Behind weathered wooden gates, a forest of junk blooms: old furniture and car parts emerging from the earth, with chickens and a cat scrabbling underfoot and a short quarter acre of raised garden beds. By a tired but sturdy backhouse, two 300-gallon tanks connected by salvaged motor parts and PVC gurgle and stew.
I’d actually been meaning to get a look at Billy Jones’ backyard for awhile: He’s been crowing about his aquaponics system — a means of crop acceleration involving lots of water and fish — since 2013 at his website, greensboroperformingarts.blogspot.com,a spot well loaded and linked with plans to rescue the city of Greensboro from its economic malaise, and open disdain for some elected officials, local businessmen and members of the media.
It would be easy to dismiss Backyard Billy as just another nutjob with a high-speed internet connection, but the process he’s championing is 5,000-year-old technology with a premise that’s already in use around the world.
Fish live in the water, enriching it with micronutrients from their waste. That water is run through a bed of crops, giving it the benefit of the supercharged water, which filters into another tank, where “cleaner” fish further process it. Eventually it makes its way back into the first tank of fish.
It conserves water. It naturally feeds crops. Billy says you can even eat the fish. But replicating the technique turns out to be tougher than Backyard Billy figured.
He gestures to the twin tanks choked with duckweed, a repurposed piece of medical equipment circulating the tannic water between them.
“It’s pretty crappy,” he says, “and all the fish are dead.”
A limp crop of sweet potato, Romaine lettuce, peppers, onion and basil growing from a watery tray, Billy says, is “not doing well.”
He’s taken meetings with city council members and business leaders, all of which led to the same conclusion.
“We came to the understanding, independent but mutual, that I don’t know enough about it to run it,” he says.
Backyard Billy’s no scientist. A lifetime of hard work and idle tinkering brought him to where he’s at, which is the same corner of east Greensboro where he grew up.
There’s no way to go but forward.
He needs to add a layer or two of filtration, experiment with different fish and plants. He’s got just a few dollars invested in the rig, and he figures $10,000 would be enough to get the thing to spin off maybe $13,000 a year from the effort. But it might as well be a million bucks for Backyard Billy. And no one seems interested in the movement.
“They’re used to getting something [in return] right now,” he says, “and that’s the most expensive way to do something.”
Bessemer Aquaponics next meets on July 16 at 7 p.m. at the Guilford County Agricultural Extension Office.