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FLANAGAN — Don't look for any cowboys swinging lariats at errant bovine on Myles Harston's ranch. In fact, there's not a single, solitary cow anywhere in sight.

Perched on the north edge of Flanagan, Harston's AquaRanch involves wrangling fish and culinary herbs.

"We didn't just fall off the turnip truck," said Harston. "I've been playing with aquaponics since 1992. In June 2004, I took an intensive course at the University of the Virgin Islands. They have been the leaders in the industry."

Harston, who lives near Roanoke, also writes articles for California-based Aquaponics Journal. His operation involves growing 12,000 tilapia fish in 12, 1,200-gallon tanks. The nutrient-rich water circulates to herbs growing in another part of the greenhouse. The plants remove nitrogen as fertilizer, and the water recirculates to the fish.

Harston first got hooked on aquaculture — fish farming — in the late 1980s when he worked as a field technician for Agri-Covers Ltd. in Gridley. The company made vinyl covers for outdoor grain bins as well as above-ground fish tanks.

Eventually, the business was purchased by Ringger Foods in Gridley. Three years ago, Harston bought the company and 4? acres in Flanagan. The site, ringed with buildings that once housed a farm equipment business and a seed warehouse, proved perfect for Harston's vinyl liner business as well as housing his fish breeding stock.

Harston built a 52-by-240-foot greenhouse in the spring. It houses 12,000 tilapia sold live to customers at 1? to 1? pounds. Customers pick up the whole fish harvested about once each month at the business. Harston plans to begin processing fish and sell fresh and frozen meat to Chicago natural food markets.

"The only thing keeping us from being organic certified is our feed. I'm using some organic feed, but it sinks to the bottom and I can't measure how much the fish are eating," said Harston. "The fish are not exposed to heavy metals. They receive no antibiotics. And we don't feed hormones. Most traditional growers feed a testosterone hormone to change the females to males because the males grow faster."

Once they receive certification, Harston and business partner David Peterson, a Dixon attorney and oral surgeon, believe they'll be the only certified aquaponic operation in the United States. Harston has already received organic certification for herb production.

Main income source

Harston and Peterson see herb production as their main source of income. So far, they've concentrated on producing basil. A pilot project indicated they'll be able to produce ? pound per square feet, or 2,400 pounds per month. The first crop has just been seeded.

"Basil is popular because you can't really ruin a dish by putting too much in," said Harston. "Our basil has bigger leaves and superior flavor compared to what you can grow in the garden. We'll also be able to produce 10 to 12 times more per season than growing basil outdoors."

Harston has also considered growing chives, parsley and thyme. Eventually, he plans to double or triple his three-person work staff. A basil processing area will allow workers to package 4-ounce packages for trucking to Chicago customers.

Much of the system has been built by Harston. He's most proud of a patent-pending clarifier that separates solid manure from fish water before it goes to the plants. The solids would plug plumbing that circulates water to the herbs.

The whole system recirculates 50,000 gallons of water supplied by the city of Flanagan. The water is dechlorinated and heated to 76 to 78 degrees by a single propane heater.

"This is groundbreaking business. That's why I'm so enthused," said Peterson. "We're also looking at not-for-profit status to market the system to schools and Third World countries."

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