Gina Cavaliero of Green Acre Organics who is expanding her system from a 1000 square foot DWC “floating raft” system to a mix of NFT and Media Bed systems to take advantage of different plants and their growing requirements.
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Ecofilms: Today, small scale commercial Aquaponics system. Can you make any money from them? We speak with Gina Cavaliero from Green Acre Organics and Murray Hallam. Gina, tell us about your system. You’ve got one system already established. A 1000 square foot floating raft system and you’re building and expanding your system. Tell us a bit about that?
Gina Cavaliero: Sure. We started out with a 1,000 square foot DWC (Deep Water Culture) raft type system and we just expanded it to include an additional 1024 square feet. So we’re just right at 2000 square feet of DWC growth space. Its still being powered by the same amount of fish density fish space so we didn’t have to add on anything additionally to our tank area – but just more grow beds.
Murray Hallam: That’s just great Gina, isn’t it.
Gina Cavaliero: It is. We’re looking at trying to optimize how much we can grow with as little bit of fish as possible.
Murray Hallam: Why have you got that approach Gina about keeping the fish at a low density?
Gina Cavaliero: Well the reason is we didn’t really start out with that intention. We thought we would have a better market for our fish products. But what we found is that it’s just not a really competitive type of product – the tilapia here, because they can get it cheap elsewhere. It comes in imported at ridiculous per pound prices. Also for the fact that we don’t process (the fish) We would have to provide our restaurants and chefs is a whole fish on ice. They love the flavor. They love the texture. They didn’t like the labor and the comparison of getting a few servings out of a tilapia as opposed to fifteen out of a grouper of salmon. So it just wasn’t cost effective enough for them.
So what that meant to us is that we had to look at our fish as just our fertilizer generator. They are part of the cost of growing our produce. So we want to minimize how many we have so we have the least amount of overhead to raise and rear them and we can produce as much product as possible.
Murray Hallam: Of course you want to do that with fish because Aquaponics is an ecosystem. You’re dealing with a non-chemical growing method.
Gina Cavaliero: Absolutely. We get everything we need out of the fertilizer, out of the bacterial conversion that occurs as a result of the fish and the ecosystem. So we don’t need to do anything else other than keep those fish happy, keep them fed and they do what they need for us.
Ecofilms: Gina, a lot of people have problems with the word “commercial.” You are selling your produce. How big do you have to be before you would classify an Aquaponics operation to be commercial?
Gina Cavaliero: That’s a great question Frank. In my opinion I think if you’re producing a product and selling it, you’re essentially commercial. You’re putting a product out for sale. So we have this concept of mega-farms which is pretty much what’s dominating the landscape of agriculture these days. That’s kind of far removed from what in my opinion we need. We need small family sized farms where we can really concentrate on delivering to the community. Because that’s what people are desiring. They don’t want this commercialized, processed product. They want to know their farmer. They’d like to have that relationship and knowing their farmer and knowing their food. There’s so much security and sense of comfort that they receive from that. So, you know, you can start out as a very small sized farm and go to your farmers market and sell to your community, your neighbors. In my opinion that’s commercial. Your selling what you are doing.
Ecofilms: But is it viable?
Gina Cavaliero: It is definitely viable depending upon size. Depending upon how much one needs to generate. I get that question a lot. Can I make a living off it? Well I can’t answer that because I don’t know what each individual needs to make a living. That’s a variable number. Can it support two people? I believe so. I think if you have the land, the space to do it. Its definitely viable. I think if you have to incorporate any kind of additional mortgage or lease – I think it will definitely be more challenging. I don’t think its impossible, but I think it escalates you into a larger category where you are looking at paid labor. Ideally what we’re trying to do is to do this with two people. Not to have that addition of paid labor.
Murray Hallam: That applies to any business though really. Any small business that you run, once you start employing people and taking out leases on vehicles or equipment or whatever. It’s the same. Its no different to any other business.
Hey Gina, I’m getting excited about April. I’ll be over at your place in April and for me that’s a bit of a long trip across the big wide ocean but I’m just looking forward to getting over there because you are running a training program. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?
Gina Cavaliero: Sure. We’re really excited about it too. We can’t wait to have you back over here to our side of the pond. What we’re doing is a four day intensive course and we teach everything. Its not just the nuts and bolts. It’s the pen and paper too. We’re going to cover business aspects. SEO management. Why would a farm need a website? Things as intricate as that. As well as managing day to day operations. How to construct a system. How to manage the system. Dealing with fish, planting, harvesting. You name it. Everything you need to do to replicate what we do – we’re going to teach.
Murray Hallam: Fantastic.
Ecofilms: And Murray what’s your involvement in the course? What will you be teaching?
Murray Hallam: I will be talking about media grow beds. That kind of thing, more of the hands on practical kind of stuff. That’s what Gina has asked me to do so I’ll be excited about doing that and of course to meet a lot of my USA friends. But look there’s another thing that’s going on there, that I’m excited to see and listen to and that is Penn and Cord Parmenter are coming down. Can you tell me a bit about that please?
Gina Cavaliero: Yes. We’re excited about the addition of a one day workshop that is in between the four day courses that we’re running simultaneously. Penn and Cord are going to teach their practical application of a passive solar greenhouse. What these folks have done is enable themselves to grow year round at 8,000 feet in Colorado. Incredibly cold non forgiving environment and they grow year round. So what they’re going to do is teach folks how to replicate their green house. A passive solar design. They are also going to do a segment on seed-saving. Its so relevant to what we need here. The vast majority of growers in the US really have to deal with inclement weather and cold temps. We actually had an experience with really bad freezing temps for a prolonged period of time and a passive solar greenhouse would have done wonders for us.
Murray Hallam: Where I live in south east Queensland, we’ve got a fairly good climate. Our worst winter day is a frost that’s just freezing for a couple of hours and that’s it. I’m frequently asked about growing Aquaponics in inclement or cold environments. So that’s really interesting because going back to what you said earlier about the farms you see for the future being small family and mom and dad kind of operations, in selling their stuff locally, its really important for people to be able to grow Aquaponics anywhere. As you say, cold weather climates make it challenging. Imagine if you had to build a greenhouse and you had to have the gas fitted and the big electricity bill and on and on it would go. That’s why I’m so interested in what Penn and Cord have to say. Its going to be really interesting.
Gina Cavaliero: I agree. I’m excited by it. Our partner in this Sylvia Bernstein has actually taken Penn and Cords class and is quite familiar in what they do. So for me its going to be a treat to sit in on this workshop as well.
Ecofilms: Gina just before we finish up, your expanding your Aquaponics system. Can you tell us in which direction you’re going? You’re making a demonstration Aquaponics site that covers all the different aspects. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Gina Cavaliero: Yes. We started out as deep water culture. Raft type. And that is absolutely the prevalent type of growing system for commercial. That’s what’s taught elsewhere with good reason. It has its pluses for commercial type growing. What we discovered doing this for some time is that we really needed to diversify our crops and we needed to optimize where those crops grew. We can get some great growth out of herbs for instance in our DWC. But what we found is that they take up quite a bit of space over a long period of time. When in that same bit of space we could have turned over lettuce perhaps three to four times in the same time span and generated quite a bit more money. We want to take those herbs and put them in a more conducive growing environment which for them means a NFT system. So what we’re doing, we’re tieing in NFT, media, vertical all in together with our DWC. So we can take different crops, put them in the best place where they’ll grow most optimally. Perhaps that means not taking up space. Perhaps that means being mobile in a DWC system and we’ll have a great example of different systems and how you can incorporate those systems together.
Murray Hallam: Actually Gina you’ve also found with supplying your chefs and customers that they don’t want just lettuce every week. They want other things.
Gina Cavaliero: They want anything and everything. I can probably say we have still not satisfied our chefs. They are ravenous for anything. They want different things. They want unique items. They want us to grow certain things specifically for them so they can have something that no one else has. They love our lettuce products. We hear all the time how its so much better than anything else. Its sweeter. Its more tender. The colours are more vibrant. They love it. They want more of it. They want different things.
Ecofilms: Wilting. I’ve heard stories of people having problems selling their produce because once they pick it they take it out of water and the plant just flops over and wilts. Do you have that problem?
Gina Cavaliero: That is usually indicative of the time that you are harvesting. We harvest specifically lettuce and greens very early before daylight. It has a lot to do with the stomata opening and how it affects the plant as well as temperature which is very relevant for harvesting. So there are some keys and tips of the trade so to speak that we are going to share in our training so people will not have that issue.
Ecofilms: Fantastic. I wanted to ask you what plants are the most profitable but maybe we should keep that for the course.
Gina Cavaliero: (laughing) Yeah we can keep that for the course, but its really market specific. I stay away from making statements about what might be really great here might not be really great in Louisiana or California or Colorado. Research your market. Become very familiar with it. Know who your clientele is.
Ecofilms: So how do people find out? What days are the courses? You got two groups, April 21-24 as well as April 26-29. Why are there two sessions?
Gina Cavaliero: We decided to go with two sessions because we anticipated a really good response. We know that we are offering something that really is not being offered elsewhere like some of the other commercial trainings. There’s something unique about ours. It involves the fact that we’ve been doing this. We do it everyday. We have some incredible industry leaders like Murray and Sylvia joining us. And its comprehensive. There’s everything you need to know.
Ecofilms: Where do you book it? Where do you sign up?
Gina Cavaliero: You can go to my website which is www.greenacreorganics.biz I always tell people there is an “s” on organics, not on “acre”. It will link you though to the registration page. All the information you need to know is right there at our website.
SEE DETAILS OF GINA's AQUAPONICS FARM TRAINING HERE.