Even so, Whitis perceives a growing demand among U.S. consumers for American-grown fish products — and that fact affords aspiring aquaponics growers with another critical advantage.

“With aquaponics, you’re dealing with a product that is by necessity all natural,” he says. “By its nature, this production system keeps you honest because if you use pesticides on your plant crops, you’re going to harm your fish, and if your fish perish, the system collapses.”

As an effective marketing strategy, Whitis advises prospective growers to form partnerships with one or more local restaurants and to stress that the fish are raised in a pesticide-free environment.  However, since few of these restaurants are set up to dress fish, few will buy live product.

One viable alternative for producers is to complement their aquaponics operations with small processing facilities that are in compliance with local health codes.

Prospective growers also face the added challenge of attaining a scale that is commercially feasible.

Based on his own research and experience, Whitis says the minimal size of such a facility typically encompasses about 3,000 square feet and concentrates on higher-end vegetables and herbs.

“Staggered fish production is a key too,” Whitis says. “You have to time your harvests and sell fish during the year, not just one crop per year.”

Tilapia is one of several species most ideally suited to aquaponics production. 

Whitis says that tilapia grown to two pounds helps secure a sustainable aquaponics system.

 “In the course of feeding the tilapia, you’re also adding fertilizer to the water, which, in turn, is used to irrigate whatever plants you choose to grow,” he says, adding that a few compounds, such as potassium and iron, still have to be added to ensure optimal growing conditions for the plants.

Whitis says producers often opt to be highly diversified, growing as many as 20 different varieties of herbs and vegetables along with the fish. However, Whitis says experience has demonstrated that hot peppers, basil and cucumbers work exceptionally well in such a system.

 

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