When I first discovered aquaponics, I was fascinated. The idea of raising fish and vegetables in a closed loop was eye-opening. This could be the food revolution of the future!
In an aquaponics system, a gardener raises fish in tanks. The water of the tanks is pumped through beds of plants and sent back to the fish with much of the nitrates removed and used for plant growth, cleaning the water and keeping the fish (usually tilapia) happy.
In a nutshell, the fish poop and the plants use that poop to grow – and you get a crop of meat and vegetables from your aquaponics garden.
The system sounds easy and fun. The plants never wilt and never need feeding, thanks to the always flowing water around their roots. The fish grow and provide you with all the meat you’ll ever need in a much smaller space than a traditional pond.
Yet over the years, I have gone from enthusiastic to downright opposed to aquaponics as I’ve seen multiple systems created by multiple people and organizations, and seen very little to recommend them as a viable alternative to growing in the ground.
One friend has had all his fish killed multiple times due to failed pumps and drains. Another friend has worked with aquaponics in his backyard as a hobby for years for very little return in fish.
Locally, there is a non-profit organization promoting aquaponics systems and installing them at schools. Why? Because it’s sexy!
That’s not the reason they give, of course. No, they legitimately think it’s a great idea and a revolution and all that nonsense. The crazy thing is that they’re promoting this mess of complicated plastic and pumps in a place where the soil is rich, the climate is mild and there are millions of fish in the sea.
It would make a heckuva lot more sense to plant a bed of yams and go fishing than to attempt to balance pH and water levels and breed fish in a tank.
Are Aquaponics Even Profitable?
Can aquaponics be profitable, especially compared to a traditional garden?
According to a report by the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center:
“The most challenging aspect of managing an aquaponics operation is to develop a realistic, accurate, and workable marketing plan. Raising fish indoors is two
to three times more expensive than raising fish in open ponds. Thus, a profitable aquaponics operation will need to seek out and develop a market that will pay a higher- than-average price for the crop. An in-depth understanding of the level and type of competition in the market place is essential. For example, an individual who raises lettuce in aquaponics will need to compete with lettuce sold in WalMart, in other grocery stores, and at farmers’ markets. Why would an individual buy aquaponically grown lettuce, especially if it is more expensive than other types? The seller must have a clear answer to that question to be competitive.
A second marketing consideration is that the type of high-end market that will pay a premium price will also entail greater marketing costs. For example, if the freshness of the produce is a main reason for a top chef to pay a premium price for aquaponically raised herbs, that chef may want frequent deliveries to ensure that freshness. Frequent deliveries will require additional personnel, vehicles, and associated mileage expenses.
Labor requirements must also be considered. An aquaponics system requires frequent attention. Even on a small scale, aquaponics systems are complex because of their multiple components and requirements. Disease prevention, water level control, and preventing rodents and other problems require inspection and care of the system throughout the day, 7 days a week.”
Yet even if you manage to work out these details, the report further notes:
“…the fish portion of the aquaponics system was not profitable, with the production costs of tilapia less than market price in only one study, and either higher or essentially the same in the others. This also is consistent with anecdotal reports that the fish portion
of aquaponic systems tends to be a net loss, with profits primarily from the vegetable portion.”
And the profit margins from the vegetable portion aren’t all that hot.
“Keep It Simple Stupid.” When I was working on a college newspaper long ago, the journalism professor overseeing the paper hung a sign on the wall that read “K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple Stupid!”
Don’t clutter up your stories with needless detail. If a witness is sharing her story, you don’t have to note that the witness wore “tennis shoes and a purple blouse,” unless she was a witness at a fashion show.
When you add lots of pipes and aeration and electricity and fish and gravel and valves, etc., etc., etc., to your garden, you are making the system complicated. This isn’t to say it won’t work, but it does allow in many more chances for error and problems.
The argument that amazes me is that “aquaponics makes sense!”
No, it doesn’t, except in certain applications. It’s a needless cluttering of gardening. It appeals to smart people who like to tinker, but that doesn’t make it better than forking up a bed and planting seeds in the ground. Some of us really like to build things and create systems and that’s fine. You are NOT a bad person because you like aquaponics. I know lots of people that like aquaponics. It’s a great hobby, but from my observations over the years, it’s an inferior form of gardening. Once you shell out the time and labor and money for parts, you are in the hole. When your fish die because the pump seizes up, you are further in the hole. And also – I’ve seen a lot of sad, yellowing plants in aquaponics systems. Tweaking that fish/vegetable loop isn’t easy, even though in theory it works awesomely!
Give me a fork, a hoe, some seeds, sunshine and water… and I’ll grow you some food without spending much time or money. I can plant corn or yams and walk away for a week or two, then come back and spend a little time weeding, then walk away again.
You can’t do that with aquaponics. And promoting it in the third world as a great alternative agricultural method is beyond silly. Tons of plastic and Styrofoam and more plastic…
Farmers here know how to grow food already, without first world nations spending money and promotional time to explain why they should switch to delicate and complicated systems based on plastic and technology.
I think it’s hubris. We know better than you – and we know better than nature! And look at how impressive all this is to newbies! It is SCIENCE!
Give me this garden any day:
You could create that garden for a few dollars, a few afternoons hard work and zero plastic.
I am over the aquaponics virus!
If you think I’m wrong, tell me how – I’d like to hear your thoughts.
(And Larry… sorry I used your picture at the top. I hope your fish are still alive.)