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Hot water holds many opportunities for S. Oregon farms

By Lee Juillerat

For the Capital Press

Published on September 12, 2017 2:43PM

Ron Barnes, left, and Tracey Liskey check out geothermally heated ponds used for raising tilapia.

Lee Juillerat/For the Capital Press

Ron Barnes, left, and Tracey Liskey check out geothermally heated ponds used for raising tilapia.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. ­— No matter the season, the fish are always jumping.

That’s because Ron Barnes and Tracey Liskey are tossing handfuls of fish food into one of their several fish ponds where they’re raising 2-pound tilapia that are live-trucked to fish markets in Seattle and San Francisco. Some remains local, often sold to Klamath Basin residents who especially enjoy the tasty, white fish.

For the past six-plus years Barnes, with Liskey’s help, has been experimenting with the best of speedily raising tilapias from tiny hatchlings until they’re large enough to be fresh-shipped to commercial markets. Before the year is out, Barnes said he expects his business, Gone Fishing, will ship about 50,000 pounds.

“We’re starting small, but deliberately so,” Barnes said, noting a commercial tilapia farm in Northern California’s Modoc County ships up to 20,000 pounds a week. His goal is raising 2-pound tilapias, admitting, “It was difficult to raise them to that size. We’ve overcome that.”

“We work together and get things done,” said Liskey. “I can fix things. I’m the mechanic, the engineer.”

He and Barnes believe the years of experimenting with feed, water temperatures and other variables have paid off. Barnes said his 80-acre operation south of Klamath Falls and adjacent to Liskey Farms, is “extremely efficient. My water use is a tiny, tiny fraction of what most fish farmers use,” noting the tilapias reach market size in about 90 days.

“There was learning curve learning how to grow them to size,” agrees Liskey. “It’s kind of like raising a beef cow to a size in the shortest amount of time.”

Liskey makes the cattle reference because he manages the family’s 1,500-acre ranch, which is 99 percent leased to others. At age 63, he calls himself semi-retired — “But I haven’t seen the ‘retired’ part yet” — because he remains active in many of the ranch’s day-to-day operations.

He said ranch operations are equally divided between cattle, hay and grain. A smaller area includes geothermal-reliant businesses that which have drawn his interest. Because of plentiful supplies of geothermal water — tests indicate flows of 5,000 gallons of 195- to 199-degree water a minute — he sees fish farming as one arm of a potentially broader operation.

“My main goal here is trying to develop a geothermal park ... to get something in here to make agriculture more productive,” Liskey said.

He envisions “cascading uses,” first using the extremely hot water to generate power. While that hasn’t yet happened, Liskey said he continues to work with power companies. Less hot, re-circulated geothermal water is already being used for three commercial greenhouses while the third tier of cooler, 84-degree “tail water” is used for raising tilapia, which require warm water.

Barnes breeds his own tilapia because, “When you do your own breeding you don’t inherit somebody else’s problems,” such as various diseases. While some believe commercially raised fish aren’t as healthy as wild fish, Barnes said the geothermal water negates the need for chemicals, insisting, “If it’s done correctly it’s better,” noting wild fish are often subject to fouled waters.

While tilapia is their current endeavor, Liskey and Barnes believe the Gone Fishing ponds could be expanded to raise other fish, including shrimp, catfish and sturgeon.

“Oregon has a lot of possibilities in the aqua industry and it’s just being done,” insists Barnes.

While Barnes focuses on tilapia, Liskey also monitors other geothermally related operations, including a trio of 200-foot greenhouses operated the last several years by Rick Walsh of Fresh Green. Certified organic produce — micro-greens, tomatoes, squash and more — grown in the greenhouses is sold regionally, with some going to Whole Foods.

Another adjacent geothermally heated section is used to grow medical marijuana. Medical and recreational marijuana is legal to grow and sell in Oregon, but recreational marijuana is not legal in some counties, including Klamath County.

Although Liskey voted against legalizing recreational marijuana, he believes the county should rescind the ban because, “We’re letting everybody else grow it and saturate the market. Let us grow it, too.”

“Without geothermal you couldn’t afford to have greenhouses or fish ponds,” Liskey said, noting the Klamath Basin typically sees below freezing temperatures and snow during the winter. As he explained while standing alongside the tilapia ponds, “It’s the cheap heat from the water that makes all this possible.”


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