Proverbs sometimes fall short.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time.”

But what if there aren’t any fish?

Two Orange County are men teaching themselves to build self-sustaining fish farms and use the, um, fish droppings to grow vegetables.

But it’s not about making a profit. It’s about helping people in impoverished nations to raise their own fish.

Depending on one’s perspective, they’re using either a very ancient or a very modern system of farming called “aquaponics.”

But even knowing all that, it’s hard to believe what’s in Garrett Futrell’s Costa Mesa backyard.

• • •

When I get to Futrell’s home, a slender woman introduces herself as Futrell’s wife, Brittany, and says the contraption I’ve come to see is in the backyard.

We stroll through the house. It’s comfy, with the toys of a toddler here and there. I can’t wait to meet Cameron, just 14 months old. He’s out back, I’m told.

But I forget about Cameron when I walk out the back door.

I’m here to check out the budding aquaponics operation. The idea is that fish, tilapia in this case, swim around and grow large enough to harvest.

I figured on something like a really big fish tank. Instead, I see a REALLY BIG fish tank.

Good thing that the Futrells have a really big backyard.

Little Cameron peeks out from a series of four-by-four posts. Equally wide-eyed, we look at one another. He’s agile and big for his age. But he’s dwarfed by the wooden structure around him.

The fish tank is more like an above-ground lap pool. Lined with thick rubber, it’s 20 feet long, 5 feet wide and 4 feet deep. It holds 2,200 gallons.

You know those gizmos called “endless pools?” This pond is something like that – for fish.

A pump at one end pushes current. Dozens of teenage tilapia – and a few goldfish – dart about. It’s calming staring into the water at the flashes of silver, brown and orange.

But discovering the reason for the fish farm is inspiring, even more so when I check out the rest of the massive structure.

• • •

Futrell introduces me to his farming partner, Cory Hill.

Hill is slender with light hair and a beard. Futrell is powerfully built with a tight buzz cut.

While they’ve only known each other for six months and point out they’re opposites – Futrell is the hard charger, Hill the thinker – they seem like brothers.

There’s a reason for that.

They met through Rock Harbor Church and, unknowingly, have pursued similar missions for several years.

Hill, a 32-year-old video editor, was born in Orange County, graduated Calvary Chapel High School, attended Platt College and worked for Hurley for 12 years.

But he found his calling in Tenali, a town of 150,000 in southeast India. Working with the nonprofit, Harvest India, Hill visits as often as he can, sometimes staying six months.

Futrell found his calling in Gulu, Uganda, a district with 300,000 people that borders the Sudan. With the help of others, he’s been going twice a year for five years.

Born in Pomona, Futrell, 30, grew up in Diamond Bar and was an art major at Azusa Pacific University. Still, you could say he’s more about nuts and bolts.

His father founded Industrial Threaded Products in Brea in 1979. After his father’s death last year, Futrell took over the business. But that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream.

Hill and Futrell share the same vision: Over the next five years, they plan to teach people in their adopted countries how to build their own aquaponic farms and grow their own vegetables and fish.

Futrell says, “The goal is to give these people a life.”

In some respects, the process is amazingly simple. But there are bugs to work out. Yes, real bugs.

• • •


Unlike a home aquarium, fish poop is a good thing for aquaponics.

Instead of filtering out the nasty ammonia and nitrite, the yucky water – “nutrient rich water” as Hill calls it – is used to help grow vegetables.

Four 20-foot-by-40-inch troughs hold 10-inch-deep beds of gravel, 12 tons in all.

Winter vegetables grow out of the rocks – kale, mint, cabbage, arugula, romaine and butter lettuce.

Because the water is returned to the pond, there are no pesticides. It’s all organic. Nets keep out insects. Still, Hill picks out a few bugs as we chat.

Beneath the rocks, fishy water flows. The idea is that natural bacteria in the rocks convert the nitrite and ammonia into nitrate, which plants love.

In turn, the water is naturally filtered, stuffed with oxygen by the plants and returned to the pond.

It’s believed the Aztecs tried something similar. Currently, Hill and Futrell feed the fish with koi food. In months to come, they hope to feed the fish with duckweed and kale.

I pluck a leaf of butter lettuce wondering if it will taste like old aquarium water.

There’s nothing like fresh produce. The leaf offers a rich, sweet flavor.

• • •

Several other local churches have been studying aquaponics. And with a donation just days ago from an area business, Hill and Futrell expect to carry on the work to developing nations this year.

Of late, their biggest challenge has been to keep the water warm enough for tilapia. A cold spell killed most of the fish. They used hearty goldfish to test the waters. Now, the water is warmed with a heater and solar power.

In southern India and Uganda where the weather is warmer, solar power is expected to be sufficient for heating and running pumps.

After having just named the operation Atlas Collective (Teachable, Learnable, Sustainable), Hill and Futrell hope to produce 4,000 tilapia a year.

They plan to feed the homeless and sell some fish to help fund their overseas missions.

Oh, there’s one more plan: Introduce little Cameron to fresh fish tacos.

This is a outstanding read if you’re wanting to get into aquaponics.

[amazonjs asin=”086571701X” locale=”US” tmpl=”Small” title=”Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together”]




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