In Demand Worldwide, Portable Farms Seeks to Address Food Supply Issues and Profit with its Aquaponics Systems
January 3, 2012 | Melinda Clark
That’s the question Colle Davis, inventor of Portable Farms™ Aquaponics Systems, posed in a recent article. In it, he writes that the answer is no, that “Life as it has been known in the Western world is coming to an abrupt and chaotic end. There is no way to stop the demise of societies that refuse to stop growing and consuming.”
So why did this man who claims that sustainability isn’t possible invent an aquaponics system? Well, as he puts it, “With a portable farm set-up, you can be a lot closer.” That, and it’s good business.
Portable Farms™ Aquaponics Systems is predominantly a technology company that offers licensing and training for installations of their aquaponics systems. The systems are an easy way for consumers and commercial growers to raise organic vegetables and Tilapia year-round, without soil, using 90 to 95% less water than traditional in-ground gardens.
Davis says that the vast majority of Portable Farms’ business is about commercial installations. They sell the technology and make arrangements with the purchaser to come out and train employees on how to properly install and use the systems.
“They have my group come in and build the first four modules and train their people to continue to build the modules,” explains Davis. “We’re there on the ground from the start, basically training them how to be successful.”
Licenses for the systems, which Davis describes as similar to a software end user licensing agreement, are in high demand – not surprisingly, since the systems’ ROI is five years or less on most first installations, and three years for the second.
There are three types of licenses, each with different requirements, restrictions and pricing. The Extendable Portable Farms™ Aquaponics Systems (PFAS) Technology License is strictly for individual installations of commercial PFAS Units. These licenses are issued on a per-specified-site basis. The Territorial PFAS Technology License covers a geographic territory, specifically defined by the license holder and Portable Farms, which can encompass up to approximately 3 million people. A person holding a territorial license can make between $70,000 and $100,000 per installation, according to Davis.
The third type of license is the Country PFAS Technology License, which covers a specific country, and is available for purchase by both companies and countries. Most recently, Portable Farms completed an installation in Nigeria for a new license holder there who will grow vegetables and fish for local markets.
“We tell the country, usually the ministry of development, that for a million dollar investment they can put up between 9 and 12 units and put 40 people to work full-time permanently,” says Davis. Many take him up on the offer.
License holders must purchase their pumps from Portable Farms, and are responsible for setting up their own “climactically adapted structure” – a greenhouse – as well as water and electricity. Portable Farms specifies the specific type of materials, such as lumber, that need to be available for the installation. Only when this is all in place will Portable Farms’ team come out.
“We don’t even make airline reservations until the greenhouse is finished,” explains Davis.
Once in place, and with properly trained operators, the systems are nearly unbreakable. “Our systems are all modular,” says Davis. “If one module fails, the whole system doesn’t fail. A normal commercial operation has 30 modules. If one goes down, it’s only one thirtieth…They’re really bulletproof.”
Teach a Man to Fish…
Davis had his first introduction to aquaponics while pursuing a renewable natural resources education at the University of California, Davis. He took a job at the Tilapia Project on campus to support his wife and kids, and was charged with cleaning the fish tanks. While attempting to simplify the arduous and stinky task, he created a basic aquaponics system and from then on was hooked (though not an immediate expert – the tomato and orange plants he originally got to sprout all died within a week, devastating his young self).
“That was in 1971. Been at this 40 years now. Mostly it was a hobby,” explains Davis. “Four years ago my wife said, ‘You’ve been screwing around with this long enough. You perfect it and I’ll market it.’”
So Davis and his wife, Phyllis, launched Portable Farms in June of 2008, to somewhat instant success; Davis says that within a year they became ‘sort-of known.’ Now they’re a leading authority on aquaponics.
Davis points out that if and when it becomes too expensive to ship food around the world, and commodity prices become unstable, consumers will need access to a safe and secure food supply – like an aquaponics system. He pragmatically points out that people who can produce their own food will be in a position of power.
“Some people will have money and power no matter what happens,” says Davis. “Can’t eat gold, but if you have control over things like the food supply you are going to win. The one-eyed man is king of the land of the blind. If you have a system where you can feed other people, you’ll always have a market…if you can continue to supply the high end of the market with food, you’re in the perfect survival system.”
Road – or Stream – to Success
Davis says that the reason Portable Farms’ focus is on commercial installations is economics – it takes the same amount of time on their part for commercial installations and backyard farms, and a backyard farm brings in about $800 to $900, while a commercial one can bring in $100,000.
Davis comes from a business background, and expects the people who approach Portable Farms to do so as business people.
“Here’s what we learned very early,” he says. “We said we’d like to end poverty and feed the world. We were sort of pie in the sky. It’s a nice thing to go for. Here’s the problem: we almost went out of business twice trying to help people out because the people who want the information don’t want to pay for it…We’ve had over 100 NGOs approach us and say, ‘let’s take the technology to Haiti.’ Okay, you write us a check for 1.7 million dollars.”
To ensure that it stays in business, Portable Farms is also very careful about screening its clientele. Davis explains that clients must either be a construction company or have a long-term relationship with one. For example, Portable Farms’ first international technology license was sold in Botswana, Africa, to a major construction company that had been searching for more than two years for the perfect aquaponics system to bring to their country. After extensive research, the company approached Portable Farms and requested to become the premier license holder for Botswana to fulfill their plans to sell fish and vegetables to local markets near each installation site.
“We want people to succeed,” explains Davis. “If you’re not going to succeed, we’re not going to take your time. If there’s a good chance you’ll succeed, let’s move forward.”
It’s no surprise, then, that there’s been a flurry of investor interest in Portable Farms, especially in the last couple of months. Davis says that in the last five or six weeks, they’ve been approached by a number of investors who want to be involved. According to Portable Farms’ website, the smallest investment for a commercial installation is in excess of $100,000.
Swimming with the Big Fish
Portable Farms’ current largest market is Africa, where they’re getting more requests than everywhere else combined. As Davis puts it, “We could work in Africa for the next 10 years and barely keep up.” More and more requests are also coming in from India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and Portable Farms is pretty much at capacity.
“We sell a license a month, that’s about all we can handle at the moment,” says Davis. “If it gets above that, we have to change the structure of the company itself.” He says that they’re prepared to do so when it becomes necessary.
As for his own role in the company, the 65-year-old only plans to stay with the business for as long as he continues to enjoy it. “In five or six years I’d like to sell the company. I’m 65 years old. I’d perhaps like to think about retiring,” he says. “But I’m still having fun.”