•4 min read
When deliberately designed with respect to environmental impact, aquaponic farms can become part of a resource-efficient urban food system. No aquaponic farm operates in isolation since when crops are harvested and reach the farm gate, they enter a larger socioeconomic food network as fish and produce is distributed to customers. At this stage, the performance of aquaponic farms is no longer confined to the growing system and envelope — economics, marketing, education, and social outreach are also involved. Urban aquaponic farms will need to operate as competitive businesses and good neighbors to be successfully integrated into city life.
The economic viability of aquaponic farms depends on many contextual factors where both local conventional fish production chains and open-field farming must be matched (Stadler et al. 2017). While aquaponics requires a relatively costly initial investment, it may outperform conventional farming during the production and distribution phase where the design of the recirculating water system reduces water costs, and greatly reduces the need for fertilizers, which usually comprise between 5% and 10% of overall farm costs (Hochmuth and Hanlon 2010). However, estimating the economic viability of aquaponic farms is particularly challenging due to the range of dynamic factors affecting performance including the local price for labor and energy being two examples (Goddek et al. 2015). In an economic analysis of aquaponic farms in the Midwestern United States, labor constituted 49% of all operational costs despite the assumption that only minimum wages would be paid. In reality, the wide range of expertise required to operate an aquaponic system will likely warrant higher wages in an urban farm scenario (Quagrainie et al. 2018).
Site selection and envelope design have a direct relationship to the profitability of an aquaponic farm by affecting operation efficiency and how broad the potential market can be. Aquaponic farms located in urban environments can tap into multiple markets outside agricultural production, where many aquaponic farms offer tours, workshops, design consulting services, and supply backyard aquaponic systems for hobbyists. Integrating agriculture with other types of spaces within urban environments can contribute to the financial health of aquaponic farms. The ECF aquaponic farm is located on the work yard of the industrial landmark building Malzfabrik, Berlin, Germany, which operates a cultural center and houses work spaces for artists and designers.
Urban agriculture is often cited as a strategy to provide fresh food for underserved communities located in food deserts, yet few commercial urban farms target this demographic, proving that commercial-scale urban agriculture can be just as exclusionary as conventional supply chains (Gould and Caplow 2012; Sanyé-Mengual et al. 2018; Thomaier et al. 2015). Aquaponic farms that use high-tech infrastructure try to redeem their high investments by achieving premium prices in urban markets, though aquaponics can also stem from grassroots and hobbyist applications. Aquaponics may also have the potential to increase food security for urban residents. This is evidenced in the lasting legacy of Growing Power, a non-profit organization that until recently, ran an urban farm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA started by Will Allen in 1993. Many current aquaponic farmers attended Growing Power's workshops, in which Allen championed an aquaponic model that gives back to the surrounding community by means of community-supported agriculture boxes and classes. Initiated by Growing Power's educational programs, other aquaponic non-profit organizations have taken up to the torch such as Dre Taylor with Nile Valley Aquaponics in Kansas City, Kansas, USA. This farm aims to provide 100,000 pounds (45,400 kg) of local produce to the surrounding community in an award-winning new campus for the expanding farm (Fig. 21.14).
Fig. 21.14 Proposed Nile Valley Aquaponics campus (Kansas City, Kansas, USA) by HOK Architects
Aquaponics can be used as an educational tool to promote systems thinking and environmental mindfulness (Junge et al. 2014; Specht et al. 2014). In urban applications, aquaponic systems could be used to raise awareness of ecological cycles much like existing soil-based farms (Kulak et al. 2013). The Greenhouse Project in New York City translates this into a new approach to science education in public schools. The Greenhouse Project aims to build 100 rooftop greenhouses on public schools as science classrooms. These greenhouses, customized for their dual mission of growing and learning, all include an aquaponic system. However, aquaponic systems also require greater collaboration between existing academic disciplines in order to move forward in this new multidisciplinary academic field (Goddek et al. 2015). The collaboration of aquaculture and horticulture specialists, engineers, business strategists, and built environment professionals amongst many others is necessary to turn aquaponics into an important contributor to sustainable urban development.