Global Food

Aquaponics: Making a Sustainable Food Choice Economically Sustainable

By Fran Howard

Thousands of urban farmers scattered throughout the Twin Cities metro area are growing both fish and produce in basements, garages, greenhouses, and warehouses. The number of aquaponic farms in the metro and the state has mushroomed over the past few years, yet the industry is so young that those who want to raise and sell their products commercially have no way to determine whether their farm will be economically sustainable.

College of Veterinary Medicine researcher Nick Phelps, Ph.D., and collaborators from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, are nearly halfway into a two-year project that will determine both the market for aquaponically raised fish and produce and an economic model that farmers can use to determine whether it makes sense to grow sustainable aquaponic products for the commercial market.

Phelps' project, Profitability and Sustainable Assessment of Minnesota’s Rapidly Expanding Aquaponic Food Industry, is funded by a Global Food Ventures award provided by Minnesota’s Discovery Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE).

Aquaponics is an integrated farming system that uses a blend of aquaculture (farm-raised fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). “It’s a symbiotic system that is beneficial to both species,” Phelps says. In aquaponic systems, fish waste provides fertilizer for the produce, and the plants naturally filter and clean the water for the fish.

“The Twin Cities is a popular, trendy hub for aquaponics in the United States. Most farms are in an urban setting, near grocery stores or restaurants,” says Phelps. At 8,000 square feet, one of the nation’s largest aquaponic farms, Urban Organics, operates on the former Hamm’s Brewery site on St. Paul’s East Side. While there are many options for both fish and plants, Minnesota aquaponic farmers typically raise one of two species of fish—yellow perch or tilapia—along with either basil or lettuce.

Phelps and his colleagues are first building an economic model that will assess all costs within an aquaponic production system and then will investigate how to build efficiencies into the system. “For example, we want to be able to answer questions like whether lowering lighting costs by 10 percent increases profitability without a negative affect on production,” Phelps says.

Two of the estimated 40 commercial-sized aquaponic farms in the Twin Cities kept track of all of their production costs for two years, which the research team will use to build their economic model. “I hope to be able to answer the questions of people who are interested in this industry as well as the question of whether their operations will be sustainable by entering their parameters into the model,” says Phelps.

In an effort to determine the market for aquaponics, the research team has already surveyed 450 people about their perceptions of aquaponics. “We want to find out who the ideal customer is so aquaponic producers can better market their products.” Phelps says. “We are still analyzing the data, but it appears the ideal consumer is a female under 35 years of age.” In general, Phelps says that younger people are more aware of food sustainability issues and food production practices.  “It is clear, though, that there will need to be some education efforts,” says Phelps. “Only about one-third of our respondents could explain the aquaponic system.”

In the second year of the project, which begins this July, the research team will conduct taste-testing panels for products raised on local aquaponic farms. After tasting basil, lettuce, and strawberries that were grown using conventional and aquaponic practices, each panel member will be given $40 to bid on the type of produce they want. Phelps expects some people to bid only on the lower-cost products, while others pay a premium for freshness and for a product that is sustainable.

“MnDRIVE offers a great chance to ask these questions,” says Phelps, who conducted an earlier study funded by MnDRIVE that looked at food safety and aquaponics. That study found that humans introduced the primary food safety risks related to aquaponics through unsafe handling practices.

On May 3, 2016, Phelps and his colleagues will be offering a symposium for aquaponic producers from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Continuing Education and Conference Center on the University’s St. Paul Campus. To learn more about the symposium, please see http://cceevents.umn.edu/minnesota-aquaponics-symposium.

MnDrive is an $18-million annual investment by the state of Minnesota. Global Food Ventures provides awards to scientists in the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, School of Public Health, and College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. In addition to Global Food Ventures, MnDRIVE’s research areas are: Advancing Industry, Conserving Our Environment; Discoveries and Treatments for Brain Conditions; and Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing.