Michael Hasey waves before climbing a ladder as neighbors finish assembling arched supports for the future pond's protective covering. Sanne Specht photo - Sanne Specht

Helping hands for the fish farm

Under cold, clear, azure skies, a couple dozen ranchers and farmers gathered at their neighbor's last weekend to help out in an old-fashioned barn-raising.

On second thought, better make that a newfangled barn-raising, considering the "barn" consists of metal poles, plastic sheeting — and is designed to house lettuce and fish.

Michael Hasey, 31, and Olivia Hittner, 28, owners of "The Farming Fish," along with business partner Luis "Coyote" Aguayo, plan to combine hydroponics with aquaculture on their East Evans Creek Road property.

They hope to eventually harvest about 2,000 pounds of tilapia (a popular food fish easily cultivated in ponds) each month, along with 6,500 heads of lettuce, from an energy-efficient aquafarming system.

"The fish clean the plants and the plants clean the water," Hittner said.

They ultimately plan to fill their soon-to-be-created pond from collected rainwater, noting that subsequent water changes will benefit the in-ground vegetable crops planted in the lower field, she said.

A 30-by-265-foot cold frame, which will one day protect their leafy and piscine crops from extreme heat and/or freezing temperatures, is just beginning to take shape — with a little help from their friends.

"It's just shy of a football field," said Hittner, gazing down the length of the raised berm and smiling at folks who gathered there on the weekend before Christmas.

Most of the barn-raisers were either neighbors or fellow vendors the couple met at local growers markets where they sold their in-ground crops this past season. Getting an assist from those who some might consider competitors was "huge," said Hasey.

"I couldn't get a single one of these people to take a dollar from me," Hasey said.

Teri and Art White of Runnymede Farm near Rogue River arrived early Saturday. Runnymede sells vegetables, plants, eggs and more at the markets. Art White has been a farmer for decades, and Runnymede has several cold frames that have been up and operational for years.

"Art's experience was invaluable," Hittner said.

It's all about connection. Hittner bought a flock of Runnymede chickens. On Saturday they were hunting and pecking along the path adjacent to the construction area.

"We're just here to help out," Teri White said.

Fellow Wimer resident Paul Gilbertson of Evans Valley Roasting was also an early-shift volunteer. Gilbertson, a former process engineer turned coffee roaster, brought tools and ladders from his place a few miles down the road. Standing atop one of the ladders, Gilbertson and others helped assemble the frame's arching poles.

"You just keep building it. There are a lot of parts to this," Gilbertson said, adding that other crews would screw in the bracing poles late Saturday and again on Sunday.

"They're the diagonal bracing engineers," Gilbertson joked.

Hasey and Hittner moved to Southern Oregon from San Diego last spring, determined to become part of a new generation of farmers. They chose the Rogue Valley because of the climate and the community, Hittner said.

"It's not too cold and not too tropic," she said. "And it's been exciting to see all the young farmers. I think it's an incredible asset to the community."

Hasey gained experience in commercial aquatic gardening by caring for ponds at municipal golf courses. He also studied large-scale aquaponics at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix to learn the latest techniques and best practices, he said.

Combining the two farming practices creates "a very productive type of agriculture which uses a lot less resources and allows us to feed a lot more people with a lot less energy," Hasey said.

A head of lettuce grown hydroponically requires about 80 percent less water than dirt-grown lettuce, Hittner said.

Next-door neighbor Dave Jensen said he was participating in "the old-time barn-raising. We don't have too many community efforts anymore."

Hittner and Hasey have made a "substantial investment of money and effort and high hopes" on a farm property that historically has "never made a family wage," Jensen said.

But farmers don't toil to get rich, he said. "They do it because they enjoy it," Jensen said.

Travis Scarborough, owner of Rogue Garden Supply in Rogue River, said he was willing to lend a hand in order to get some exercise and gain experience. Scarborough plans to build his own greenhouse soon.

"And this is giving me a good learning curve," he said.

Late Saturday afternoon, Hittner began carting pies down to the site of a thank-you party. As the sun began to slip behind the green hills, a bonfire was lit to warm hearts and hands in one of the lower fields. Guests feasted on tilapia, veggies, rice and more.

"We just feel so blessed to be here and living our dream," Hittner said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email

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