Aquaponics in America

A Primer on Aquaponics in the U.S.A.

Updated 11/5/2013.

I’ve had the fortunate opportunity over the past 9 months to interact with people from all parts of the aquaponics world. While I can’t claim any special insight into any of this (I’m pretty dense actually), I’d like to share what I’ve learned during that time.Hopefully it will be useful to anyone thinking of trying to start a business in the aquaponics space.

Here’s my take on the current state of the aquaponics products and supply market in the US.

In its modern incarnation, AP has been around for 50 years, developed in stages in the US and Australia. It’s got a few dominant players and suppliers who make a small but reasonable income. 
It’s also got dozens – perhaps hundreds – of people (like me) who’ve thrown up a website and attempted to sell a few things or teach classes. Those who get too far ahead of their knowledge level and attempt to sell what they don’t understand are called Aqua-Schysters and have a very bad name among those who’ve been around awhile. 
Starting a new business in aquaponics is very difficult unless you have a lot of connections and a lot of seed money. The reason is that the sales cycle is really long and it’s not clear what products folks are actually willing to pay money for. My impression is that people have to slowly learn to trust the technology as they hear about it from multiple places, meet others who’ve built one themselves, and consider whether it fits their lifestyle. Bootstrapping an aquaponics business feels like trying to boostrap Ferrari.
It’s the classic challenge of trying to get ahead of the market and establish a niche. In my case, that niche is the cold climate backyard market which is so fledgling it needs to be brewed before it can be tapped. Another challenge is that aquaponics can be super complex and require a solid understanding of both aquaculture and horticulture. Pretending to have this knowledge (as mentioned above) is done at your own peril.
The AP market is divided up into four tiers, between which the lines of demarcation are not clean or agreed-upon: 
  • WindowfarmsIndoor Aquaponics: Usually quite small (2-20 gallons). Used to show off the concept for kids or as a conversation piece. Won’t grow much other than wheatgrass, since small systems stocked heavily enough to actually grow things tend to be chemically and biologically unstable. I have a design in the works to go after this market that pushes up the size to 40 gallons for stability reasons, though you’ll still have to make any adjustments with 1/4 teaspoons and eye droppers, and manage things precisely and conservatively so that the chemistry won’t crash. Dominant players in the US are Aquaponic Source and Back to the Roots, though a lot of people hodge-podge things together. I think Windowfarms fits this second group, but I haven’t really got a handle on them yet. Any window farmers among us who care to elighten?
  • Backyard Aquaponics: Larger scale, generally practiced in warm climates or in expensively heated greenhouses.I have a niche here in that my system and my philosophy can be used outside in cold weather cheaper than others. The dominant player for pre-fab systems is Aquaponic Source. I know there are some others around, but don’t know about their market share. Bright Agrotech sells products related to growing vertically. I suspect that there are more DIY systems out there than pre-fab, and (besides mine) there are two other popular designs available: IBC of Aquaponics and Barrelponics.
  • Hobby Farm Aquaponics: This group consists of part-time retired people, farmers with small aquaponics businesses on the side, and people with regular jobs who grow using aquaponics on their country lots. They sell to farmers markets or small CSAs, making money off their produce and losing money on their fish. Many of them believe that one day they will scale up and become full-time aquaponic farmers. This is a myth in my opinion, since doing that requires selling to the wholesale market on small margins. Making it in wholesale–from what I’ve heard–precludes incremental scale-up but requires investor funding to leapfrog to a truly massive scale. Friendly AquaponicsOn the other hand, a destination restaurant connected to a small farm could potentially make it work given their access to a commercial kitchen and ability to sell direct, though I’m not aware whether the concept has been proven. Dominant players in the US include Nelson Pade, Pentair Aquatic Ecosystems, Friendly AquaponicsBright Agrotech, and Green Acre Aquaponics, thought there are also many DIY systems such as Growing Power.
  • Commercial Aquaponics: Some include the previous group under this heading, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I honestly don’t know which farms make a profit on the wholesale market and which don’t.  I’m aware of some in Hawaii and Texas who claim to.  I’m aware of Viridis (mostly hydroponic, actually) and a new startup in the UAE which are large but I’m not sure how profitable. Dominant players in the US may include Pentair Aquatic Ecosystems and the University of the Virgin Islands, though don’t quote me please – I’m not sure at all.

Anyhow, that’s the lay of the land as I’ve seen it. There are certainly errors here, but I’ve seen so few posts of this nature that I feel compelled to help newbies along the way.  If you see it differently, I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts.