Is it possible to build your own small scale commercial aquaponics system without costing you an arm and a leg? How much should it cost to build it yourself? How much money can you expect to earn? Where do you sell your produce? Where do you go to learn more about all this stuff?
We grab hold of Aquaponics kit builder and teacher Murray Hallam and get the low down on his training course and how much money a small DIY commercial Aquaponics system would cost you to set up. His answers may surprise you.
Harvesting assorted greens for a custom order in an Aquaponics farm.
Transcript of interview. Edited and updated 25 Jan 2015
Ecofilms: Now you’re running a course about commercial Aquaponics. Tells all about the motivation behind it because you were doing workshops last year in backyard systems. Is this the new hot thing?
Murray Hallam: Well it certainly seems to be from our perspective because we get phone calls literally every day from people who are wanting to go into commercial Aquaponics.
Now the definition of what is commercial is quite elastic as you can imagine for some people. Probably the biggest group of people we talk to our people who are at retirement age or near retirement age, they discovered that their superannuation pension plan is not going to get as much income as they thought it would so they what about do something that will bring in a $500 or $1,000 a week and is not too stressful and they see aquaponics is a great way to go.
Of course behind all that is their desire to be able to produce good clean food. Food through security, food purity reasons. So that’s what motivates them. That’s what excites them about aquaponics and they want to learn to do at that level.
Then there is the next group of people who are actually into the idea of a sea-change or a tree-change as we call it. They want to move to the country. They want to change their lifestyle. They’re sick and tired of living in the city and they want to do something they see as sustainable. It's a good thing to do that is going to provide good food and they can make a nice living out of it. That's the next group of people and once again that’s not a massive great big farm.
Then you’ve got another group of people which is very small, who see it as a way to build a mega-farm.
I personally don’t think that’s the way Aquaponics will succeed. I think it’s going to be small family farms. Small suburban farms. Local food distributed locally. Cut down food miles. Food purity. Food security. They are all good reasons to do Aquaponics.
Aquaponics ticks all the boxes in those areas. Aquaponics commercially.
This 3,000 square foot system can be expanded to cope with local demand for fresh Aquaponically grown lettuce and greens.
Ecofilms: Because a lot of people when you say commercial aquaponics immediately think of enormous farms. Some of the large hydroponic farms and so on. Is there a limit to how big you can go commercially with aquaponics in your view?
Murray Hallam: I don’t think there is a limit. I think that anything is done on a hydroponic farm scale could also be done aquaponically. One might ask why would you want to do it aquaponically when it already is proven to do it hydroponically?
Well the simple answer is aquaponics is an ecosystem. By combining the two disciplines of aquaculture and hydroponics the third brand-new discipline all of its own called aquaponics has evolved and the beautiful thing about it is – what makes it distinctly different from those of the two is that it is an ecosystem. It relies on natural processes in order to produce the nutrient for the plants, in order to keep the fish healthy and plants happy. You produce two products (fish and plants) out of the same system.
It's very efficient and I see no reason why one day we will see great big farms. But personally I think the way the world is going – food miles need to be cut down. So it is no longer going to be economical to grow plants in one part of the country and transport them thousands of miles to somewhere else for sale. People are going to have to be to produce food locally much more locally. They are going t demand it to be delivered to them in a much fresher state. In a much purer state. Aquaponics ticks all the boxes.
Ecofilms: So you are about to embark on a course teaching commercial aquaponics in Australia as well is in the US states in March and July of this year. (2015) Can you tell us a little bit about what people will learn, will discover in that course? Will it be just a course to introduce them to that? Or will they be able to go home and have enough material in their hand to embark on a project?
Murray Hallam: Yes the training course we’re doing in Brisbane starting 2nd March will actually have hands-on building of troughs and fish tanks to show people exactly how to do it so that people can go away and build it themselves or employ a contractor and know exactly what the contractor ought to be doing so they get the result they want. They will also have training in our legal requirements. What are the legal requirements at the moment in Australia for running an Aquaponics farm? We will touch on business marketing. All that kind of thing because really the key to making it successful is being able to sell the product, because if you can’t sell the product at a good price then the whole thing goes up in smoke. So we’ll have a lot of discussions about how to sell the product. How to gain a premium price of your premium product and then of course will be the theory of the whole thing. How does Aquaponics work? How does that bacteria convert the material? How does it make it all work?
People need to understand that and that's a general outline of what will be covered in a very broad way.
Ecofilms: What would be the upfront costs for someone who wanted to set up a small commercial Aquaponics system? Say they had are some acreage and wanted to perhaps sell (produce) off the road or go to a farmers market. What would their costs be to run something that could earn them $500 to $1000 a week?
Murray Hallam: Well at that level, if you going to build it all yourself and do it all yourself you could build it for a minimum of say, $20,000. That’s my guess. Buying new materials and providing all your own labour and buying a decent greenhouse or greenhouse materials and that kind of thing. Once again that depends on where you live in the world. For example here in south-east Queensland where we enjoy a fairly good climate all year round, it’s cheaper to build here obviously than it would be in one of the northern states of the USA where they have really cold winters and they might require heating in the winter.
So that would add additional cost for what they do. Or in the southern states of Australia for example right down in Tasmania and Victoria, your building costs will be different there than what it will be in a place like south-east Queensland or for example in Texas or Florida USA.
So those figures at pretty hard to be definite about but you’d be looking around about $20,000. If you wanted to get someone to come and build that for you, that same kind of thing, as a turnkey option, it might cost you $50,000 to $100,000.00. It's a very difficult thing to put a price on it, I have to be honest, without proper assessment of the particular project.
Ecofilms: It would be a floating a floating raft, deep water cultures system?
Murray Hallam: That would be a part of it. We have what we call our FloMedia system which is a combination of both floating raft technology and also media bed technology and one of two other little things began to throw in the people really enjoy finding out about when the course runs, that will help you grow all sorts of things in your systems and grow very well and make sure that you utilize every little bit of that beautiful natural ecosystem nutrient that is produced by the system. That’s very important I think. To get a good cross-section of all the different crops that you can grow and grow in your local area. We’ve had some experience with some farmers now in the USA particularly, that are told us that they can sell all they can grow but the difficulty they have is that the customers want more than just lettuce or just tomatoes or just carrots.
They want to be able to buy a variety of things that are grown in the Aquaponics system. So it has become very obvious to me that we need to be able to produce a whole lot of variety of quality vegetables if we’re going to successfully sell locally and produce and run a truly local business.
Ecofilms: So just getting back to FlowMedia at this is the a lot of interest in what it is exactly because it’s a combination as I understand it of floating raft and gravel media systems so that you can run different sorts of crops. Is it two systems split or are they somehow joined together and work off one pump?
Murray Hallam: No they are joined together and work with one pump. We spent quite a long time working out the parameters of how to do the plumbing so that the water distribution is done correctly and that the nutrient distribution is done correctly so that everything works really nicely in one harmonious system and can be run of just one very small low wattage pump.
That is the key to the whole thing. Keeps a running cost right down, but make sure we have maximum efficiency running through the whole system.
Ecofilms: And will you be teaching people FlowMedia in your Courses?
Murray Hallam: Absolutely yes.
Ecofilms: So this is something that really nobody has cracked yet. Would that be right to say?
Well, there are lots of people that are dabbling in it right now. There’s a lot of interest around. Just fascinates me. We’ve been playing around with it for more than five years and working out – making sure we know exactly how it should and shouldn’t work and just in the last 18 - 24 months, I guess, there’s been an explosion of interest in what some are terming hybrid systems because people are beginning to realize that to take all the nutrient out, to take all the waste material out, the fish poo, take it out of the system and basically discarding it, it’s not very smart.
Because there’s a whole lot of great nutrient and minerals locked up in that fish poop. To take it out and throw it away is pretty silly – which is what happens in a typical floating raft system. It’s taken away. Some people are a bit more clever, will treat it and try reintroduced nutrients back into the system but that is another job you have to do. Another process you have to do. Whereas the way we do FlowMedia is it’s all done in the system and there’s no waste and the nutrients are retained in the system and the system just works absolutely beautifully.
Ecofilms: Tell us about your Australian Course. When is that happening and how long is it run for?
Murray Hallam: Our Australian course will happen on the 2nd March through to the fifth, 2015. It's four days and it’s pretty intensive actually. We’re going to have a difficult job keeping it down to four days. I reckon we could do six days really. But four days is what it is, and we going to cover all subjects we talked about earlier. The ones we’re doing in the USA in Oregon and Texas in July we actually are going to run two sessions. Two identical four-day sessions because we’re anticipating the number of bookings will be quite high
Ecofilms: Well thank you Murray I think the fact that you’ve given us that little tip about how much people can spend on building their own small-scale commercial aquaponics system is a tremendous incentive. I think most people can find that sum of money if they were close to retirement age. I’ve always thought one of the beauties of Aquaponics is that all the food is almost at waist level. I always like the fact that I don’t have to bend over and pick things and it’s just an easy stroll. I feel lazy saying that, but it’s one of the advantages I think.
Murray Hallam: Well is another little advantage that comes with that as well. We’ve noticed that food is grown at waist height has a much lower pest problem than food grown on the ground, believe it or not. Now I’m not quite sure why that is, but it’s a much cleaner food, much better food and it’s just fun to work with.
Just backtracking a little bit to the cost of doing an Aquaponics system, we must stress that that’s assuming you already have some land and you already would have a place to do it in. If you have to go and buy land then obviously it’s a whole different kettle of fish. (no pun intended)
Ecofilms: When it comes to selling your produce as a general rule what should people be focused on? What advice would you tell most people who are considering doing a commercial Aquaponics course?
Murray Hallam: The first thing we say to people who contact us, the first thing you need to do is work out where and how you’re going to sell your produce. It’s not good enough to say, “Oh, Uncle Fred has a fruit and vegetable shop and he said he’ll buy it from me.”
You’ll probably find Uncle Fred won’t when the crunch comes.
You can’t go into this with just some loose idea that because you’ve grown a better product that people rush to your door and buy it. They may not necessarily. You have to have a good plan which we can help you formulate that plan in these courses. We will help you formulate that plan. Something will work for you in your area and you really need to sort that out long before you start worrying about how big the greenhouse is going to be or how big the pumps going to be. Those are all easy things to solve.
The big issue is where and how am I going to sell it, because this is a premium product and you must obtain for it a premium price. If you’re just going to send it off to a local bulk wholesale place you’ll get very poor prices and you won’t make a living.
Murray will present his Australian Aquaponics Master Class in March 2-5, 2015 in Brisbane Australia. See course outline here.
NB, please check the links above for current dates and times.
This article edited and updated January 25, 2015.