Full Nature Farm, based out of Hong Kong, is proving to the Asian vertical farming industry that it is possible to be profitable with aquaponics. Ray Lok, founder of the company, and his team have developed a unique vertical system that would be more space-efficient than hydroponics. "DWC and NFT are common techniques in hydroponics, but they are not really efficient in terms of space optimization," says Ray.
Fully recycled system
The Full Nature Farm system is composed of a recirculating system that reduces ammonia and sterilizes the water that goes into the fish tank. The waste is put into a bioreactor, which converts that into liquid fertilizer. After that, the bioreactor dumps the clean water into the tank again. The water mixed with nutrients drips directly on the root zone. Ray says they can do a cycle of lettuce in around 22 days, and each head is about 200-250 grams.
"This is different from what you'd get in hydroponics. There we are around 35% faster. In aquaponics, because of the beneficial bacteria and the greater availability of oxygen for the root zone in the vertical set up make cycles shorter than in hydroponics."
Flowers supplied for -50% than imported ones
"It's a perfect deal for high-end restaurants and hotels in the area, as they increasingly prefer local, fresh produce. And we can supply that on a weekly basis at a fraction of the price of the edible flowers that we usually get from the US or Japan, which are normally much pricier. We can sell our edible flowers for 50% less than the imported goods," Ray points out.
Quick plant turnover
Yet, all of this couldn't be achieved if it weren't for Ray's utter control over every aspect of cultivation. The first metric that they looked at was how much produce the farm could make per cubic meter. Then, you need to be careful at selecting the crop. For that, Full Nature Farm has gone for edible flowers. This kind of product is usually imported to Hong Kong, making this particularly expensive. "We can harvest once a week, around 30-50 flowers," Ray explains.
The added value of growing edible flowers is that when these are picked, the plants stay in the cultivation with leaves on to promote photosynthesis, and eventually, these flowers again. Ray says that plants usually get changed every 4-5 months. Cutting off transportation and shipping costs and the fact that Full Nature Farm supplies restaurants and hotels only, their edible flowers are 5 times cheaper than the imported ones.
Monitoring is key in aquaponics
Full Nature Farm can nail this down consistently because Ray is constantly monitoring what's happening on the farm: his team and he are constantly checking that all the parameters are under control, from water level and water flow to checking the fish tank. for instance. "As we see that certain values spike, we know that something goes wrong. With this system, we can shut down the water pump, for instance, and then it will tell us what to do next."
Aquaponics is not often seen in vertical farming, and Ray believes that's because it can be quite complex. Admittedly, there are many things that one needs, and many things can go wrong, according to Ray.
"Biofilm issues can be quite frequent, and then you have to manage the bacteria, the greens, and the fish – it can be very complicated. Yet, if you can rely on a good system that monitors and can predict what is going on, you can eliminate a lot of potential issues – also because, in aquaponics, these are caused by humans, mostly."
The monitoring screen
Building upon the success of their edible flowers farm, with some 400 B2B clients, Full Nature Farm is now in the process of setting up a new, bigger farm of 1,000m2 where they will also do leafy greens.
"We will focus on the most common greens that you'd find in supermarkets so that we'll also start serving regular consumers. We are working on our first franchising farm with our partner and expect the new farm will be up and running in Q4 2022." Unfortunately, the lockdown in China is slowing down the process as their sensors are produced there, so the next phase is currently on hold.
Yet, that doesn't mean that Ray is not working hard to show how vertical aquaponics farming can be profitable. He is indeed going to fly to Europe to begin a new round of fundraising, to better fine-tune his vertical aquaponics farm, and to offer a greater selection of fresh greens.