Farm & Market Features Sustainable fish farming in Oregon’s Rogue Valley
Creating a food cycle for the future.
By GRANT BUTLER
Photography by MOTOYA NAKAMURA
(Thanks so much to both of you!)
East of Rogue River is some of the most beautiful landscape southern Oregon has to offer. Rolling hills are dotted with groves of evergreen and oak trees, and cattle graze through the occasional acre of grassy meadow. High above, red-tailed hawks circle.
At the top of one of those rocky, south-facing slopes is a massive hoop-style greenhouse where six 3,000-gallon tanks teem with thousands of tilapia, which farmers Michael Hasey and Olivia Hittner are convinced hold the key to the future of sustainable farmed fish and organic agriculture.
Hasey and Hittner co-own The Farming Fish, an aquaponic farm that sells both fresh tilapia and pristine organic vegetables that have been grown in water loaded with nutrients that the fish produce as they grow.
“Aquaponics is amazingly sustainable,” Hasey says. “It’s replicating exactly what’s happening in a natural ecosystem.”
The Farming Fish is really an enclosed eco-system. Tilapia are raised from hatchlings, eventually growing up in large tanks, which feed water to the dangling roots of basil plants. To keep everything organic, insects like preying mantis keep pests at bay, and carnivorous plants keep the air clear of mosquitos and flies.
Unlike conventional farmed-fish operations, aquaponics — a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) — produces no run-off and makes virtually no impact on the environment. The water that’s used to raise the fish and grow produce is recirculated, creating an enclosed system that doesn’t pose a danger to nearby lakes and streams.
“One of the fun things we get to do is help people understand that farmed fish can be done right, and to really look at how the fish that you’re eating is being raised,” Hittner says. “There’s a big difference between our farm-raised fish and other farm-raised fish.”
The pitfalls of foreign farms
There’s growing demand for tilapia. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, tilapia is the fourth most-consumed seafood in the United States, after shrimp, tuna and salmon.
But only five percent of tilapia that’s eaten here is domestically raised. And many foreign tilapia farms are unregulated, resulting in huge breeding programs that pollute natural waterways. Plus tilapia is considered an invasive species, and it has been known to escape and crowd out native species.
To grow pristine fresh basil, The Farming Fish’s Michael Hasey and Olivia Hittner plant individual seeds, which are fed by filtered water coming from a half-dozen 3,000-gallon tanks, each holding 700 tilapia at various stages of growth.
A lot of imported tilapia comes from massive farms in China, where fish may be swimming in murky waters. According to Seafood Watch, there is evidence that prophylactic antibiotics and banned fungal treatments are used in some Chinese tilapia production.
“There’s no comparison between the quality of our fish and what comes from China,” Hasey says. “Our tilapia are beautiful, and the flesh is so firm and tender because they’re in really clean, healthy water, and they get fed so many vegetables off of the farm when we’re harvesting. They’re getting high-quality natural foods.”
“We have the freshest fish around, raised without any hormones, drugs or genetic modification. It’s crazy that consumers are willing to save 25 cents a pound and risk their health.”
Sustainability Fish Farming = a closed loop system
Walking through the hoop-house containing the fish and thousands of basil plants, Hasey talks about how the system works with an evangelistic fervor. The fish and plants, he contends, have a perfect symbiotic relationship.
“With aquaponics, you’re feeding your fish and they gain weight for market. Those nutrients (from their waste) feed your plants, and those plants are filtering things, sending clean water back to the fish. But the fish in an aquaponic system, that’s not really where the beauty is. No one in aquaponics is making any money off of the fish. What they really are doing is providing free nutrients for the plants, which lowers the overhead for growing produce.”
The fish in the six tanks and smaller hatchery aquariums are at various stages of growth, and take six months to reach the ideal size for market, averaging about two pounds each. When it’s time to sell the tilapia, they are transferred to a licensed fish-processing plant, then are sold either fresh or frozen, ranging from $5 a pound for a whole fish to $14 a pound for fillets.
“Our fish cost more than what’s coming from China, that’s for sure, but we do try to keep it reasonable,” Hittner says. “It still costs a lot less than a lot of the fish that’s out there.”
But the fish are just the start of the system. Water from the tanks goes through bio-filters down to long troughs where large, floating polystyrene sheets are loaded with containers holding seedlings and full-grown plants, their long root systems dangling deep into the water. Swimming among the roots are tiny mosquitofish and frogs, which feast on mosquito larvae, while dragonflies, lady bugs, preying mantis and carnivorous plants work above the water, clearing the air of fungus gnats, aphids and other pests that can damage organic produce.
The hoop-house is warm and humid, ideal for the warm-water fish and heat-loving vegetables, but Hasey says there’s actually very little water lost to evaporation.
“Most of our water loss is through harvesting and the water weight of the vegetables,” Hasey says.
Aquaponics uses 80 to 90 percent less water to grow these vegetables compared to traditional in-ground farming using irrigation. And because there’s no weeding, mowing or plowing, it has a lower carbon footprint.
“We’re passionate about all sustainable agriculture,” Hittner says. “There’s a need for respect for all types of organic farming, and this is just another aspect of it that could help us stop using chemicals and overusing resources.”
While the aquaponic system gets most of the attention from Hasey and Hittner, they also have a plot of land where they grow root vegetables, melons and other veggies — plants that don’t thrive with aquaponics. But those plants still receive some of the benefits.
“We get a little bit of waste when we’re cleaning things — fish emulsion, or dissolved solids — and that goes into our compost and helps us build better topsoil,” Hasey says. “When you combine an aquaponic system with in-ground growing, there’s no waste at all.”
Hasey and Hittner have had great success with their plants, selling lettuce and other greens at summertime farmers markets in the area. And they plan to begin distributing their living basil plants throughout the Northwest.
Happy fish, happy crops
While The Farming Fish’s setup is relatively large, aquaponics can be done on a much-smaller scale. In nearby Eagle Point, about 30 minutes northeast of Medford, Kreg and Angie Boudro grow vegetables at the much smaller Rock Field Farms. The name comes from the rock-filled landscape that would be utterly useless as regular farmland.
“There is no soil,” Angie Boudro says. “It’s really rocky.”
But there is room for two small hoop-houses and a larger greenhouse, where they grow lettuce and herbs using water coming from a single tank holding about 1,000 tilapia.
Unlike The Farming Fish, Rock Field Farms holds onto its tilapia because they are needed to provide nutrients for the agricultural operation. They’ve sold some of the tilapia to customers, but only a few times after vegetables are harvested and they don’t need such nutrient-rich water. State regulations make selling the fish tricky. Legally, they can only be sold at the farm alive, but they have to be dead before leaving the property because there’s concern about the fish being released into streams. It’s complicated, but Kreg Boudro says they follow the law to the letter.
“There are people in prison because they broke those rules,” he says.
While The Farming Fish’s Hasey has been working with aquaponics for more than 10 years, Kreg Boudro is still relatively new to it. He had been working as a tile-setter in the construction industry, but changed careers after work evaporated in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis. When he learned about aquaponics, he realized it was a type of farming that he could do on the rocky, steeply sloped land behind his country home.
The upside of having a tilapia farm is that whenever the craving for fish tacos springs up you don’t have to go far to get the freshest filets possible.
Since they don’t normally sell their fish, The Boudros depend on farmers market sales of their produce for their income. On a chilly Thursday morning, Angie is selling large heads of living lettuce, bunches of lemon spinach and Swiss chard from a stand at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, held once a week in a sparse parking lot in front of the Medford National Guard Armory building.
“People can get basic greens anywhere,” she says. “We always try to have three to four things people can’t get elsewhere.”
Among those unusual vegetables are Chinese leeks, which look like regular chives but have a stronger flavor and enough body to stand up to a hot saute pan. Boudro hands out samples to market customers, who are surprised by their bold taste.
Boudro believes that the intense flavors of her greens and vegetables are directly related to aquaponics.
“One of the things our customers frequently tell us is that our lettuce has more flavor than anything they’ve ever had,” she says. “I had one lady say, ‘I never thought lettuce had flavor until I had your lettuce.’ ”
Because roots are attached to most of the produce that Rock Field Farms and The Farming Fish sell, the plants are technically alive and can last up to three weeks in the refrigerator — something that can’t be done with cut greens.
The Boudros also are experimenting with the types of vegetables that can succeed in an aquaponic system, particularly tomatoes, which are thriving in their greenhouse.
“It’s amazing how much fruit is on here,” Kreg Boudro says. “They’ve really taken off.”
A long-term solution
Because aquaponic farming can be done in places with poor soil and limited water, there’s hope that it could be the future of farming in arid places like sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East.
“We talk a lot these days about decreasing farmland,” Angie Boudro says. “We’re running out of land, so I see this as the way of the future, because you can grow anywhere.”
Hasey says that in urban areas, aquaponics can turn an empty parking lot into a productive farm.
“It really shines there,” Hasey says. “But let’s face it, we’re losing our topsoil even out here in the country. This land has been used for growing alfalfa and onions, with a lot of neglect for many years. Sustainable aquaponics could aid in improving our topsoil. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think that every farm one day will have a small aquaponic system.”