Monmouth, Ore. — Aquaponics is gaining popularity in Oregon, and as producers build their systems they can reduce their risk by starting small and designing their operations in modules, a commercial aquaponic producer says.

Doing that allows a scalable operation that can be more easily expanded and isolates any problems that arise, said Joel Kelly, CEO of Live Local Organic, a commercial aquaponic farm in Milwaukie, Ore.

Aquaponics is a system of farming that combines aquaculture — raising fish — with hydroponics — growing produce in nutrient-rich water. The produce uses the fish waste to gain nutrients and simultaneously cleans the water, reducing the amount of water needed to produce the crops.

The Oregon Aquaculture Association sponsored a conference on aquaponics last weekend at Western Oregon University. In the Pacific Northwest, tilapia and coy fish are usually used in aquaponics, said Kate Wildrick, co-chair of the conference. She said the number of aquaponic farms in the region is still relatively small.

Kelly discussed some of the challenges of aquaponic farming on a commercial scale at the conference.

“I think (aquaponics) is possible on any kind of a scale, but I think what has to happen is it has to be modular,” he said.

The idea is to take a small, simple system that works and then replicate it as many times as you have space or resources for in order to produce more crops and fish, Kelly said.

“Not everything that works at a small scale works at a large scale,” he said.

There are some big benefits that come with having a system set up in multiple self-sustained pieces, Kelly said.

“When we modularize everything, if there is something bad that happens to a tank … it is just contained in that one little area so we can still keep producing and keep supplying our customers if there is a fish die off or some kind of disease,” making the method fairly low risk, he said.

However, profit margins are still fairly low, Kelly said. Most aquaponic farms raise herbs, lettuce or some other type of greens because the grow time is a lot shorter than, say, a tomato. A shorter grow time means less risk, he said.

Kelly said no one he is aware of has been able to successfully grow fruit-bearing plants such as strawberries or tomatoes in a commercial setting for profit, but that is where he sees the industry going in the future.

“The golden ticket and what we are really trying to figure out is how to produce something like tomatoes or strawberries or cucumbers profitably,” Kelly said.

“If you are growing basil or lettuce and you plant your crop, four weeks after you plant it you are going to be able to harvest some of it, eight weeks you will be able to harvest pretty much all of it,” he said.

“If you plant a tomato plant … you have to wait four months for it to start producing,” Kelly said. “So if something goes wrong in that four-week period it’s like, OK, you restart and then in another four weeks you will be fine, but if something goes wrong in month four for the tomato plant your whole four months is gone and you have to restart and you don’t get anything.”

The other struggle with fruit-bearing plants such as tomatoes or cucumbers is space. Herbs and greens don’t require as much space to grow as a cucumber plant, Kelly said, because a cucumber grows up and out while something like basil is more contained.

Kelly said the aquaponic community should be seeing more variety of produce in the future that they can farm successfully for profit.

“What we have now, they’re profitable, they’re good. I think we have figured out how to do that,” Kelly said, “I think in the next five to 10 years, we will have a lot more products that can be produced profitably.”

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