Helen specialises in New Energy Strategy at Bloomberg and has dedicated her career to finding tenable solutions to the growing environmental challenges we face today globally.
Helen went to meet Tom Astor, founder of a small aquaponics farm, to understand exactly how the operation works and why it may provide a powerful alternative to traditional farming methods in the future.
Over to Helen and Tom…
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is (almost) a closed loop, soil-less farming method that can be done anywhere, all year round, producing both plants and fish. The system recirculates water and nutrients, making it about 90% more water efficient. Nutrients are also prevented from leaching:
- There is no chemical run-off because it doesn't use any chemicals
- There is no soil degradation or diseases because it doesn't use soil
- It uses natural biochemistry in its purest form- bacteria that doesn't need to be introduced by humans
Aquaponics is very space efficient, allowing the opportunity for re-wilding formerly intensively cultivated land.
Introducing 18 Anhalt Road
18 Anhalt Road is a small aquaponics farm, in a wonky barn near The Cotswolds. The founder, Tom Astor, is committed to farming responsibly and efficiently using Aquaponics in order to supply locally grown fresh herbs, greens and fish all year round.
In addition to offering a lowered environmental impact, 18 Anhalt Road is striving to minimise plastic packaging and they are currently investigating compostable and recyclable options. They also offer a 10% discount to any customers who bring back their previous packaging or provide their own.
Committed to making the industry sustainable further afield, 10% of their annual profits will go towards introducing aquaponics in developing countries.
Why is sustainable farming important?
When you consider the implications of the following five predictions, it's difficult to see how farming sustainably isn't one of the most important priorities for our generation.
- It's projected there will be a 40% water deficit by 2030*
- We'll need to produce 50% more food by 2050
- We've lost around 33% of our arable land worldwide through erosion and pollution
- There are around 60 years left of harvest in the soil at current rates of consumption in the UK
- 70% of our crop land for food/feed-stock is based abroad, which means we're adding unnecessary food miles onto what we eat
*(This is particularly relevant because around 70% of our global freshwater consumption is used in farming).
What are the basic economics of the business?For the 360sq ft farm, the set-up costs were around £7,000. Monthly revenue is projected around £2,100, and monthly costs are around £500. The revenue comes from 117kg Greens, 3-4kg herbs and 13kg of tilapia each month.
There are currently 23 large carp and 63 carp overall, and the farm's full capacity is 200 (100kg of fish). Although in practice, the optimum ratio for fish biomass output (waste): Plant nutrient requirements seem lower than expected.
These figures don't take into account an identified but not yet implemented identified energy saving of 8%. The revenue would also be significantly boosted by changing the fish species from Tilapia to Koi.
Do you think your solution is scalable?
Super-scaling this style of farming slightly misses the point outside of London, as it is supposed to be a decentralised, local solution to the problems that come with industrialised farming. Ideally, the product should travel only a few miles, not nationwide via a supermarket. However, there's always a possibility for using the space you have more efficiently. For instance, a farm in the US didn't have the money they thought they needed to become successful, so they focused on planting and germinating with better spatial awareness which delivered the required results.
In my case, because the barn is so small, my dead space (storage, tools etc) takes up a large proportion of floor space. Therefore, adding a tower wouldn't add more dead space, but for every 40 ft2 of additional tower footprint, I would achieve 120 ft2 of farming space.
Ultimately, the best way to scale the solution is to install lots of small farms in a number of different locations with the most efficient capital outlay. This means either setting up a franchise system, having a 'Train-the-Trainer' model (which gives more people the skills to set something up autonomously), or a combination of these two.
How would you ultimately like the business to grow?
My ultimate aim is to spread aquaponic farming to equatorial regions, starting with South Asia. This is an area susceptible to severe drought, which means that intelligent farming solutions are critical to feeding the region's rapidly growing population. It's also an efficient, low-cost process that would increase farmer incomes and provide an additional healthy protein source through fish. In other words, it's an environmentally and socially sustainable, nutritious solution for over-stretched resources.
The reason that operational costs would be practically zero near the equator is mainly due to naturally high and consistent irradiation, which would eliminate heating and lighting costs; these represent the largest proportion of costs in the U.K. Renting land is one of the highest cost in the U.K. and this would also be lower near the equator. You could also use lower cost fish feed - insects - which is still snared by clumsy legislation in the UK relating to livestock feeds following the BSE crisis in 1996.
Insect farming would also be an interesting development for the business - as this is an important way for the world's growing population to consume more protein sustainability and utilise waste streams.
What would be your main recommendations to other entrepreneurs who are thinking of setting up a business?
- Try to find a business partner. Doing it on your own means not having an extra pair of hands (especially handy when plumbing goes wrong), not being able to bounce your ideas off someone else and prioritising effectively.
- Make sure you've put aside enough money at the start - otherwise you start making bad decisions. It means that you become hesitant to pull the trigger on financial obligations and you can delay important investments or put them off altogether. If you do find yourself restricted by money, it helps to be very clear on your priorities so this can guide your decisions.
- Try to talk to as many people as possible and follow up on 'almost dead ends' - you never know where they'll lead. Often, it'll be the friend-of-a-friend who's unexpectedly helpful.
- Once you commit, things you don't expect to happen can happen. This quote from W.H. Murray, written in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, 1951, sums this up extremely well:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”