Aquaponics, growing food with fish, a perfect harmony
“Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics”
Meet Travis and Lori Hughey. They have a small acreage (they called it small- it’s 7 Acres!) farm/homestead in South Carolina where they live with their three children. They farm, garden, homeschool, mentor, invent, raise livestock, cook from scratch, run a business, and travel the world. They sell eggs & vegetables to local restaurants but their real claim to fame is aquaponics. Travis has been doing aquaponics for over 10 years and is the inventor of Barrel-ponics® (a DIY aquaponics system) and the designer of “My Aqua Farm” designed for the retail market.
Travis has traveled to various locations here in the US as well as Africa, Philippines, Lebanon, Guatemala, China and recently Iraq, building aquaponics systems for various humanitarian organizations. The recent build in Iraq was for Yazidis living in a refugee camp outside of Mosul after running from ISIS. Travis was sent in to design a system made from local materials (one of his specialties) for a team to replicate for the next 6 months to help feed the refugees.
Even though Aquaponics has been around since the early 1400’s, many of us are unfamiliar with this gardening method. With drought and water restrictions, confined growing areas, chemical abuse and genetically modified produce, aquaponics is a gardening method worth looking into.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Hughey’s through a connection at a local restaurant they deliver fresh organic produce to. I am in awe with what the Hughey’s are doing and completely inspired by their inventions, not to mention their humanitarian efforts, and would like to share a recent interview with Travis Hughey about Aquaponics.
The Coastal Homestead: What is the name of your business?
Travis: The name of our business is Hughey AquaFarm. As the name suggests, we integrate aquaculture into our farm production scheme. The My Aqua Farm product is the natural outflow of our aquaculture ventures.
TCH: I’m familiar with Hydroponics, but what is Aquaponics?
Growing Food with Fish
Travis: The common answer to this question is “Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics”. I honestly think a better description is, Aquaponics is a form of recirculating aquaculture where a modified biofilter serves as a place to grow vegetables from the excess nitrates produced by beneficial bacteria that convert the waste from the fish to plant food. Basically you feed the fish, the fish feed the bacteria, the bacteria feed the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. You harvest the fish and plants.
TCH: So that brings up another question, what is Aquaculture?
Travis: Aquaculture is simply the controlled culture of aquatic animals such as fish, clams, shrimp, etc.
TCH: What can you grow with Aquaponics?
Travis: Oh my, you would have to ask that question. We’ve grown everything you can imagine. Here’s a partial list: Beans, Beets, Peppers (sweet and hot), Cauliflower, Cabbage, Kale, Collards, Lettuce, Basil, Cilantro, Onions, Carrots, Cucumbers, Lettuce, Okra, Tomato’s, Moringa, Taro, Tannier Spinach, Black Berries, Cantaloupe, Honeydew Melon, Radish, Turnip, Mustard, Pumpkin, Squash, Strawberries, Fig, and Papaya. Basically you can grow most everything in an aquaponics system as you can in soil.
TCH: How do you feed the fish?
Travis: The fish can be fed by various feed sources depending on the species used. We do a lot of tilapia here so commercial fish feed works well for us. I am planning on doing some experiments with alternative feeds such as harvesting night flying insects, earthworms, black soldier fly larvae, etc…
TCH: Can you eat the fish?
Travis: Of course, unless they’re your family friend. Some people raise food fish such as tilapia, bream, catfish and ornamental species such as goldfish, koi, etc.
TCH: How fast do the fish reproduce? Could they produce enough to feed my family with the Aquaponics?
Travis: It all depends on the fish used. Aquaponics tends to be an intensive culture so the crowding makes breeding difficult. With tilapia it does happen occasionally but if one wants to breed tilapia a better choice is stand-alone breeding tanks.
TCH: How is this gardening system better (or different) from traditional in the ground gardening?
Travis: While I’m a total advocate of Aquaponics, I am a realist. I’ve always said, if you have good soil and reliable rains then you have no need for Aquaponics. If, however, either one of these is in short supply, Aquaponics can have you growing food in places where it would be problematic. It’s different in that it uses no soil, no industrially derived chemical fertilizers and no pesticides can be used. Pesticides will kill the living organisms that drive the system.
TCH: I know you have several acres, but the rest of us aren’t so blessed. Is this something I could have at my house on a small lot? How much space do you need?
Travis: Absolutely.The current My Aqua Farm model occupies a space less than a sheet of plywood. The outside dimensions are approximately 50” x 72”. A model twice the size (for those needing more capacity) and one ½ size (for apartment dwellers) is in the development stage.
TCH: What zone/climate can you have them in? What do you do with the fish in the winter?
Travis: You can do Aquaponics in any climate you’d be able to do conventional gardening. In cooler climates you will have to choose different fish and vegetables than here in the south but as with any place, some things are more easily grown than others. A greenhouse can expand your capabilities greatly by increasing the growing system in any zone. Here, things get too cold during the winter to keep tilapia outside in tanks and ponds. I have tanks (18 IBC totes) indoors that I keep the fingerlings warm enough to survive the winter and ready for sale in spring.
TCH: Are they easy to assemble and install? Do I need to hire a contractor?
Travis: The My Aqua Farm system is designed for the consumer to assemble. Assembly is straightforward and simple with minimal hand tools required. A video demonstrating the construction from the box is available here on YouTube
TCH: Can you garden organically or do I need to use chemicals?
Travis: All plants use chemicals. Unlike hydroponics, which uses commercially produced chemical salt solutions; Aquaponics uses chemicals derived from bio-conversion of feeds via metabolism. Basically the leftovers from growing fish, bacteria and plants.
TCH: Is this method of gardening sustainable? If so, could you explain how?
Travis: I believe it’s very sustainable since it’s a natural process. Basically feed the fish, plant and harvest the vegetables.
TCH: Sounds like a silly question, but what about watering? Do they use a lot of water?
Travis: Actually, Aquaponics systems typically use only 10-20% of the water that a typical soil based system does. The water in an aquaponics system is re-used up to 300 times before transpiring through the leaves of the foliage.
TCH: Now the big question, how much does a system cost?
Travis: The 16 sq. ft. planting area My Aqua Farm with a 168 gallon fish tank retails for $1495.00 shipped to your door. This is approximately ½ the price of other systems out there. It’s designed to look good at your home and last decades producing fish and fruits and vegetables for your family.
TCH: Are the Aqua Farms expensive to maintain?
Travis: The pump only consumes 20W of power. Basically at .15/KWh it costs about $2.16 per month in electricity. The only other expense is feed for your fish. Organic feeds are available and a somewhat higher in cost than commercial feeds but can be bought in smaller quantities for the home owner. I guess to answer your question, no the My Aqua Farm system is very economical to operate.
TCH: I know people are going to want to learn more, do you have a website you would like to share?
TCH: Because we are so limited in space, we are always looking for alternative methods to grow food. Where can I buy an Aquaponics system?
Travis: They can be purchased online at www.myaquafarm.com
Come on by and check us out!!
There are two schools of thought when it comes to “who invented aquaponics? The first camp argues for the Aztecs who grew crops on artificial agricultural islands in harmony with fish who were reared alongside these islands where the architects of aquaponics.
They used the “fish poop” to fertilize the crops and called their system “chinampas”. In their aquaculture system they grew a wide variety of crops such as maize, squash and other plants in tandem with rearing fish for food too.
The Aztecs were immersed in their aquaculture efforts from the 1400’s onwards. The opposing camps in the history of aquaponics camp favor the ancient Chinese of the 6thcentury.
The counter argument is 6th century Chinese farmers who reared ducks in cages with partially open floors positioned above a pond of finfish were the founders of aquaculture.
The farmers also reared catfish in another pond into which water from the finfish pond would be drained. In this arrangement the finfish were fed with duck droppings whilst the catfish were fed with the waste from the finfish.
Then any “leftover food” was used to supply the nutrients to the rice in the paddy fields. This seems like perfect harmony to me and it’s why the Chinese get my vote as founders of aquaponics.