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Startup Profile: Nelson and Pade, Inc. – Literally Synonymous with Aquaponics

April 20, 2011 |

Nelson and Pade are pioneers in the field of aquaponicsChances are, if you’ve ever looked into aquaponic systems, the sustainable food production systems that combine aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish, crustaceans, or crayfish in a controlled environment) with hydroponics (soilless plant cultivation in water), you have probably heard of Nelson and Pade, Inc.

Nelson and Pade, Inc. is literally synonymous with aquaponics. Try googling the term ‘aquaponics,’ or better yet, enter http://www.aquaponics.com/ into your browser, and there you will find the company. It has owned the url since 1996.

Seedstock recently had the pleasure of speaking with Rebecca Nelson, President of Nelson and Pade, Inc. about the company and the overall aquaponics marketplace.

The Origin of Nelson and Pade – From Hydroponics to Aquaponics

Founded by the husband and wife team of Rebecca Nelson and John Pade, Nelson and Pade, Inc. traces its roots back to 1985 when the couple began working with hydroponic systems in Mariposa, California to grow tomatoes and other crops. Hydroponics is a method of plant cultivation that does not require soil; instead, water and nutrients are applied directly to the roots, allowing the plant to fulfill its genetic potential. What Nelson and Pade realized is that while they liked “the growing efficiency of hydroponics” they “didn’t like sourcing fertilizer” with its ever increasing prices combined with their desire to farm more sustainably.

ABOUT AQUAPONIC SYSTEMS

The combination of hydroponics with aquaculture that forms an aquaponic system serves to create a more optimized and sustainable food production system by solving for problems that occur in the individual systems. With hydroponics, a grower often must rely upon commercial fertilizers in order to enrich the water, while in aquaculture the fish farmer must constantly monitor the toxicity levels of the water that results from fish effluents (waste).

In aquaponics, the fish effluent in the water provides an organic nutrient source, or natural fertilizer, for the plants being grown in the system. The plants in turn consume the natural fertilizer and in the process filter and purify the water, which is subsequently recirculated back to the fish.

In 1990 she and Pade learned about the research of Dr. James Rakocy, Professor of Aquaculture at the University of the Virgin Islands, sought him out, and began to experiment with aquaponics in order to develop a more efficient food production system.

Nelson and Pade, Inc’s path to market leadership in aquaponics includes the founding and publication of the Aquaponics Journal (58 issues published since 1997), the development of numerous large scale aquaponics facilities (for example, a 1/2 acre aquaponic facility in California and a 1/3 acre facility in Illinois), and an Aquaponics Curriculum that is now used around the world.

In 2006-2007 Nelson and Pade, Inc. relocated the company from California to Wisconsin.  According to Nelson, one prominent reason for the move was that the “need for a system that can produce year round” and “meet the demand for local and sustainable food” is much greater in Wisconsin with its harsh winters than in sunny California where the soil and weather is ideal year round.

Current Lines of Business

Nelson and Pade, Inc. sells its Clear Flow Aquaponic SystemsTM in sizes that range from 180 sq. ft. up to modules that can cover multiple acres.  Nelson and Pade’s aquaponic systems employ the raft method.   In raft systems, plants are grown in construction grade polystyrene boards that float on the water.

Nelson and Pade Clear Flow Aquaponic System

Nelson and Pade, Inc. Clear Flow Aquaponic System

The systems utilize mechanical filtration components that allow for higher stocking density of fish that results in increased plant production.

In terms of aquaponic system yields, Nelson says “typically we can grow 10 times more in the same given space” when compared to conventional growing methods. Purchasers of the systems tend to plant profitable leafy greens and lean toward farming tilapia. Tilapia is easy to raise and the fifth most popular fish in the U.S. in terms of per capita consumption.

Nelson and Pade want to see the aquaponics market grow and thrive.  To that end the company offers comprehensive project planning and design services to help guide and ensure the success of entrepreneurs and companies that want to pursue commercial aquaponic ventures.

Lettuce being grown using the raft method

Lettuce grown in raft aquaponic system

The project planning process usually takes 4 – 6 weeks and consists of a local market assessment, space and energy requirements evaluation, personal design and planning with Rebecca Nelson and John Pade, and more.

Additionally, Nelson and Pade, Inc. also offers comprehensive workshops and training programs where participants learn the ins and outs of aquaponics and how to properly operate a system.

Profitability, Marketing and Funding

According to Nelson, Nelson and Pade, Inc. is currently profitable and “sales have been doubling every year for the past five years.”


Most of the company’s customers are aware of Nelson and Pade’s reputation as pioneers in aquaponics or have found the company through its website http://www.aquaponics.com/.  The company also uses its workshops to provide potential customers with an entrée to its aquaponic systems.  80% of its customers come from the US, while 20% are international.

Nelson and Pade, Inc. was built from the ground up by the two founders with their own dollars.  As the company is currently growing and profitable, they are not actively seeking funding from outside investors.

Challenges for the Aquaponics Marketplace

One of the largest hurdles to wider adoption of aquaponics, according to Nelson, is government regulation that makes it prohibitively difficult to grow and sell food.  In the U.S. alone one must obtain nearly 9 different permits, which is both expensive and time consuming.

Additionally, as the field of aquaponics is so new, very few educational and training programs exist. Thus, it is currently difficult to find people with expertise to help fuel the growth of the industry.

Nelson also points out that “startup agriculture is a new concept” and that “it is difficult to come by startup capital from banks” that often use historical comparables to determine loan risk.

Living Food BankTM Aquaponic System

Nelson and Pade, Inc. has also developed a complete nuts to bolts, stand-alone, aquaponics system concept that Nelson says can be “plopped down anywhere in the world.”  The company is currently partnering with the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission (NWHCM) to build the first working prototype in Haiti.  The prototype will provide a training ground to allow NWHCM staff and volunteers to learn how to operate an aquaponic system.  The 4,144 sq. ft. Living Food Bank will rely on solar power and a backup generator.  It is capable of producing 27,500 heads of lettuce and 3,500 pounds of fish annually.

Along with its mission to continue to lead the aquaponics industry and supply aquaponic systems and technology to meet the need for the sustainable production of nutritious, safe food, Nelson says that Nelson and Pade, Inc.’s main goal is “food security for all nations” and she “believes that through aquaponics that is achievable.”

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