I met Hop a few years ago through another friend and since our first conversation on the phone, we’ve been very good friends. One might even say “brother’s from other mother’s” So, when asked to write an article for the Maverick Spotlight, I considered it an honor to share my passion concerning aquaponics.
The whole idea of being a “Maverick”, in my mind at least, is being your own person and doing things on your own terms and not simply be a puppet of ones culture or led by a desire to be opular with the masses and do things relevant only to them. It was in this frame of mind I entered the whole “aquaponics thang”. In 2000 my wife Lori and our three children had just moved onto a 5 acre property in coastal South Carolina. Finally, I had some dirt to begin doing some of the things I’d wanted to do for a long time. We didn’t know it then but by today’s definition we were “homesteaders”. To us though, we were just doing life in a way that seemed natural and started developing our land. I built a garden that consisted of 3000 sq. ft. of raised beds all with underground irrigation (we punched our own 24ft.
well to supply the water). Started raising rabbits, chickens, dairy goats, planted a vineyard (and making wine), beekeeping, etc.. all while trying to keep a thriving marine repair business going. It was during this time two things came together that led me into aquaponics. One was the purchase of a 28ft. x 45ft. greenhouse from a local school wanting to get out of the whole horticulture education thing. And the other was a short term mission trip to Togo W. Africa. When I purchased the greenhouse I wanted to do something unique. I was a Biology major in college but was only able to finish three semesters due to financial reasons (code for “I ran out of money”) and spent the rest of my career life in the trades from metal fabrication, and ironically as a Marine Technician (code for boat mechanic). I seriously looked into hydroponics but after realizing the spent nutrient solution is considered “hazardous waste” I decided I wanted to do something more natural but with a technical edge. It was then I ran across the word “aquaponics”. While a common term today, in 2000 it most certainly wasn’t. It was also during that time I came face to face with what real poverty looks like. I’m not talking about the kind of poverty where you can’t afford cell phone time for a month or two. I’m talking about the kind of poverty where basic food is optional and starvation really kills people. To this day I still vividly remember a young girl, probably about 11 years old, who had nothing to wear but a pair of blue panties the entire time I was there (10 days). I still remember the lessons learned when me and a friend tried to do what we thought was the right thing and give a bunch of ice cream away to some children. What began as an orderly affair where we handed out ice cream to bless the kids quickly became a mob riot where 18 year old’s were trampling on children to get to the ice cream. We basically ran away with the bag, dumping it on the ground as we left to draw the crowd away from the little ones. I’ve been on a quest to find a way to really help ever since. This is where the whole aquaponics thing comes in. After purchasing a small information booklet in 2001 for over $200.00 (information was not free in those days) I began trying to figure out how to build an aquaponics system at home. The idea of growing food naturally without soil was appealing because there are many such places in the world that could be converted from food deserts to food production areas. After attending a conference in 2003 and seeing what a fellow did with bath tubs for growbeds I began trying to come up with a way to use a lot of blue plastic 55 gallon drums I had lying around. On the way home the design came to me and Barrel-ponics® was born. We finished our first aquaponics system in 2003. It consisted of an 1100 gallon fish tank, 36 barrel halves with 6 tons of gravel, 2 pumps, 2 float switches and lots of pipe. It worked and I was amazed by how plants could grow in gravel as I still am today.
Most in our culture when first introduced to something with the potential of aquaponics see it as a means to make money. The first impulse is how to monetize this amazing thing. Remember, a “Maverick” is not defined by his or her culture but rather chooses to define it or redefine it, when need be. If there’s ever a time when redefining what it means to be an American, or even a human being, the time is now. If our compassion for others falls second place to the quest for financial gain or self preservation we lose both ourselves and humanity. I’m not against anything being profitable, just that it’s not the primary reason for doing what we do. This passage in the bible that speaks volumes to me:
For whoever desires to save his life, he shall lose it. But whoever shall lose his soul for My sake and the good news, that one shall save it. For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what shall a man give as an exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:35-37).
My first thoughts after the “Oh my, it really works” was “How do I make this technology doable to someone in Africa?” At the time aquaponics was too technology heavy. This ultimately led to the development of the Flood Valve used in the Barrel-ponics® system which came as a result of praying for wisdom on how to develop a system that could be built from basic hardware and function in very low flow conditions that might exist in less than optimum conditions.
The first Barrel-ponics® system was built 2004. In 2005 we sold our property, moved to our current location and began developing it. As a Maverick, I sold when everyone said the real estate climb would never end. When we sold the next month the air started seeping out of the bubble. We did the un-American thing and got entirely out of debt and began exhausting what we had in developing our place to be a blessing to others and helping others It was then I wrote the Barrel-ponics® manual, a 101 page, step by step, how to manual on building an aquaponics system from 55 gallon plastic drums. Since then, over 250,000 copies have been downloaded from my websites alone, not to mention others who’ve hosted it. The use of blue barrel growbeds began with us in 2003 and is the probably most popular method of building backyard aquaponics systems in it’s various forms worldwide. The Barrel-ponics® manual has been free since then and always will be. I think of it as my “Fishes and Loaves” project. If we can grow crops and fish in plastic barrels filled with gravel there’s no reason any child in the world should go to bed hungry. The solution is not to monetize the poor for profit and make them donor dependent by gathering donations and building things for them but rather empower them to take their own destiny in hand. The key to helping is to work yourself out of a job and transfer the responsibility to faithful people. That’s been my quest ever since. This has led to personally building aquaponics systems with others, not only in the USA but also in Africa, Philippines, Lebanon, Guatemala, China and recently in Iraq to help feed refugees.
So how did we get from Barrel-ponics® to My Aqua Farm™ ?
It was in these travels helping others I met a very generous man who approached me to design an aquaponics system for the retail market that can be flat packed and shipped to your door. The My Aqua Farm™ is the result of that encounter and the combination of over 10 years of doing aquaponics helping others first in partnership with a man who has a manufacturing plant and a primary desire to help with the added benefit of making it, hopefully, profitable. It’s my desire to help those who may not be of the DIY sort to have a quality system at an affordable price that will serve your family for years to come. The My Aqua Farm™ fits the bill nicely with a high quality, high production and energy efficient aquaponics system with a whimsical take on the reliable Flood Valve used in the Barrel-ponics® systems for over a decade. If you have any questions, comments or if we can help you on your aquaponic journey whether to download a free copy of the Barrel-ponics® manual or order a My Aqua Farm™, please come by for a visit to www.myaquafarm.com.
About the Author – Travis Hughey has dedicated his life to helping those in need. Each year he travels the world, educating about aquaponics and constructing systems to help those in impoverished regions of the world.
Travis and Lori Hughey have been married for 33 years. They reside in South Carolina. They have 3 children, and a beloved sidekick, “Patch”….a Great Pyrenees.
When he’s not working on his Barrel-ponics sub-division and taking care of the farm, you’ll find him entrenched in the scriptures or sharing his faith with whoever he’s with at the time.
Be sure and check out Travis and Lori’s Facebook page – “My Aqua Farm”