While attending the University of California at Davis in the early 1970’s to pursue my education in Renewable Natural Resources, one of the jobs I had taken to help support me and my growing family was to clean out the fish tanks at the Tilapia Project on campus. If you have ever cleaned out a fish tank with the coarse sand over the plastic spacers in the bottom of the tank, you know this is neither fun, nor clean work.
Briefly, here’s how it worked: The fish poop would settle to the bottom of the tank. The bacteria in the gravel at the bottom went to work to break it down into simpler components, and the somewhat cleaner water was then lifted back up using an air lift pump to an external filter on the top, outside of the tank. From there, it flowed back into the tank for the fish and by that time, the water was cleaner and more oxygenated.
This simple system created a wonderful opportunity for the heavy fish waste to feed a wide variety of bacteria, some of which produced truly awful smelling byproducts. The cleaning involved removing the fish from the tank and then draining out the water, removing the sand and the plastic risers and washing everything thoroughly so the water would run clear. I thought there had to be a better way to accomplish this arduous task. My young engineering and science mind, working together, set my path to find a way to simplify the tank-cleaning process, so I could at least spread out the time between tank cleanings.
The air-lift pump moved the water up and over the edge of the tank and that gave me an idea. I placed a regular plastic dishpan across the top, at one end of the fish tank. I drilled a hole in the side about a half an inch up from the bottom and placed about 2 inches of coarse sand in the pan. Then I extended the air lift pump a couple of inches to lift the water up and into the gravel in the dish pan. I did not put in all the plastic spacers or the sand back in the tank. The tank only had one spacer, an air lift pipe, but no sand at all.
Then, I planted some tomato seeds and orange seeds in the sand, filled the tank with water, placed the fish back in the water, and turned on the air stones (bubbles). For three days, nothing happened except the fish were happy and the water stayed clear, and then, as if by magic, the tomato seeds sprouted! Eight days later the orange seeds sprouted. I was absolutely ecstatic. I was a raging success on my first try. The tank was clean and clear, the fish were happy, and the plants were growing. I had found the solution to all my problems.
Five days later, all the plants died and I was crestfallen. What could have happened? I mean besides my committing my first mass killing? The plants were telling me that they could not have their roots wet all the time. This became my very first painful and memorable lesson in aquaponics, and the beginning of Portable Farms™ Aquaponics Systems as we know them today. The air lift pump was doing its job as required, but what I didn’t know was that it only needed to run a couple of hours a day to keep the roots damp for my young, growing plants. My first catastrophic mistake, and one of the reasons the Portable Farms™ Aquaponics Systems are nearly bulletproof today. I am teachable.
That was the beginning of an idea. On that day, I committed myself to find a way to create an automated aquaponics system that would grow enough food to feed the world. I declared that I would create a system that could be sized to be able to grow food for backyard farmers or commercial growers to feed many people anywhere in the world. The hook was set.
The Real Truth About Food Security
Here are the problems the world is currently facing today: Food and poverty go hand in hand, and that the problems I faced in the 1970’s would become larger than anything we could possibly imagine then. In the 1970’s, the global population was 3.4 billion. Today, it’s 6 billion and expected to be at around 8 billion in the next 15 years.
According to Feeding America, 1 in 8 people in the United States go to bed hungry each night. Globally, 1 billion people are unable to secure a nutritionally adequate diet to keep them healthy and active, and 100 million of those people suffer from the consequences of Protein Energy Malnutrition (PEM). Childhood malnutrition claims the lives of 5 million children each year.
According to projections made by the Committee on Foreign Relations in their report on Global Food Insecurity presented to the United States Senate (February 2009), “By 2050, it is projected that population growth will require a doubling in farm output, yet growth rates in food production in some regions have been stagnated.” As countries become more affluent, the need for protein in their diet increases faster than the population or food production.
PEM is the most lethal form of malnutrition and hunger. It is basically a lack of calories and protein because protein is necessary for key body functions including provision of essential amino acids and the development and maintenance of muscles.
My New Challenges
I realized, even on the tragic day my plants died, that aquaponics was a ‘game changer’ and could offer an affordable way for people ANYWHERE to become immediately self-sufficient for table vegetables and fresh fish. Over the past forty years, I have continued to tinker with aquaponics to learn everything I could find about the topic. I went through periods when I would become disinterested or too busy to focus on my idea and I didn’t touch it. But I was always thinking of ways to solve a piece of the aquaponics puzzle so the system would become more stable, more productive and less expensive to duplicate.
I knew that if I could just find a way to keep the sprouting seeds dryer and not waterlogged while they were growing, they would mature and produce food. Also, I needed to find a simple way to automate the system so it would remove the fish poop out of the circulating closed loop water system without having to clean it by hand. So, I accepted my challenges and then spent many years working to solve these obstacles.
Then, the real opportunity arrived for me. My beautiful wife, Phyllis, and I moved into a house here in Southern California several years ago that had a very large koi pond in the backyard with three enormous white and orange Kohaku koi that were two feet long (whom we named Hickory, Dickory and Doc, because they swam in clockwise circles all day and all night). The pond had a large pump that would feed the water to a water fall which was a kind of a stream/fountain. The house, the location, the yard, everything was perfect. Phyllis turned to me one day as we sitting on our covered patio and said in her kindest and most loving manner, “Okay, you’ve been screwing around with this long enough. You perfect it and I’ll market it for us.”
I decided that I would take her up on her offer, so I set about refining my ideas for a new aquaponics system with many of the ideas that had been percolating in my mind over the years.
Now, I ask you, how could I refuse an offer like that? I began researching new products on the market and then I started building.
In my process of experimentation, we found a pumping system that kept the water in the fish tanks clear and would move the fish poop out of the water and remove it from the bottom of the tanks, plus, it was designed to calibrate the flow at the correct rate for the water to flow through the gravel in the grow trays. The pump was very inexpensive to operate and BINGO, it wouldn’t’t become clogged or damaged from constant use as the water pumped the water and fish poop through the system, over time.
So, there in the backyard in our beautiful gated community, Home Owner Association restricted house, we built not one, not two, but three aquaponics systems of varying sizes. Our neighbors loved us though because we gave them all the vegetables and fish that we could not consume instead of selling them. Almost overnight, people started calling and asking for tours to see our farms and the word spread faster than we could have ever anticipated.
Gradually, over a year’s time, we perfected our system, gave it name, a Portable Farms™ Aquaponics System. Phyllis built a terrific website and calls and orders started coming in the minute we announced it was for sale.
We sent out one single 400-word Press Release on PR Newswire, June 18, 2008, that we had written ourselves at the kitchen table, announcing our new aquaponics system and within 10 days, we received thousands of inquiries from people in 110 countries.
Within three months, we had simply outgrown that big house so we moved to a 2.5 acre ‘ranch’ in Escondido, California, a former orchid farm, that had over an acre of flat land for us to expand our research center and get serious about presenting our ideas to the world.
We bought a little red tractor and Phyllis and I cleared and maintained the land ourselves (which was no small task because the property had been badly neglected for many years). We built three hoop houses to enclose our various sized aquaponics systems from pests and weather, and another hoop house as a future guest and training center. (I should mention that our hoop houses proved to be highly inadequate enclosures for our aquaponics systems because they would blow down in high wind storms, and didn’t provide adequate insulation against the intense heat that comes and goes in Southern California.)
As we experimented with our fish tanks and pumps and flow rates, we continued to make mistakes on a regularly frustrating basis. We killed fish, we killed more plants, we wrecked pumps, and we cooked everything in a small greenhouses once when we accidentally tripped a circuit breaker and didn’t know it for 10 hours on a record (112 degree F) hot day.
After learning from an attorney that we had only twelve months to apply for a patent after announcing our initial introduction into the marketplace or we’d be unable to qualify for a patent, we gave it serious thought and decided to apply. It took several people working for weeks to get it written properly written and applied for. By May 2009, our aquaponics system officially qualified for a patent pending.
A month or so after we moved to Escondido and we had completed a couple of farms, a local newspaper asked to interview us for a story and we jumped at the chance for some local publicity. The article was then ‘picked up’ by the Union Tribune (the largest newspaper in San Diego, California) and on the day after Christmas 2008, and before New Year’s Day 2009 we began receiving hundreds of requests for private tours of our farms.
We had people on tours that would stand in our hoop houses overlooking the lush gardens of fresh vegetables growing in the gravel trays and openly weep because they were so overwhelmed with the possibilities of fresh food for themselves, and the simplicity of our systems. After the tours, we invited people to sit under a large blue tent under an enormous red flaming bougainvillea bush, offered them cold water and made them comfortable, which gave us chance to give them our ‘sale’s pitch.’ During that time, we listened to their concerns of food security (access and availability), food prices, issues related to State and global droughts effecting farmers, food quality, food transportation, genetically modified foods and chemicals in the food that’s available today at local stores. They also expressed their concerns about the lack of taste in many of today’s vegetables and fruits, as compared to the taste of food they remembered when they were growing up. And of course, they repeatedly expressed their concerns about global hunger and the devastating effects of famine.
We realized this was a terrific opportunity to hear from our potential customers and learn what was on their minds regarding health, politics, nutrition, the war, climate change, civil liberties, farming, gas prices, and on and on. It was a fascinating experience to spend time listening to such a cross section of people who shared similar concerns and closely held opinions about our world today. We had created our own ‘focus group’ and people were very forthcoming about their support of our product and about their personal fears that were growing in this world’s quickly souring economy. Our time with them strengthened our purpose and made us clearly aware that people held strong opinions about becoming self-sustaining. We said to each other, “We may be a year ahead of the curve, but we’re in the right place at the right time with a product that has a chance to change the world.”
Over the next six months, over 5,000 people came to our small farm and toured our aquaponics systems from early morning until the sun went over the ridge of the mountain. It was a very exciting time for us, personally, but professionally, there weren’t enough hours in the day to manage our small but growing business so we decided to downsize.
That summer, two Southern California documentary filmmakers requested permission to interview me and tour our systems, on camera, and again, we welcomed the attention to ‘get the word out’ about our new invention. Here are links to those two documentaries. One of them is by Beck Bamberger, CLICK HERE. as Next 500 unveils the future of business as we yet know it. The leading companies of tomorrow are doing business today in a new way. And, the second is by filmmaker, Edward Kramer:
Since we decided that we wouldn’t offer as many tours as we had in the past, and our research on the farm had finally created our ‘finished product,’ and we had received our patent pending, we decided to simplify our lives and move away from the farm and leave all the responsibility of keeping 5,000 fish happy and fed, and planting and harvesting 5,000 vegetables. So, we sold two of our aquaponics systems and donated the third (and largest) system to a local non-profit center who work to feed refugees here in San Diego, California.
We launched a one-day farm sale that we advertised on Craigslist and sold our small red tractor and all our farm equipment, and extra furniture that we had accumulated, and moved into a lovely home October 2009 that had just been redecorated in San Diego, near the beach and overlooking Mission Bay. We were so exhausted (mentally, physically, physiologically, emotionally and spiritually) that we simply collapsed into a heap to rethink our strategies.
Our new backyard had ample room to build our own aquaponics system, just for us, so with the help of our friend, Lane McClelland, we put up a small 10’ x 16’ aquaponics system on our sundeck which took about a week to complete. The very day it was complete, we had a long list of people who wanted a tour and now, five months later, we offer a few tours to those interested in owning one of our systems.
As we have continued to examine a marketplace for our product, we realized those who would most benefit from having their own ‘food production’ unit would be those who people who:
- Have space to install an aquaponics system – small or large
- Have the time, or could make the time, to enjoy an aquaponics system and benefit from owning one
- Revolutionary thinkers who realize that fresh, healthy food is vital to their health and ongoing well being
- Grasp the concept of ‘food security’ involving access and availability to good food
- Want to become more self-sustaining and self-sufficient and perhaps, off the grid
- Would like to share or sell extra produce or fish for additional income, regardless of where they live
- Are generous and believe in giving back to those who are hungry, wherever they are in the world by donating a system to their favorite cause
- Can help those less fortunate to create a livelihood and a way to change their own communities
- Want to help create jobs in local communities anywhere in the world.
The day after we created that list, I wrote to http://escapeartist.com because their demographic was identical to our perfect customer. I introduced myself and our system and when they called us back, they had done their own due-diligence to see who we were/are and the rest is history.
Phyllis and I welcome you to call or email us for more information about our exciting new product to provide you and your family fresh food, extra income (if you desire), a marvelous, cutting edge new technology that can change the world. We can either teach you how to build a system, or we’ll have a builder install it for you.
Thank you for reading our story.
To Learn more about Organic Growing and Fish Farms ===> CLICK HERE
Inventor, CEO, Portable Farms, Inc.