Aquaponics Co. Hopes to Increase Food Security and Achieve Profit Via International Strategy
April 30, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
With world population expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, there are concerns about whether there will be enough fresh food to feed them all. Some say aquaponics is the solution.
The method combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing vegetables in water and nutrients, without soil) to produce pesticide-free food while using substantially less water compared to conventional farming methods. That creates the potential for maximizing food production in developing countries that have less water and healthy soil to work with, according to the leaders of Dallas-based Premier Organic Farms Corporation which plans to do just that through its subsidiary ECO Fresh Solutions.
The goal of ECO Fresh Solutions is to design, develop and operate entire “Eco-Park Communities” in developing countries. It is a plan that requires collaboration with government officials, said Susan Bedwell, co-founder and CEO of both Premier Organic Farms and Eco Fresh Solutions. The Eco-Park Communities would combine Premier Organic Farms’ “Growing Pod Unit” aquaponics systems with alternative energy solutions, allowing the communities to grow their own food year-round on non-arable land. The communities are also expected to create jobs, other sustainable ancillary industries (outside of ECO Fresh’s service range) and revenue that will ultimately pay for the projects (generally over a 25-year period), Bedwell said.
Eco Fresh Solutions was started early this year, but is the result of several years of collaboration, Bedwell said. She noted that the team has not yet launched any Eco-Park Communities, but there is “intense interest.”
“We are working on several proposals right now in Africa and in India, and then we’ve also got an interest in Indonesia,” she said, noting that ECO Fresh Solutions is at various stages on a total of about five or six different projects. “We are hoping in the next five years to have five of these communities going. It takes us about a year to build one.”
Bedwell says the plan to launch internationally on a large commercial scale follows about six years of research and development that Premier Organic Farms has put into perfecting its Growing Pod Unit. She said the company’s system can produce more than 5,000 percent more food using 90 percent less water per square foot when compared to conventional farming methods.
From Aquaculture to Aquaponics
Premier Organic Farms was founded in 2005 when Bedwell and Grady Sanders (who are now husband and wife) came together as business partners to work on an aquaculture project. Bedwell had the farming background, since she was a fourth generation agriculturalist, and Sanders had more of a design focus.
“What really brought us to the aquaponics direction is that we discovered that we were going to have an awful lot of organic fertilizer (from the fish effluent) and the obvious thing that occurred to us is ‘We need to do something with it because it’s valuable,’” Bedwell said.
In the company’s aquaponics process, fish effluent (or waste) flows from fish tanks to greenhouses where herbs and vegetables are grown hydroponically. The fish tank run-off provides nitrogen-rich nutrients to help grow the lettuce in water (instead of soil). The lettuce roots absorb the nutrients, filtering and purifying the water, which goes back to the fish tanks. The water is continually recycled and excess effluent is sold as a secondary product.
“We basically started (thinking) ‘We just need to start looking at how Mother Nature does things and see if we can’t adapt it with technology and science,” she said.
Premier Organic Farms collaborated with researchers from the University of Arizona, who did research trials on commercial aquaponics methods for the company. Premier also set up a test facility in Abbeville, Louisiana, where the company grew fish and vegetables and sold its products, Bedwell said. Herbs and vegetables (such as butter lettuce and loose leaf varieties) became the main money makers. That’s because fish took much longer to grow than herbs, which had a growing span of about 10 to 14 days, Bedwell said.
By 2008, Premier closed its Louisiana facility to open a larger one, but the nation’s financial crisis thwarted those plans. The company was ready to build a $30 million farm outside of Las Vegas, but the banking commitment it had for the funding fell through, Bedwell said. Since then, Premier has had trouble finding U.S. financing. In the meantime, the company continues to research and develop its technology on a smaller scale.
There was also the issue of the U.S. being “half-asleep” on the world’s food security and water issues, Bedwell said.
“Talking about aquaponics, conserving water (and) producing food is still considered the boutique industry of the U.S.,” she said. “But when it gets outside the border of the U.S. … in countries that have been hit by famine and hunger and really serious droughts, they understand the critical need for food and water.”
That’s why the company turned to a new international focus via the creation of Eco Fresh Solutions.
An International Aquaponics Strategy
Bedwell describes ECO Fresh Solutions’ role as being like that of an architect, which takes a customized plan and makes it reality.
“We have the architects, we have the engineers, as well as the food production experts that look at the whole project and design, build, construct, operate, manage (and) train,” she said. “We can do any part of it that they want.”
Bedwell said the projects will take personalized looks at each region’s specific needs and circumstances, including environmental conditions, water conditions, design risks, local needs and existing infrastructure. Additionally, the aquaponics methods and the company’s organic waste alternative energy digester technology can also provide other byproducts (rich organic fertilizers) for soil enhancements in places where the soil has largely been depleted.
The projects will use other Eco Fresh Solutions’ technologies to produce local renewable energy, employing a “Farm-To-Grid” concept, according to Eco Fresh’s website. The proposed “Eco Park Communities” will also include social components, such as day care facilities, schools and health clinics, according to Eco Fresh’s website. Each project will typically employ 1,000 to 2,000 people during construction and create about 750 permanent jobs.
Yet, even as the company is primarily looking to countries outside the U.S., it has still attracted some interest domestically. Dennis Ickes, president of consulting firm Native 17, LLC in Salt Lake City, says he has been having preliminary discussions with Premier in recent months. His company helps American Indian tribes establish plans for economic self-sufficiency, and he said he sees aquaponics farming as a possible future opportunity.
“(There’s) the ability to utilize water resources that many tribes have that are along major waterways and to put their water to use in a productive way,” Ickes said, adding that tribes with aquaponics farms would be able to generate profits for themselves. “It’s a concept that I’ve had for quite some time, and I had been looking for someone who has the scope of what Premier Organic Farms has.”
Ickes said he is still in the process of researching the idea and whether it should be pursued.
Bedwell says what makes Premier’s stand out is its large team of experts, a component she believes many other aquaponics operations lack.
“Even though they (the aquaponics, hydroponics and aquaculture industries) have been around for 30 years or so, they haven’t on a meaningful level had the depth of expertise to solve problems,” she said. “Maybe they haven’t had the right engineering up-front to be able to handle a volume of waste.”
For example, it is vital for the aquaponics farmer to know the correct fish-to-vegetable ratio to ensure proper water filtration. The collaboration between various types of experts also allows the company to expand its focus beyond food production.
Bedwell noted that while using enclosed aquaponics systems requires the higher upfront capital costs of building structures and powering them, the much higher food productivity levels balance out the costs. There are also other positive factors.
“You might have higher electrical costs, but you also have an alternative energy plant that your byproducts are helping to fuel, and then the alternative energy plant turns around and provides electricity,” Bedwell said. “That’s where we’ve gotten creative about eliminating cost centers and turning them into profit centers.”