Five-acre Aquaponic Farm in Florida Finds Market for High-end Greens
October 22, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
Ryan Chatterson has figured out that special combination of skills needed by today’s aspiring aquaponic farmer: the ability to grow and the ability to market.
Chatterson began his five-acre Florida-based aquaponics farm, Chatterson Farms, to feed his family and community with nutritious produce he calls “better than organic.”
“We follow organic standards but use no pesticides (they will kill the fish), 90% less water and can provide more food from a smaller footprint (than traditional agriculture),” explains Chatterson. “We have zero waste discharged from our facility and are extremely energy efficient which leaves more room for profit and growth.”
In addition to selling high-end greens at the local farmers’ market, Chatterson provides 35-50 families per week with fresh vegetables for their table through a home delivery club.
The farm receives a premium price for produce.
“My produce is pesticide-free, generally picked the morning of sale and my farm-to-table distance averages seven miles,” says Chatterson. “Add that to the unique varieties I offer that you can’t find anywhere else and the superior quality and flavor of the produce I grow and you can see why people have been extremely excited to sign up.”
Deciding what to grow on the farm was a matter of trial, error and good market research for Chatterson.
“I spent 10 years trialing over 500 varieties of vegetables in several different aquaponic systems and concentrated on growing new varieties that I had never seen for sale at my local supermarket where varieties are chosen for shelf life, appearance and ability to withstand long shipping distances,” explains Chatterson. “I focus on varieties that have superior flavor and nutritional qualities. Because we sell local I can offer varieties such as Crenshaw Melon, which we have tested to be 400% sweeter than your typical market cantaloupe. We rotate through a minimum of 150 varieties annually to assure we always stay unique and separate ourselves from the competition.”
The produce grown on the farm includes a variety of leafy greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, fresh herbs and Tilapia fish. Produce is available to customers in three package options: Sampler, Connoisseur and Chef’s Delight with price points ranging from $30-$100 per customer for a week’s worth of produce. The farm’s herd of LaMancha and Saanen dairy goats provides delivery club customers with goat cheese and butters.
One of the keys to Chatterson Farms success is beneficial insect pest control.
“I have a carefully designed an Integrated Pest Management regiment that I vary based on the crops I grow throughout the year, which allows me to grow year-round without the use of pesticides,” says Chatterson. “I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
Before opening his own farm in early 2012, Chatterson studied Biology at the University of Central Florida, assisted in the design and implementation of numerous custom aquaponic systems for a commercial firm and managed a rooftop aquaponic greenhouse. He’s a veteran in the startup aquaponics game and has a clear perspective on both the good and the bad of commercial aquaponics farming.
“I think the current problem is that there are many people attempting it at a large scale, but few possess the multiple skills such as fish husbandry, plant husbandry, business, marketing, web skills, etc. needed to make a commercial-sized aquaponics farm viable, and even fewer have the experience needed to overcome deficiency and pest issues and meet production goals,” says Chatterson.
Chatterson advises startup aquaponic farms to understand there’s more to farming than farming.
“Farmers aren’t always the best at marketing their product and businessman aren’t always the best at growing aquaponic produce, but a commercial aquaponic farmer should have all of these qualities or make sure that they are included on your team of personnel,” says Chatterson.
With a decade of experience under his belt, Chatterson loves to share his knowledge. His website includes detailed instructions on creating aquaponics systems, breaking down a process still new to many sustainable farmers into easy-to-follow steps. Future plans include teaching aquaponics farming classes and creating satellite farms that utilize the Chatterson Farm business model.
“My best advice is to read everything you can get your hands on, build a small system as soon as possible and get comfortable with plant and fish husbandry,” says Chatterson.
“Do market research and start to write a business plan that shows on paper how you will make money. I would suggest attending a training course from a qualified professional in the industry that is growing the types of crops you plan on growing and that has the experience to help you through hard times. There can be a big learning curve but with the right training, you can design a system that is profitable, robust and successful,” he advises.”
Chatterson believes that as resources diminish and land and water become scarcer, commercial aquaponics will be an increasingly important part of the solution to growing food into the future.
“I think the future is bright for commercial aquaponics and it will continue to prove its viability as our farm flourishes,” says Chatterson.