Failures in Aquaponics

In recent years the aquaponics industry has experienced meteoric growth in both general interest and the creation of working systems of every size and style imaginable, and for good reason. If this technology along with Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) isn’t going to be the primary solution of feeding nine billion people in 35 years, it will certainly be number two or three. And with all this attention and potential, there is certainly going to be a great deal of experimentation, misinformation and exploitation along with the successes, much like what happened in the two industries that preceded, yet were the foundation of, aquaponics – aquaculture and hydroponics.

Both of these industries experienced a tremendous amount of hype during their early years, which fortunately paralleled some good science that made those systems actually produce food in the long run, however, both industries suffered greatly from unscrupulous promoters and hucksters (thus the term coined in the aquaculture industry for these practitioners – Aquashysters). Promises of easy money were being made by people who had no experience or background in either industry, and many investors lost untold millions of dollars. In fact, it got so bad that for over a decade it was nearly impossible to get any bank funding for projects in either of these two industries. Now days, both aquaculture and hydroponics are established and well-funded industries producing 66.5 million tons of fish and growing produce inside 400,000 acres of greenhouses worldwide. The future of aquaponics looks just as promising, if not more so, but unfortunately it appears the growing pains experienced by its two predecessors will not be avoided.

Some old timers in the aquaponics industry have said this trend is even worse with the advent of the Internet. In the pre-Internet days, the dissemination of misinformation was literally at a snail’s pace – through the mail, at conventions and through articles and advertisements in related periodicals. But in today’s world, anyone can post or publish anything they think relevant to the industry on and in numerous media platforms regardless of the information’s accuracy, viability or proven effectiveness. Millions more people have instant access to that information. There have now been cases where novice aquaponics enthusiasts thought they could take the information they learned on websites, Blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the like to create large-scale aquaponics systems, and the results have been devastating.

Most of the people we talk to on a daily basis are interested in starting up a commercial aquaponics facility, and as a result, we have been hearing about the recent large-scale aquaponics failures that have occurred within the industry in recent months. Unfortunately, these needless events continue to elicit industry-wide skepticism, however, when looking at these projects in hindsight, they were destine to fail from their outset. The four large-scale failures that most people have asked us about (though we anticipate there will be many more on the horizon) are: Sweetwater Organics, Aqua Vita, Santa Cruz Aquaponics, and Greater Growth. As a note, none of these used Nelson and Pade Clear Flow Aquaponic Systems®, which use a science-based, proven design.  There are other commonalities as well, which I explain below.

Given that there is discussion of these failures, I want to share with you what we currently know of each of their circumstances:

Sweetwater Organics – Milwaukee, WI

A couple of roofing contractors interned at Will Allen’s Growing Power and decided to scale up the Growing Power aquaponics model that Will Allen uses for the work he does in his youth urban Permaculture education program even though, as Jesse Hull, an ex-employee of Sweetwater Organics said in a Bay View Compass article written by Michael Timm on July 1, 2012, “With utmost honesty, Will (Allen) has stated at his own workshops that a person couldn’t make a profitable business using his aquaponic designs and methods.” Regardless, they got some Milwaukee city officials excited about their project and leveraging off of Will Allen’s nearby Growing Power and their affiliation with it, they received tax-payer and private investment dollars to fund their urban aquaponics farm. Though they might have been great roofing contractors, they apparently had very little knowledge and experience in aquaponics, aquaculture, hydroponics, horticulture or Controlled Environment Agriculture. Their attempts to scale up the Growing Power model and make it commercially viable failed repeatedly, and they kept throwing good money after bad re-inventing a failed system until those failures ultimately caught up with them.

Aqua Vita – Sherrill, NY

This most recent failure is well documented. Here are some quotes to the press by the company’s founder that pretty much tells the story:

“We’re only one of four or five commercial-scale indoor aquaponic farms in the entire country, and so there was a steep learning curve.”

“Our initial design of that (their aquaponics system) was not perfect. It didn’t work as well as it should have. We went through, redesigned the whole system.”

“Doherty’s original business plan projected profit within the first two years. But unexpected expenses and setbacks threw the business off-track.”

“Doherty said then that after two years in business, he had ‘figured out’ how to make the venture profitable, but needed money to continue to the next phase.”

Santa Cruz Aquaponics – Santa Cruz, CA.

There is not much information available on this project, but if you watch their YouTube Kickstarter campaign to save the company, you will get a good indication of why they failed.

In it the founder says, “In the 16 months since the day we first broke ground here we made 1,000 mistakes,” even though he admits he had “been studying aquaponics for 5 years.”

He also talks about learning from Growing Power, which is evident in his system design, again, he attempted to scale up a system not intended to be commercially viable.

Greater Growth – Lenoir City, TN

The founder of Greater Growth, Joel Townsend, a stock broker by trade, went to a Nelson and Pade, Inc. workshop and later purchased a Project Plan from them. Like many new to the industry, he designed and built his own commercial aquaponics facility despite having no experience in aquaponics, aquaculture, hydroponics, horticulture and Controlled Environment Agriculture. To make up for this lack of knowledge and experience, he hired an aquaponics consultant from a university (from my understanding, someone who had never run a business), and from my estimates, Mr. Townsend spent way more reinventing a commercial aquaponics facility than he would have spent had he’d just bought a turn-key aquaponics system that was covered in his Project Plan. Other than believing he could out design and build a better aquaponics system than Nelson and Pade, Inc.’s for less money, he also did not purchase a system from them because he was actively marketing his completed package as a franchise, which would have violated their User Agreement. I believe, however, the key to his failure is a quote from him in a September 7, 2012 Seedstock article. Despite the fact that he at one time had a university aquaponics consultant on staff, he stated, “Technical assistance is limited…” In his case, this was absolutely correct, because he chose not to work with a company that provides technical assistance. If you read the article, you can tell he is preparing to close the doors as he gets very negative about his prospects toward the end.

As you can see, there is a common thread here: They all thought they could invent a better aquaponics system than the industry experts without having any background in aquaculture, hydroponics, horticulture and Controlled Environment Agriculture or having any experience designing or running a large aquaponics facility. None of them fully appreciated or applied Global GAP, BAP, food safety and bio-security. Three out of four of these operators used a system that was never intended to be commercially scaled up, and none of them had the ability to discern fact from fiction when it came to researching commercial, science-based aquaponic system design verses all of the misinformation on the Internet. Having no experience in aquaponics, they had no way to create an accurate business plan or model and a relevant time-line, thus resulting in over-runs during their start-up phase and unexpected expenses during their operations.  And, ultimately, they had no one to turn to when things started going terribly wrong.

It is very frustrating for us to witness these failures because they are all so unnecessary. With a commercially viable, science-based aquaponic design, in a properly designed controlled and bio-secure environment, proper education and training, accurate and reliable tech support, a realistic business plan with an accurate schedule, start-up costs and operational expenses, one can be a successful commercial aquaponics grower.