Wednesday, March 31, 2010

So Long, Soylent Green: revolutionary food economics with Aquaponics engineer Travis Hughey

I recently got the opportunity to interview Travis Hughey, inventor of the Barrel-ponics system of food production. It is an Aquaponics system geared towards low capital requirements and minimal environmental impact. Travis gives us his thoughts on engineering, missionary work, and much more...

JMZ: Hello Travis, welcome to my blog! Let's begin with the basics, how did you first get interested in the concept of Aquaponics?

TH: That's a long story that began with a keen interest in fish and the water even as a child. I attended Oral Roberts University as a biology major in hopes to some day become a marine biologist. God had other plans though and as such I was not able to continue my education through a formal setting. He had another curriculum in store for me that spanned the acquisition of several skills (metal fabrication, marine mechanic, etc.) and took a few decades to bring to pass. While these seem unrelated to the subject the skills learned in these professions transferred very nicely into the skills needed for fish-keeping. For example, metal fabrication taught me about basic engineering of structures, Marine mechanics involves everything from plumbing, electrical, hydraulics, electronics, fiberglass/epoxy fabrication, chemistry, etc.. All skills that come in handy when keeping things flowing in an aquaculture program. As far as the aquaponics in particular, it all started with the purchase of a greenhouse from a local school that was getting out of teaching horticulture. I was wanting to do something unique in it and looked into hydroponics only to discover the spent nutrient solution is considered hazardous waste so I looked into doing something else and stumbled upon the term "aquaponics". Since this was the combination of fish culture and hydroponics it really perked my interest and I began researching the subject which ultimately led to attending a aquaponics seminar and building our first system back in 2003.

JMZ: So at what point did you start using the term 'Barrel-ponics'?

TH: They say necessity is the mother of invention and such is the case here. Remember the mention of an aquaponic seminar in the previous post? There was a presenter there named Frank McNeely who was showing photo's of his system using bath tubs as growbeds. This fellow was a master at "using what you have" and I really connected with the whole idea of re-purposing things. I don't look at things like most people and usually ask myself "How can I use this in some other application?". As it turned out I had about 40 plastic barrels at my home to use for various projects but had already started building a large growbed mold to make the growbeds from fiberglass (I had experience with the material from boat work). On the way home, however, I got to thinking about how to use these barrels as growbeds and reduce the expense of building my first aquaponics system. My wife and I discussed how to use them and I believe God inspired the creativity on how to build an aquaponics system using barrels as growbeds. Several details had to be worked out such as how to properly support them and create a drain system that would completely empty the beds between cycles. I own a sawmill so making the timbers and such to support the weight was no problem. I built in self starting siphons to make sure when the beds were flooded they would drain completely leaving no chance for any anaerobic areas in the growbeds. These growbeds also had other advantages such as low cost (I already had them) and the surface area (from which planting densities are derived) to volume of gravel works out very nicely for plant production. Basically this is where Barrel-Ponics was born but the term had not been coined yet. That came with the invention of the small system the Barrel-Ponics Manual details. I wanted a unique name that would give that small system an identity of it's own. Even though I believed it would be somewhat popular, little did I know it would catch on as it has.

JMZ: You took this specialized Aquaponics format to Africa. What did you accomplish there?

TH: The work in Africa has made advancements but has also had setbacks. A stark reality I have noticed in any development work is the simple fact that if the locals have no personal investment in a project it will most likely ultimately fail. The reason is simple and has to do with basic human nature. If a person is not personally invested (has something tangible to lose) they simply have no strong motivation to see a project through, and in fact, have more of a motivation to allow it to fail somewhat to keep the funds flowing, knowing full well the donor will not want to see it fail. After all, he is invested!! That being said, the first project I did in Kenya was a donor funded project. It all started out fine and looked like the technology would take hold. They even reconfigured the parts I built while there to make it "their own". This is exactly what I had hoped would happen but unfortunately the situation was to be short lived. It is currently not in use to my knowledge. The hardware I designed and built, did in fact function properly and the students at the school did grow plants in it. While it was going it drew people from all over Kenya to see this thing in operation. The problem was multifaceted though, beginning with putting tilapia in the system in a location that simply did not get warm enough for the tilapia to grow well. The tilapia were shipped in from a distance while just down the road was a hatchery that had catfish and trout. They would have been a much better choice. The second was mis-allocation of some of the hardware. Voltage converters were purchased to operate the system. These converters were rated at 100 watts max which was plenty to operate the system that needed only 40 watts. The converters were pulled off the Barrel-Ponics system and used to operate music equipment in the chapel and were burnt out in the process. The people there were instructed that these were to be used for the Barrel-Ponics system only before I left, but obviously they did not do as instructed. Once again, easy come, easy go. There was also the issue of the person who was in charge of the system asked to leave the school because of other "mismanagement" issues. To my knowledge the parts have been taken by a local pastor but have not yet been rebuilt into a working system. The best example of what can be done though is by a group of 4 young men who downloaded the Barrel-Ponics Manual and pooled their money to build it themselves with no outside funding and using local materials. I am very proud of these guys for their work as they are of the system they built and are growing beans and fish. There is also a pastor in Nairobi that has dug a tilapia pond near his church as well as an orphanage in Rongo that is now growing tilapia (I seeded them with fingerling's while there) in ponds they dug themselves and are also making bricks to fund the work they are doing there. This is,in my opinion, real success as they are not dependant on my resources and are learning to manage God's creation in a way that honors Him. I am not even needed in the equation there. Very cool, if you ask me.

JMZ: Travis, how does your faith relate to your work with Aquaponics?

TH: It was a result of my first short term missions trip to Togo, W. Africa that inspired me to do more than simply take a "vacation with purpose". I wanted to do something that would really impact communities beyond the scope of the average "missions" trip. Further trips to Togo and Kenya only solidified the belief that to break the cycle of poverty, people themselves had to be empowered to manage their environment rather than depending on outsiders to bring in the goods. God has given all of us resources that if we manage them in a way that pleases Him, He will prosper us. This was part of the motivation to design a system that could be built anywhere without the need for electronic timers, micro-processors, etc. After being in a developing nation and seeing the challenges people face to simply survive, I was faced with the fact that we must put flesh and bone on the message we preach about Christ (James 1:22-25, 2:14-18). There is an old saying, "It's hard to hear the good news above the rumbling of an empty stomach". For instance, Jesus not only taught about the principles of the Kingdom of God, He demonstrated it in also meeting peoples immediate physical needs. If you were sick, you were healed, if hungry, you were fed. He not only did this Himself, He empowered people to go beyond the act of simply receiving (being dependent) and charged them to go and follow His example (Mark 16:15-18). Aquaponics is simply a tool that God can use to help meet the daily food needs of people with limited space and water. It actually teaches us to be good stewards of Gods resources and as such, we will receive His blessings. If people have a direct relationship with God and He is blessing the work of their hands we are basically out of the picture and not a temptation for dependence. This is what it means to be free. Dependence on others is bondage (Jer. 17:5-10), Christ came to set us free (Luke 4:17-21) and with that freedom comes empowerment to live a life that is full and free of any kind of bondage (John 8:1-11). It is in this freedom that we can glorify God (1 Cor. 6:20). If anyone wants to read a bit more on this perspective you can read the documents from my website here:

JMZ: What advice do you have for someone with little capital who wants to set up their own Aquaponics farm?

TH: START SLOW!!! Build a small system and expand on what you have learned. As with any technology, there is a learning curve. Aquaponics is no different. You have to learn two discliplines at the same time, aquaculture and hydroponics. It is not all that hard, it just takes patience. This is where the beauty of starting small comes in. If you have a failure you have not mortgaged the farm and as such you have the resource to try again. This is one of the really cool things about the Barrel-Ponics system. It is small enough to learn on, yet large enough to actually grow a good bit of produce and a few fish for the table. While it's not optimized for production (remember it is a training tool for future bigger things), it is capable of growing some herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.... Once again, start slow and build on success. On that note I would suggest beginning with a known model of success (Barrel-Ponics) and make changes from that. I hear people all the time who have never built a system designing their own thing from the beginning with no experience whatsoever in what they are doing. Hedge yourself to success and use an already existing successful model (Barrel-Ponics).

JMZ: Thanks Travis!

TH: Joshua, Thank you so much for shining the light on our work. God Bless, Travis W. Hughey

For a free copy of the Barrel-Ponics Manual please visit Travis' website here:

Travis also was featured in a recent New York Times article on Aquaponics:

You can contact Travis via email : kenyahugheys -at

images copyright Travis Hughey 2010

1 comment:

wizkid said...

a buzz thread regarding this topic: