Innovative Commercial Aquaponics Farm Emerges from Economic Downturn to Profit and Empower Others
March 27, 2012 | Doris D. Quintanilla
When married couple Susanne Friend and Tim Mann first started Friendly Aquaponics, a commercial aquaponics farm and training facility, on the beautiful big island of Hawaii, they weren’t really thinking about providing for their family, much less saving the world.
“What started out very simply as the desire to make a good living by serving someone other than the very wealthy clients we had as a design firm has slowly turned into a crusade,” Friend said.
The company will soon reach its five year milestone, and Friend now feels like they are on a mission – a mission she did not fully understand at the beginning – to empower people to meet their own food needs at the lowest cost possible.
An Aquaponics Operation Emerges from the Economic Downturn
When the couple’s two construction-related companies were affected by the economic downturn in 2007, they decided to focus on alternative ways to produce food and to make profit.
“We knew people might stop buying houses and cars in an economic downturn, but not food,” Friend said.
As two people with no prior farming or gardening experience, the couple began to research aquaponics, a food production system that combines traditional aquaculture, the raising of aquatic animals, with hydroponics, the cultivation of plants in water.
“Aquaponics is a natural, pond ecosystem, held in place by a man-made container,” so it is easier to work with [than hydroponics] and less labor intensive, Friend says. “It is the only method of growing food on a large scale that is not dependent on petrochemical inputs.”
Although other organic and sustainable food production systems exist, Friend believes that aquaponics is by far the most sustainable and self-sufficient of them all.
“Hydroponics is a man-made system, inside a man-made container,” she added. “It is reliant upon petrochemical inputs.” As for traditional farming, Friend believes that requires far too much work.
In 2007, Friend’s husband, Tim Mann, attended the “Short Course in Tilapia Aquaculture and Aquaponics” at the University of Virgin Islands. The seven-day course focuses on Dr. James Rakocy’s aquaponic system design, which combines tilapia with vegetable production through “deep water” or “raft culture” aquaponics. The system is considered to be “deep water” because the water is at least 8 to 9 inches deep in the hydroponics troughs where the fish grow. Polystyrene rafts, which hold the plants, float on top of this water. The roots of the plants in the rafts are submerged in the water and feed on the fish effluent (waste), which provides an organic nutrient source, or natural fertilizer. 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. The depth of the water helps keep the vegetables cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather, and the removable rafts contribute to an efficient system that requires very little labor to plant and harvest vegetables.
“It is a self-balancing recirculating system, which just requires fish food and electricity to keep the cycle going,” Mann said.
A More Efficient Aquaponics Operation
When Friendly Aquaponics built its outdoor aquaponics system modeled after Rakocy’s design, Mann and Friendly say they improved upon it by not only cutting operating costs by 70 percent by using electricity more efficiently, but also by increasing the productivity of the system as measured by plants per square foot production.
Initially, they planted 90 different species of vegetables to determine which plants would grow best in the system. The system yielded good results, especially from the leafy green and stir-fry vegetables, said Friend. Friendly Aquaponics subsequently built a hatchery to breed tilapia fish in the following months in order to expand its aquaponics operation.
What began as a small aquaponics farm soon grew to cover a total of 5,900 square feet of raft area in six aquaponics systems and another 1,200 square feet of covered sprouting table area where seed germination occurs.
The company’s aquaponic systems, according to a Friendly Aquaponics manual, “use fish tank effluent water as nutrient solution for an organic hydroponics growing operation. The hydroponics act as a bio filter for the fish tank water, cleaning and recirculating it so the fish stay healthy.”
This nutrient fluid, says Mann, “is simply the most effective nutrient solution for growing plants” they have found in their aquaponics/hydroponics research.
Friendly Aquaponics currently produces 1000-1600 pounds of organic lettuce mix per month and about 300 pounds of fish per month. (Update: 3/28) In addition to lettuce, the company grows a wide variety of crops that include: Awa (Kava), basil, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cilantro, collards, cucumbers, eggplant, endive, fennel, gourds, green onions, greens (arugula, Asian, corn salad/mache, cress, mustard, pac choi, sorrel), kale, ki ne he, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, melons, micro mix, mint, okra, peas peppers, pineapple, poha, popolu, radish, sage, scallions, spinach, squash, Swiss chard, taro, tat soi, tomatillo, tomato, thyme, and turnips.
Ninety-eight percent of their profit comes from the sale of vegetables and about two percent comes from fish, according to Friend.
As a result of fish food expenses and high electricity costs in Hawaii, the fish cost more to raise than what they can sell them for on the wholesale market. There is a $1.50 loss per pound, says Friend.
“The fish actually cost us money. In much the same way the engine of your car costs you the most, the fish are our engine,” says Friend. “The fuel we use is fish food, as well as the energy we provided for aeration, eighty percent, and pumping water, twenty percent.”
But despite this, Friend believes there isn’t much of a question as to which food production system is best.
Aquaponics is far more sustainable, far more natural, far less work and the food tastes better, says Friend.
“If something is not sustainable, it will someday cease operating,” says Friend. “These systems are sustainable when coupled with biogas for energy, and when a locally-sourced food supply is used.”
Catering to the “Do It Yourselfers”
In addition to its commercial operation, Friendly Aquaponics also offers training courses to individuals looking to set up their own aquaponics operations.
“Most of the people who come to our training are do it yourselfers. They don’t have the money to pay for consultants,” says Friend.
She says that one thing that sets Friendly Aquaponics’ training program apart is that it does not require participants to sign non-disclosure agreements to insure that they will not share details of the system with outsiders. In fact, Friendly Aquaponics takes an open source approach to aquaponics and actively encourages participants in the program to spread the word and teach other people about its aquaponics system.
“We want to make sure you go out and do teach other people,” says Friend.
Her hope is that aquaponics “goes viral.”
Friendly Aquaponics has created manuals and training programs for people and groups from all over the world. Various manuals are geared toward those who are interested in a range of aquaponic systems, from indoor to outdoor, to the most basic tabletop systems.
The company also does not turn away anyone based on whether or not they can pay for the courses or manuals.
“For every 11 to 12 people who actually pay us, there are twenty who can’t,” Friend says. “We are really looking to empower those who are forgotten.”
The Most Commercially Successful Aquaponics Farm in the World
Friend says that Friendly Aquaponics is the most commercially successful aquaponics farm in the world.
“To my knowledge, we are the largest commercial aquaponics facility in the world, with over 7,000 square feet under raft, and almost 30,000 holes,” she says. The holes are where each plant can reach harvest size. The company’s organic lettuce mix has proven to be its most profitable product.
Friendly Aquaponics is also the only aquaponics farm to become a Costco vendor, and the first to be Food Safety Certified for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) through the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture, and State Department of Health Certified.
Friend and Mann have also been asked by Penguin Books to write “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Aquaponic Gardening,” a 352 page book that will include instruction on how to set up and maintain a home aquaponics system.
Friend and Mann also continue to innovate and experiment with different aquaponic system configurations. They have implemented an aquaponic system in a solar powered greenhouse and are currently working on the development of an affordable biogas digester that small aquaponic farms in colder climates can use to economically power their aquaponic systems. They have built and designed a simplified, economical, low-density 256 square foot aquaponic system suitable for a family’s backyard. The system runs on one-fifth the electricity required of their original systems, but still yields the same results with respect to vegetable production. In addition, they also built a 64 square foot backyard system they call the “Micro System.”
“Because outdoor Aquaponics uses little land, doesn’t require soil fertility or even soil, has little or no net water use, uses far less energy than farming in the ground, produces both protein and vegetables, is certifiable organic, and is movable if designed properly, it’s the number one contender for sustainable farming in the future,” says Friend.