The freshest fish Floyd Williams has eaten since moving from Port Orford to Ashland wasn't plucked from local rivers or lakes.
It's tilapia raised aquaponically near Rogue River and sold to order at local farmers markets.
"It's amazingly delicious," says Williams. "It's nothing like tilapia you'll buy in the (super)market."
Williams already was a fan of butterhead lettuce grown in the same aquaponic system by Michael Hasey, Luis "Coyote" Aguayo and Olivia Hittner. The three moved from San Diego to the Rogue Valley to farm. Their operation, The Farming Fish, is has a "little bit of everything" on 40 acres that also includes six, 3,000-gallon ponds, says Hittner.
After selling aquaponic and field-grown produce for more than a year, The Farming Fish started offering its tilapia this month, first at the Grants Pass Growers Market, then Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market in Ashland and Medford. Planning to harvest up to 700 tilapia per month, The Farming Fish takes advance orders for them at markets. Prices start at $5 per pound for whole fish to $15 filleted with lemon-basil marinade.
The tilapia also is available at The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point from $7.98 for whole, dressed fish to $12.99 per pound filleted and skinned.
"The only tilapia that I could get in the past, I was getting out of China or Asia or the Philippines ... but I sell very little of it," says Cameron Callahan, co-owner of The Butcher Shop. "They just don't trust it," he says of customers' perceptions.
The Farming Fish is on a mission to change local consumers' perceptions of "farmed fish."
"Fish farming itself has gotten a bad rap," says Hittner. "Farming fish doesn't have to be wasteful; it doesn't have to be dirty.
"The difference is the farmer; the difference is the farm."
The Farming Fish is a certified-organic, diversified, eco-friendly and sustainable operation, says Hittner. The tilapia are bred on the property, eating lettuce and green waste from the gardens, she says. In turn, the fish's waste nourishes crops grown in the aquaponic system, and nutrient-infused liquid purged from the system waters the farm's fields.
"They're not raised in high densities," says Hittner. "You won't find any heavy metals in them."
By contrast, most tilapia sold commercially consumed feed likely containing genetically modified ingredients, or could be genetically modified themselves, she adds. The Farming Fish's tilapia justifies a price that's about double of mainstream fish, says Callahan, who does all the cutting on fish that the farm doesn't plan to sell whole.
"It has really good flavor to it," says Callahan.
Local chef Paul Becking agrees after serving the tilapia as a dinner special last month at his C St. Bistro in Jacksonville.
"It was excellent. It really had a nice flake, a nice color," he says. "It didn't taste muddy at all."
Because customers couldn't get enough of his panko-crusted tilapia with coconut-curry sauce, Becking plans more such specials this month. Hittner recommends stuffing the whole, dressed fish, which average 11/2 to 2 pounds, or baking them in a salt crust.
"It's like a little oven."
Find more tilapia recipes on The Farming Fish's website, www.thefarmingfish.com, or try this whole, roasted fish dish.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.