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18.5 Horticulture Side of Commercial Aquaponics in Europe

5 months ago

10 min read

Petrea et al. (2016) conducted a comparative cost-effective analysis on different aquaponics setups, utilising five different crops: baby leaf spinach, spinach, basil, mint and tarragon in deepwater culture and light expanded clay aggregate (LECA). Whilst the study was conducted in very small systems without taking into account any upscaling opportunity or potential, several aspects of the presented results are worth discussing. The grow beds have been illuminated in different lighting regimes with fluorescent bulbs and metal halide grow lights. The cost comparisons of the electricity illuminates the significant share plant lighting has on overall electricity cost. Furthermore, the analysis sheds light on the importance of sensible crop selection. Whilst tarragon is referenced as what is often called a "high-value crop" earlier in the text, the later economic crop yield analysis shows that other crops, basil and mint, generate a higher economic value per grow bed area (Petrea et al. 2016, p. 563).

Company Location Initial investment Overall size of the system Plant production size Type of plants Type of fish Years of Operation
ECF Germany 1.3 mio EUR 1800 msup2/sup 1000 msup2/sup Basil Tilapia 2 years
NerBreen Spain 2 mio EUR 6000 msup2/sup 3000 msup2/sup Lettuce, straw- berries, tomatoes, peppers Tilapia 5 years the 500 msup2/sup pilot system, 1,5 years the large system
Ponika Slovenia 100.000 EUR 400 m2 greenhouse + water reserve packag- ing and cooling area in a container 320 msup2/sup Fresh-cut basil, chives and mint Carp, trout, big mouth bass (sold only carp and even that only as live fish) 2 years, after that stopped production
Samraekt Laugarmyri Iceland 640.000 EUR 1000 msup2/sup TomatoLettuceHerbs Tilapia, Arctic char Commercial project is in
Uit je Eigen Stad Netherlands Embedded in larger pro- ject. Approx. 150.000 EUR– 200.000 EUR 400 sup2/sup 200 msup2/sup Head lettuce varieties African catfishPink tilapia Partially opera- tional for 1 year. Never selling pro- duce. Operation ceased

The comparison shows a wide span of economic value ranging from 5.70€/msup2/sup/ cycle (baby leaf spinach) up to 2110€/msup2/sup/cycle (basil) and 23.00€/msup2/sup/cycle (mint). Realistically, these figures should not be taken as reference points for upscaled commercial productions, but they illustrate how different the economic output of the crop production can be. Table 8 of the publication elaborates on the seasonal market price variability of the examined crops. The seasonal variations of these crops are rather moderate with slightly elevated prices in fall and winter months. Seasonal market price variations for produce and fruit with higher global market volumes like tomatoes and strawberries are usually much more pronounced, enticing producers to put effort into season extension at both ends. Artificial lighting for season extension is costly both investment-wise and regarding operational cost but might well be worthwhile, especially considering the inherent pressure to utilise process water from the aquaculture in the low light season.

No emphasis has been placed on product quality and marketability of the produced biomass within this study. Experience shows that the cultivation of certain crops is easier than the cultivation of others. Mint is generally regarded as an easy-togrow crop, whilst the production of marketable basil is more challenging. Petrea et al. (2016) cultivated the crops in deepwater culture and ebb and flow grow beds with LECA substrate. The latter is particularly uncommon in commercial production, since it has close to zero potential for rationalisation and automation. Basil usually is produced in pot culture as opposed to a cut and come again production of mint which leaves the rootstock in the system with a faster regrowth of a marketable product. In addition to the different growth medium requirements, different crops are produced with differing temperatures, climate and light regimes. Optimal product quality can only be achieved with optimal cultivation techniques. It is important to remember that customers are used to premium quality and show little to zero tolerance for suboptimal products.

The horticulture side of commercial aquaponics faces high risks from infestations of diseases or parasites, which can be difficult to overcome because only biological controls can be used (see Chaps. 14 & 17. Large risks are involved also since most aquaponic farms require a market that will pay higher-than-average prices for the crop. Finally, aquaponics seems to be very labour-intensive since even small scale aquaponics systems are complex because of their many components and requirements (Engle 2015).

For start-ups, it might be tempting to strive for the production of a wide spectrum of novelty varieties of plant species with fruity aromas or colourful leaves. Melon sage (Salvia elegans) or pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata') are examples for these kinds of varieties. According to small-scale commercial producers in Soest, Germany (non-aquaponics; personal communication summer 2016), the market demand for novelty varieties has long been recognised by retailers and is being supplied for by their large-scale producers. This segment is not a profitable niche any more but rather a market that follows yearly trends. The switch by the Berlin-based aquaponics producer ECF from a wide spectrum of the aforementioned plant species in their start-up phase to a basil monocrop that is being marketed through the German retailer REWE reflects this situation.

Christian Echternacht from ECF, Berlin, reported in the interview about the difficulty to sustainably establish a local direct marketing channel for a wider range of products of limited quantity. Drawing from their first-hand experience, the company decided to shift the plant-side production to one crop, basil in pots, and to market this crop via one single retailer in over 250 supermarkets in the city of Berlin. Interestingly the regionally labelled product (Hauptstadtbasilikum/Capital City Basil) without an organic label is placed directly next to organically labelled basil from non-regional sources and is reported to generate higher sales despite slightly higher prices.

NerBreen based in Spain with its 6000 msup2/sup size is currently the largest system in Europe. It is more focused on the aquaculture element and includes aquaponics as one of several means of water filtration, but the plant production is still 3000 msup2/sup and produces enough to create a market. They are currently undergoing the second season of production within the farm, having 5 years previous experiences with a smaller pilot plant (overall size of the pilot farm, 500 msup2/sup). In the winter season, they now grow fresh garlic, strawberry plants without fruit (since the plants need to be maintained for 3 years) and four different types of lettuce. In the summer, they replace the garlic with cherry tomatoes and peppers but keep the strawberries and the same lettuce varieties. Since this is only the second season, it is very difficult for them to provide an average amount of produce. The last winter was very cold, and it significantly affected the growth of the lettuce. In the first season, when they were still trying to improve and gain experience, they produced about 3t of strawberries, 5t of tomatoes and 60,000 lettuce heads. Their hopes are to ramp up production, whilst at the same time, their strategy shifted from putting a focus on the quantity to quality and variety instead. In the first year of their production, they had a good season with tomatoes in terms of quantity — but the overall market was flooded with tomatoes, and the price was subsequently too low. They adjusted to this problem with a focus on more selected, niche varieties of cherry tomatoes since the price is better, and they do not to want to compete with quantity but with quality, thus trying to reach a higher price with the retailers.

Locally produced crops and niche cultivars seem to be the main directions for crop selection in the European countries. The Slovenian company Ponika set out to sell fresh-cut herbs in their 400msup2/sup-sized system since providing niche products in the Slovenian market with no other local producer of fresh-cut herbs. The company based their rationale on three main reasons. The first was that the data available, albeit scarce, from US aquaponics farms showed that fresh-cut herbs seemed to be the crops that succeed well in aquaponics and gained a higher price in the market. The second was the years of positive experience within the small-scale DIY aquaponics garden with these crops. In addition, the third was the positive feedback received from fresh-cut herbs distributors in Slovenia regarding the interest in the crops. The company set out to produce fresh-cut herbs and managed to sell them to Slovenian gastro-distributors for two seasons, narrowing the initial number of crops from six to three: fresh-cut chives, basil and mint. Other fresh-cut herbs they tested proved to be either too sensitive, or there was too small and infrequent demand on the market. The plan was to first sell the fresh-cut herbs to the gastro-distributors and then gradually proceed to selling these to large-scale retail chains. The reality, however, showed significantly large risks in the production (e.g. powdery mildew with basil and yellow tips with chives) and too small a system to be able to secure a steady uninterrupted production as requested by the large-scale distribution chains. Although the margins would be higher, Ponika never started to sell to the retail chains since the contracts with large retail chains included financial penalties in the case where the farm could not deliver the orders. Additionally, the retail chains made weekly orders thus not allowing for appropriate planning, and in some cases, the excess that was not sold had to be collected by the farmer, and this discarded produce was expected to be deducted from the overall order even though the over-ordering was on the side of the retailer.

The main reasons for the Slovenian-based company Ponika to stop their operation were the combination of high risks accruing from the labour needed to cut, screen and package the produce combined with the average gained price of 8 EUR / kg of fresh-cut herbs (packaged in 100 g bundles) not providing enough of an economic return to cover the extra workload. Since the company was the only Slovenian company in the Slovenian market, the gastro-distributers were willing to take their produce over the imported produce — yet only if the prices were equal to what the prices of international competitors were on the market. With a high percentage of fresh-cut herbs sold in the European market being delivered from North Africa, the high extent of labour costs for aquaponically produced fresh-cut herbs meant that a small-scale system could not compete with the prices as set by the extensive freshcut herbs farms in warmer regions with lower labour costs, even when including transportation costs. This shows that even when there is a niche in a local market, there are often specific reasons for local producers not filling the niche. In the case of fresh-cut herbs in Slovenia, this was the high cost of labour for too small a niche market.