative” idea, although has been around for centuries. It is resurfacing in our modern world and attracting many people.

In 2012, Industry ARC reported, “Aquaponics as an industry has a potential market size of around $180m in 2013 and this is expected to cross $1bn in sales by 2020.”

And one of the bigger concerns is also rising with a rise in popularity. Whether or not Aquaponics will ever be profitable enough to support a family?

This is a common question that circulates in online forums, communities and for good reason. Aquaponics is a more sustainable method of growing than conventional agriculture, but if it’s not financially sustainable as well, it is not a viable venture for most growers.

According to Chicago Tribunenext wave of ecopreneurs hopes to find the key to making aquaponics profitable. As it offers attractive non-monetary benefits and it can avoid agricultural hazards such as tornadoes, storms, flooding, and droughts.

Before we evaluate data on this question, two caveats. First, growers’ expected financial returns vary greatly. Some operations are nonprofits, just trying to break even. Others want to be large-scale agricultural businesses with significant returns. As a first step, it’s important to identify your goals when evaluating profitability. We explain this more in Planning a Commercial Aquaponics Greenhouse. On scalability, aquaponics can be divided into three categories

  1. Commercial Aquaponics
  2. Backyard/DIY Aquaponics
  3. Small Goldfish/Betta Aquaponics Tanks

We will just discuss Commerical Aquaponics here!

Is commercial scale aquaponics economically feasible?

In the case of a backyard System, you may be doing it as a hobby or to support the family or maybe just to bring some tomatoes and salad on the table for dinner.

But on the commercial scale, the aquaponics farm is supposed to raise capital and profitable.

To understand and assess the economic backbone of aquaponic farms, we have to look into:

  1. Investment cost (building the system, setup the operation logistics, etc.)
  2. Operational cost
  3. Profitability of the operation

Aquaponics is profitable when it is done to a specific scale.

Investment cost is relatively high which is the main drawback of aquaponics.

In operational cost, more electricity is used as compared to traditional aquaponics. However, labor cost including plowing and pests is reduced. Water is conserved which is the main consumption in traditional agriculture. Recurring expenditures, on the whole, are lower as compared to traditional agriculture.

According to CTAHR University of Hawaii, Hawaii is at the forefront of commercial-scale aquaponics in the world. 3 farms on Oahu. All are Food safety certified. 2 of 3 are organically certified.

The second caveat is that every operation is different. No one can make definitive claims about whether an individual aquaponics greenhouse will be profitable.

Most growers understand this intuitive point. Rather than asking about a specific operation, they want to know about the industry overall. Is commercial aquaponics a safe industry to go into? Are other aquaponics greenhouses profitable, and what do those businesses look like?

Here are some statistics of study on aquaponics farms to give you an idea

Overview of the Aquaponics Farms

Overview of the aquaponics farms

In regards to these questions, a 2014 study from Johns Hopkins University can shed some light. The study surveyed 257 commercial aquaponics growers, most located in the US. It tallied many metrics about their operation and some metrics on financial success. Some of the key findings:

  • Most operations use an aquaponics greenhouse, often in addition to another structure
  • The average size of the operations is .03 acres (1,307 sq. ft.). About 40% of operations are located at the growers home; the remainder were on commercial or agricultural zoned land.
  • Most growers used a combination of two or more aquaponics systems (media beds, wicking beds, rafts, nutrient film technique, and vertical towers), with rafts and media beds being the most common.
  • The median year that respondents had begun practicing aquaponics was 2010.
  • 31% of respondents were profitable in the past year.
  • 55% expected to be profitable within the next 12 months and most growers (75%) expected to be profitable in the next 36 months.
  • For 70% of respondents, their commercial aquaponics operation was not the primary source of income.
  • Fish production is currently not profitable for all farms.
  • Is fish merely a nutrient source for the plant? Or, can fish be a profitable enterprise of the system? Nevertheless, the Fish growth rate has to improve for the fish enterprise to yield the profit.

Total Investment Cost

Facility component (materials needed to build the system) and labor cost are the major cost components.

It takes a lot of money to build just the greenhouse. Any commercial greenhouse will require at least an acre, and be significantly more expensive. Many farmers will be wary of adopting this technology unless they can be guaranteed the investment will pay off.

Unfortunately, a hydroponic greenhouse is even more expensive because of the energy and resources required. All the water-mixed nutrients need to be in large concentrations to feed the plants, and power is required to pump that water, to run the fans, and to run the sensors.


Operational Cost per $1 of Sales

Operational Cost per $1 of Sales

Economic Performance Comparison of Aquaponics with Aquaculture and agriculture

Economic Performance Comparison of Aquaponics with Aquaculture and agriculture
Economic Performance Comparison of Aquaponics with Aquaculture and agriculture

The data above shed some light on the whether commercial aquaponics industry in the US is profitable overall. With only about 1/3 of growers stating that their operation profitable, it’s clear that commercial aquaponics is not a safe bet or an assuredly profitable industry. Some key points we have to consider about the study:

  •  The study did not ask about growers’ intention/goals. One can deduce from the majority of growers who do not make aquaponics their primary profession that the survey includes some commercial growers who probably don’t need or want to make significant profits.
  • Most operations are still in the start-up phase, with an average time in the business of about 4 years at the time of the study.

Profitability statistics would likely change if it evaluated only those who made a living from their commercial aquaponics greenhouse.

How do Aquaponics Farms make money, amigo?

Apart from saving, recycling and conserving, Everyone wants to know about how they can get any monetary benefits. Let’s dive in to find the different ways in which aquaponics farms make money.

This is important as it shows you different methods that might be suitable to your current or future strategy.

The main ways include:

  • Selling Plants
  • Aquaponics Classes
  • Selling Fish
  • Selling System

Of course, there are other methods but I just wanted to give a brief overview for anyone that might be new to the Aquaponics.

Commercial aquaponics is a business. To be successful, you need business experience or need to involve someone who has it. Getting all excited and carried away by the newness and coolness of aquaponics does not guarantee success, hard-headed business decisions based on experience and knowledge do. A lot of aquaponics newcomers who lack business experience see their vegetable growing and fish eating, but don’t realize they’re slowly circling the drain.

How to make Aquaponics more Profitable

Grow the plants that are costlier in your region

Choose high-priced crops to counterbalance the expenses of energy and resources. Do proper research what is pricey in the area you’re going to build your system. Tomatoes and specialty crops like yellow peppers and basil and other herbs can deliver profits that support such a greenhouse. Corn, wheat, any grain crops are examples of a crop better suited for an open field.

Inside the Aquaponics/hydroponic greenhouses, the plants are growing very close together. Not only does this lend itself to looking more lush and oasis-like, but it also saves land because the plants need less space to grow. The benefit to a farmer is significant – more food can be grown on less space.

Other recommendations related to the fish in aquaponics are

  • Raise edible fish instead of goldfish/koi
  • Take into consideration the fish to food ratio
  • Best fish to raise in aquaponics is the native and local one which will do well with the climatic conditions and each other

The combination of high-priced crops and more food in a smaller area help soothe the pain from the initial cost of the greenhouse with the potential for higher profit. Unfortunately, the cost isn’t the only concern for farmers.

Aquaponics is for city dwellers who want to:

  • Eat better food
  • Buy locally produced goods
  • Start a business
  • Make the most of your resources and the earth’s
  • Enjoy food security that doesn’t require stockpiling canned green beans
  • Benefit from working with plants
  • Contribute to community improvement
  • Inspire future generations

Does your Aquaponics system support you or/and your family?

I am actually really curious to know whether any of the Leaffin Troops are supporting a family (or even just themselves) with their systems. What kind of benefits you’re getting? How long did it take you to get it to this position? Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out?

Please leave a comment. Your insights might really help someone.

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