Commercial Aquaponics Training and Why Experience Matters

By: Tawnya Sawyer

What follows is a guest post by Gina Cavaliero of Green Acre Aquaponics about why it is so important to seek out experienced farmers (and marketers) when you are considering going into commercial aquaponics. I am proud to say that Gina, JD, and I will be co-teaching Green Acres Aquaponic Farming – The Complete Course in late October, 2012.
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Gina talking with students
Gina talking with students

A few weeks ago, JD Sawyer of Flourish Farms and Sylvia Bernstein of The Aquaponic Source and I were chatting before beginning one of our Aquaponics Association Conference planning meetings. JD and Sylvia also happen to be partnered up with me on our upcoming Green Acre’s Aquaponic Training – The Complete Course. Typically though before we dig in and get to work figuring out menu selections, farm tour routes or workshop schedules, JD and I often share our farm stories and experiences. Just this last time as JD relayed a recent mishap and I told of our discoveries upon returning home from a brief vacation, Sylvia exclaimed,

Listening to you two makes it so apparent how important it is that people teaching aquaponic commercial farming actually farm!

I laughed as it’s something we at Green Acre have said for a long time. There’s just nothing that compares to the experience of just doing it each and every day.

What JD and his team and Tonya and I have discovered is that being an aquaponic farmer is an interesting mix of construction worker, marketer, manager, aquaponic evangelist, customer service rep, farmer, teacher and perhaps most importantly, a MacGyver extraordinaire. Remember that show? This guy could make a bomb out of a stick of gum, a Coke and some toothpaste! Well, I don’t think either JD or I have ever had the need for a bomb, yet, but we have sure had to be innovative and creative and have developed an immeasurable wealth of knowledge and experience.

JD Sawyer Teaching
JD Sawyer Teaching

I am sure those that garden aquaponically on a small or backyard scale have plenty of experiences they can relate as well, but a threshold is crossed the second your aquaponic system has to pay the bills. If some aphids or other pests compromise your ap garden it may be frustrating for the home gardener but its not the same as when several of your clients that are counting on your delivery don’t get it. Revenue is lost that will never be recovered, customers are disappointed and a chef is scrambling to make a last minute alteration to his menu. Aphid and pest management then takes on a whole new meaning and level of importance and anyone that also has to grow in any kind of structure understands that pest management is an entirely different animal than those fortunate enough to be able to grow outside in the open. However most of us here in the States aren’t afforded that luxury. For instance, nearly 100% of the states will experience at least some freezing overnight temps with the exception of the southernmost tip of Florida. (see this link for a freeze map http://www.accuracyproject.org/w-FreezeFrost.html) But whether it is from freezing, torrential rains, insects or larger pests, protecting your crops should be at the top of your priority list. We have finally determined what we call the three prong approach to aphid control and have employed some recent MacGyver like innovations to deal with some larger pests. When some very diligent squirrels night after night consumed all of our beautiful 1/2 lb plus peppers, we had to do something. Money was literally flying out the door and into some fat, happy squirrels in the form of yellow and orange bells. Checked prices on organic bell peppers lately? Argghh! This is where experience counts because everything that happens in that greenhouse translates into one of two things. Money lost or money earned.

Tonya showing how to sex a tilapia
Tonya showing how to sex a tilapia

We have come to realize that there are so many things that our everyday experiences have taught us and it is why we are committed to delivering that in our training. It may be how to mitigate an aphid explosion across thousands of heads of lettuce as opposed to a backyarder’s few heads or how to efficiently deliver cold product or harvest or seed on a large scale, but it’s things others that don’t actually farm just won’t know. JD, having been an aquaponic gardener for years and having made the transition to commercial farmer last year understands this better than most. JD says,

The actual management of the aquaponic system itself (feeding, harvesting, water quality, etc) is now just one piece of the puzzle. You have to manage customers, vendors, environmental systems, maintenance, finances, regulatory issues and on and on. It’s the business of the business and it may be much more than you bargained for when you thought all you would be doing is farm!!

Even the students from our last course commented that they were amazed at how much of the experience that we shared was so contingent upon us doing this for a living. One grateful student exclaimed,

I love that you guys are so into sharing your info and presenting your experience to keep us from making the same mistakes!

Flourish farms
Flourish Farms

That is why when we talked to JD and asked him to join our team, we knew JD would bring even more hands-on experience that we we could then relay to those we teach, especially as JD does something even we don’t do! JD grows in a cold environment as many of our students will have to do. As new as aquaponic farming is, pulling together experienced folks that are getting dirty (or wet!) doing it every day in the same or similar environment as their students is simply priceless. Now I know Sylvia is not a commerical farmer, but there is no way we would be able to call this ‘The Complete Course’ without Sylvia’s incredible business and marketing experience rounding out the curriculum. However I have to also mention as the author of “Aquaponic Gardening A Step by Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together”, she also brings her masterful aquaponic and horticultural experience.

People pay for experience every day whether it is the new hire that comes in more pricey because he has experience under his belt, or the attorney with an established practice and years of litigation. This is where the old saying rings true; you absolutely get what you pay for. Do you want to learn from those that have the hand’s on practical knowledge or from one with no commercial experience but can give you their opinions and thoughts as to how it might work? Well, when a problem occurs or advice is needed about operating your new farm, it’s simply a no brainer to me. I’d definitely want a farmer on the other end of that phone call.

Click here to learn more and to register for Green Acre Aquaponic Farming – The Complete Course.