Note: I’m writing this letter as a kickoff of sorts, as our former business FRESH Farm Aquaponics completes its metamorphosis and emerges as Trifecta Ecosystems. I’ll explain the name change below. This also marks a turning point for our company as we begin the construction on our primary indoor aquaponics farm and research facility in Meriden, Connecticut. You’re also reading this letter on our new website, which includes our e-store, and our learning center. As you can tell, we’ve been quite busy.
Those who knew us as FRESH Farm know we started as an aquaponics farm. We sold our crops to our local community and received a ton of interest from all sorts of people interested in starting to grow for themselves using aquaponics. Over the next few years, we worked with other local farmers, schools, and nonprofits to create aquaponics systems that fit each of their unique needs. The overarching goal of Trifecta Ecosystems, the same goal from our early days as FRESH Farm, is to accelerate the development of a sustainable food economy and end hunger. As we transition to Trifecta, this goal comes into focus as the City that Feeds Itself™ .
Creating the City that Feeds Itself™ is a huge undertaking. Yet right now, we’re not focusing on massive growing operations. Currently, we offer two products in the small to mid size aquaponics systems category. Does the world really need cabinet style aquaponic systems? We believe so. Everyone is capable of growing some of their own food and therefore everyone is capable of having an impact. I’m talking about you.
Our overarching strategy to create the City that Feeds Itself™ is to empower a new wave of hidden farmers, already living in cities, to produce food for themselves and for their communities and connect those farmers together via a digital food hub that directly connects the city’s community of producers to all the customers across the city.
The City that Feeds Itself™ is filled with Hidden Farmers
The key to making this plan a reality is unlocking the hidden farmers in cities now. Before entrepreneurs and commercially driven farmers can really take off with huge commercial success, the industry needs to develop infrastructure and drop the cost of equipment and supplies. In order to get to that point, we are starting with the hidden farmers. Those who derive benefits from farming beyond the pure return on investment of a farm enterprise.
Over the last three years, we’ve been conducting extensive customer discovery, working with many different types of growers. We’ve found a few common values across a number of these groups, including education, therapy and healing, skill/job training, social integration, and research.
Schools use aquaponics for educational, skill training, and research, which gives students an incredible experiential learning tool for critical STEM subjects. The intellectual and developmentally disabled organizations use aquaponics for therapeutic farming, skill-training, and social integration, while providing a valuable and respected service for the community. There are so many groups of hidden farmers that exist in every city and derive some sort of valuable or benefit from farming. When these groups are equipped with aquaponics and controlled environment agriculture technology and then trained how to use them, they are empowered to grow food for their community while reaping the rewards of farming. As more and more of these groups start growing, the City that Feeds Itself™ arises.
However, these groups won’t suddenly jump into farming whole-hog, instantaneously. Usually, it starts with a small introduction. A tiny system in one classroom, or even a simple farm tour. Then next year they decide to expand the system and up the growing capacity. A year after that, it becomes a district wide project with an aquaponics system in every classroom, and significant production coming out of a small farm at the high school.
We’ve seen this effect at work first hand, so I’d like to take a second to address two common arguments against urban farming and controlled environment agriculture. First, that reported production efficiencies are not enough to cover the increased costs of urban CEA farming. The second, which is really a subset of the first argument, is that the infrastructure does not exist to locate and operate CEA farms in cities.
Production efficiencies do not cover increased costs
We (Kieran, Eric, Andrew, and myself) actually tend to agree with this statement. Right now, given most urban farming business models, the production rarely covers basic operating costs. Urban property is far more expensive than expansive rural land. Massive upfront costs can cripple you before you’re even going. Not to mention electric bills come every month to power the grow lights and environmental controls.
When looking at the raw math of the economics for indoor farming, there is a small window of viability for microfarms (1-2 employees + operations costs are covered by production) followed by a trough of despair where the number of laborers required to realistically maintain the farm is higher than the income from the plant sales. Many farms lack the starting capital to leap that trough to build a large enough production facility to support their operations. This is how they get stuck and fail. This is a large contributor to the false belief that the economics of indoor farming are broken.
Compounding this issue is the high upfront cost of equipment and supplies for starting an operation. Of course, cost of equipment and supplies will drop as the industry grows. Right now there are very few large producers. This means that the suppliers that service them do not benefit from larger economies of scale. Additionally, many CEA farms are focused on cannabis, which is a highly profitable crop. Knowing this, CEA equipment manufacturers price their products accordingly. As more actual CEA food farmers start operations, equipment manufacturers can lower prices to meet increased demand from this emerging market.
Likewise, as the technologies and standard operating procedures improve and cost cutting measures like sustainable energy continue to drive costs down, the economics of indoor farming will rapidly become favorable.
Additionally, all of this assumes that the farm uses hydroponics. Aquaponics improves on hydroponics production efficiency by adding fish production and fish fertilizer production to the plant production stream. All three of these production lines can lead to profitable activities for an aquaponics farm. All while decreasing many costs typically associated with both hydroponics and aquaculture.
Lack of infrastructure and labor force
Another common rebuttal we hear about urban controlled environment farming is the lack of existing infrastructure, including space, labor force, and distribution channels in cities to house a local food ecosystem.
This is really a subset of the argument addressed above. It is a chicken and the egg scenario. The economics of CEA are difficult because there is a lack of infrastructure. There is a lack of infrastructure because the financial incentives seem too risky.
The key, as I alluded to above, is to first focus on empowering the hidden farmers. Those who benefit from farming in ways other than pure commercial return on investment.
When schools install an aquaponic system, it is doing so for the educational benefit. It’s trying to engage students in a thought provoking learning process, not for commercial profit on the produce grown. That being said, if the school can sell or donate the food locally, it makes the project even more attractive to the school. All the while providing a fundamental service to the local community.
Leveraging additional benefits of farming like education, therapy, or research allows a small scale aquaponics production to grow a meaningful amount of food and profit. Even during these early days of high equipment and operating costs.
Two of the largest costs in farming are labor and land. Engaging hidden farmers directly addresses both these costs. Take the school example we have been working with: the farm is right on the school’s grounds. This maximizes the number of students that are going to be able to take advantage of this unique learning tool. This educational farm produces food like any other farm. It just has severely reduced labor costs (1 manager versus multiple farmhands plus a manager) and no land costs. This is where the economics of small urban farms really gets interesting.
As more of these hidden farmers come online, the economies of scale will drop equipment and supplies prices. As prices pass a critical threshold, larger commercially-minded farmers will be able to engage in the industry more easily. This activity will create a beneficial feedback loop, further compounding the economies of scale. This encourages even more growth and development.
Creating a Sustainable Food Ecosystem – The City that Feeds Itself™
Let’s be clear. One of the reasons we changed our name from FRESH Farm Aquaponics to Trifecta Ecosystems is to highlight that we are more than an aquaponics farm. In fact, our true value offerings lay in cultivating thriving ecosystems.
To this end, we will be co-marketing products and services that support a thriving local food ecosystem. That includes working alongside other producers in the aquaponics, hydroponics, and aquaculture industry. As well as providers in other food industries like waste up cycling, value-adding, aggregation, and distribution.
The future means an aquaponics system in every home. People with semi-autonomous microfarms will earn passive income much like solar panels are using today. By cultivating the City that Feeds Itself™, we hope to do our part to accelerate the arrival of this abundant future.
Our Master Plan:
- Empower Hidden Farmers to use farming for benefits beyond food sales.
- Use that money and data to create and sell new products to early adopters looking for ROI (entrepreneurs, commercial farmers).
- Use that money and data to create and sell new products to a wide-scale consumer version looking for passive ROI.
- Meanwhile, establish local aggregation, distribution and waste up cycling options to connect growers and consumers directly.
Co-founder & CEO, Trifecta Ecosystems