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There’s Fish in the Yorkville Hills

Lots of fish. But these fish aren't found in the occasional streams that meander down to the Rancheria, fighting their way to and from the distant Pacific. No sir, these fish have it easy. They pass their days swimming unmolested in the protected cool of polyethelene tanks in a commodious barn resting on land once assumed good for nothing but sheep and cattle.


This particular fish-friendly parcel of unpromising hill country has gradually been transformed by Nikki and Steve, and Wynne and Sarah, and Juan and Mrs. Juan, and a slug of little kids to a thriving, multi-ag farm. Mix in an ingenious Boonville man named Cliff McClure and you've got an oasis on the dry side of Highway 128 six miles south of Boonville, a self-sustaining farm and, now, a commercial fish operation.

This desert has bloomed!

All of this is on the happy side of infrastructure, meaning it's nearly complete save for the fish component where the fish glitches are still being worked out, and there are lots of glitches that come with aquaponics, as the Yorkville kind of fish farming is called.

So, you walk into a barn on the land above Petit Teton and you think, "Rube Goldberg would love this place." But Rube Goldberg drew complicated jokes for machines that performed simple tasks. Wynne and Sarah Crisman's indoor fish farm is no joke.

"It looks complicated," its ingenious creator, Wynne Crisman, concedes, "but in the end it's just water coming out of a tank, gravity flowing to a sump pump and being pumped back. I'm imitating nature here. The only real diff is nature runs water to the ocean. I just circulate it around and around."


When the planned solar system is installed, the whole show will be independent of the outside world, and there will be more fish in the hills of Yorkville than there are in the Navarro River.

A solidly-put together young man not much over 30, we're not surprised when Crisman mentions that he started building his own computers when he was 12. And parlayed his precocity into an early career as a computer engineer before he and his young family came west from Colorado to take up small-scale agriculture.


"I enjoy this as an engineer," he says, "and I want to get a version of this system to the people who want to buy it. I'm aiming at backyard systems for the convenience of regular people."

The regular people looking on think to themselves, "It would take me ten life times to do something like this."

"For the most part it takes me about an hour a day to maintain," Crisman assures us. "I could probably get it down to ten minutes."

Mrs. Sarah Crisman joins us, remarking, "This is all-Wynne in this barn." But it quickly becomes evident that Mrs. C also knows her aquaponics. And, the couple, tells us, the eldest of their two daughters, a 9-year-old, has lately become interested in her father's mysterious doings in the family barn. The entire property serves as an open air classroom for the Crismans’ lucky daughters, what with the discreet placement of car tires for wind breaks, thriving bee hives, the labyrinthian fish maze, and gardens every which where.

Inside the fish barn, there are exactly 12 talapia, a basic white fish popular in Mexico, plus the catfish, and blue gill, and crayfish, all of which are expected to multiply. Outside the barn there are rattlesnakes, so many that the Crismans are on 24-hour red alert for the dread critters. They tell us a fearful story of their older daughter nearly stepping on one, and monster diamondbacks spotted from a safe distance.

A large tank near the door of the fish barn writhes with darting goldfish, so many of them it seems the churning mass is more fish than water. Wynne tells us there are 984 of them. As we wonder how it's possible to count them, Wynne explains that their purpose is to generate huge amounts of nutrient-laden waste.


"The goldfish provide plant fertilizer," he says. Then Wynne describes how he had to design a safe means for his goldfish to lay eggs. "They'd jump out of the water to try to lay them. In the tank, they get eaten. All of this involves a lot of trial and error."

The goldfish provide more than enough high-grade fertilizer to feed an array of edibles in an attached green house that include, strawberries, bok choy, rhubarb, marionberries and "Jurrasic Park-size zukes." Wynne says his next installation will be a hanging garden.

The Crismans’ fish farm, always an interesting venue, can suddenly become downright exciting, and that's apart from the lurking rattlers that infest the property.

Wynne remembers the day "a bottom feeding catfish jumped out of their container, and when I found it it was being eaten alive by the bees I keep over there below the house."

Crayfish, the poor man's crab, like the rest of Crisman's aqua-brood, are cannibals.

"I'm working on a cage idea to keep them from eating each other, but I'm still working on a solution to feed them baby fish food and ground up vegetable matter from our farm. They basically taste like crab, but raised like this they won't taste like mud river. I've got about 300 now."

We peer into the murk of the tank where the crayfish allegedly live, again wondering how Crisman counts his creatures.


"Crayfish are good for eating and good for cleaning the bottoms of tanks, but they're cannibals and don't share space well," we learn.

"I do a lot of idea sharing on-line," Crisman adds, mentioning that one of his cyber-consultants is a Saudi who's raising crawfish in the even more challenging context of sand, even less fresh water than is found in the Yorkville hills, and looming civil war.

The world may be going to whatever frightful place it's headed, but in the busy hills of Mendocino County there are several hundred young families like the Crismans, fully prepared and perfectly capable of carrying on.

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