Local Food Launchpad 2016 Projects: Fish Farmers David Hood
Society’s biggest challenges won’t be solved by government, not-for-profits or communities alone. Successfully addressing these complex social, environmental and economic challenges requires an ecosystem approach that enables key stakeholders, whole communities, academics, entrepreneurs and innovators to come together and cocreate replicable and scalable solutions.
In 2016, Doing Something Good ran a 10 week accelerator program for ventures and community projects aimed at making Melbourne’s food system healthy, sustainable, secure, resilient and socially inclusive. Building on a program of events that started with the EcoCity Food Forum in 2013, the second Local Food Launchpad program in 2016 worked with 15 participants to develop 11 concepts that hold the potential to improve our food system and build a better food future for the people of Melbourne. This is one of them.
Learn more about the 2016 Local Food Launchpad here. Discover other Local Food Launchpad projects here.
How might we increase agricultural production and profitability while reducing environmental impact?
Sustainability through integration
The big issue
Unprecedented and growing consumer demand for meat, fish, fresh fruit, vegetables and other resource intensive foods are overwhelming our farmers ability to provide supply via traditional farming methods. Simultaneously further pressure is added due to declining rainfall and increasing weather extremes.
In response farmers are being forced to turn to solutions that have massive environmental impacts. Solutions and methods of production like feedlots, piggeries, hydroponics and aquaculture among others.
However, this productivity comes at a massive cost in capital, energy and resources. Along with massive and often concentrated environmental impacts.
Just when many other industries are looking to curb their environmental impacts the agricultural industry’s impact is on course to exponentially grow.
Our mission is to provide solutions that appeal to the balance sheets of investors and the hearts and taste buds of consumers while reducing the environmental impact on the planet.
Sustainability through integrating production systems
We believe that if we can demonstrate that integrated agriculture is more profitable and the produce more marketable then we can create a movement within the agricultural sector away from stand alone forms of production to more sustainable integrated production.
The principles of industrial ecology are well understood they just haven’t been implemented on a commercial scale. We believe that once we demonstrate the effectiveness of integrated production other producers will adopt these methods.
In Europe this process has already begun. In Europe greenhouse production is already integrated with both fossil fuel electricity generation and many industrial processes that generate waste heat. In Asia there are many forms of integrated agriculture where multiple animal species and plant crops are produced. For example Poultry are fed a range of waste food scraps, the waste from the poultry fertilises aquatic plant growth which feed fish and excess water and nutrients are irrigated to broad acre crops. Integrating complementary forms of agriculture saves money and resources. It can be done with off the shelf technology and the science is straightforward. All we need to do is demonstrate the practice at scale.
Aquaponics is just the beginning
Of the many possible integrations the one we chose to start with was Fish Farming and Hydroponics.
We feed the fish, the fish feed the plants and the plants clean the water which is returned to the fish in an endless recirculating loop.
By integrating these two forms of production we
Build the system with 30% less capital;
Reduce electricity usage by more than 70%;;
Reduce water usage by more than 95%;
Eliminate 100% of the nutrient pollution;
Eliminate 100% of the hydroponic fertilisers;
Improve the efficiency with which the fish metabolise their food;
Improve fish and plant health; and
Improve fish and plant growth;
With this integrated system we can provide fish and a range of salad greens and herbs to a growing consumer market that we know is already looking for high value, high quality sustainable food.
Where we started
The major reason for choosing this integration is because it is so extraordinarily water efficient and water is the number one factor limiting agricultural production.
In addition to this:
There is huge growth in the hydroponics and aquaculture industries due to unmet customer demand for seafood and hydroponic vegetables.
The integration is well understood and supported by over 30 years of research but like many such integrations has not been commercialised.
Of all the possible integrations it is one that can yield some of the greatest results;
It is one of the integrations that is the hardest to retrofit or add to an existing operation;
It is one of the few integration to which it is relatively easy to add further integrations.
In addition over the last couple of years this integration has received a lot of attention in the media where it is popularly called Aquaponics. People are very attracted to the idea and there are now over 5000 hobbyists with their own aquaponics systems in their backyards. Yet no one is really using this method to produce food at a commercial scale of production.
We’ve learned that consumers are already looking for sustainable seafood options and are willing to pay a premium.
What we learned
Prior to the Local Food Launchpad we had already completed:
Scaled prototype testing;
Financial modeling; and
Detailed business plan.
That investors will be attracted to the return on investment generated by being able to build integrated systems for less and operate them with less.
Even though the financial modeling and business planning assumed that both fish and plants would be sold for standard wholesale prices it was assumed that we could achieve a premium for our produce because of its superior environmental and local food credentials.
We’ve learned consumers:
are already concerned about the environmental impacts from the fish that they eat.
are already looking for sustainable seafood choices.
are willing to pay a premium for sustainable seafood.
want to eat more fish but those not already eating fish need help with learning how to prepare and cook fish.
are less aware of the environmental impacts of hydroponic production;
“Ethical” and “environmentally aware” customers don’t like hydroponics because they believe it’s “unnatural” but think aquaponics is “cool”
They don’t like plastic propagation cups or plastic packaging
Consumers in the US have shown a concern about plants being grown in “fish poo” but we haven’t found that concern shared by Australian consumers.
In the short term we need to:
Expand the team to expand capacity and skill base;
secure a site; and
secure funding for our first commercial scale system.
Once the first system is operating and we have established a good cash flow we can then assess whether it is best to build additional systems to expand production or to explore further integrations to diversify our production.
There are many possible integrations that we could add but those on the short list are:
Irrigation (improved capital efficiency and gives the ability to boost fish production;
Mushroom production (Source of waste heat, utiliser of waste, boosts in plant growth from CO2 production;
Renewable Energy (biomass boiler or methane digester provide electricity, heat and CO2);
Data Centers (provide waste heat and are an industrial process easily located in rural areas).
What we need
I need people and funds to progress.
I need people to join the team that can complement my farming, scientific and engineering skills. I need people that can already or wish to learn and have a talent for:
Farming (in particular horticulture);
I need funds to build the first commercial scale system.
The minimum size at which a commercial scale system should be built is one hectare.
However $650,000 would allow me to build the first phase of a one hectare system. With the support of key staff willing to work for equity this system could then fund its own growth to a full one hectare over 5 years.
An additional $200,000 would shave a year off this schedule while an additional $400,000 could cut 3 years.
Ideally we would build the full 1ha system in the first year but that would require ~$3.5 million to build and fund to positive cash flow.
What is crucial is that people who want to join the team as fellow developers or investors understand the big picture.
The environmental impact of agriculture is set to exponentially expand;
That improving the efficiency of stand alone production can not counter this;
Integrating diverse yet complementary production methods will be incredibly profitable while massively reducing the environmental footprint of future agricultural development.
A little about me
Stuart Chignell is a co-founder of Fish Farmers and currently responsible for system design and implementation. Stuart has worked as an independent environmental consultant on projects with public companies and governments in Australia. He has brings together a unique set of skills related to farming, scientific research, engineering and financial modelling.
For the last ten years he has been focused on researching and developing methods of integrating different forms of agricultural production, with a focus on aquaculture. He is intensely passionate about excellent food and drink, the environment, sustainable agriculture, medieval re-enactment, supporting families dealing with disability and his Christian faith.
Like to know more or want to work with us? Please get in touch.