A bus load of Rogue Valley residents toured two organic farms Saturday during the Ashland Food Co-op's annual farm tour. Attendees first toured The Farming Fish farm, and then the Rogue Creamery’s dairy farm.

The tour began at the Co-op’s classroom and outdoor garden. Here, herbs and greens are grown to be used in the cooking classes and daily kids’ camps. Among the milkweed and picnic tables, Annie Hoy, Co-op marketing manager, described the annual farm tours.

The purpose of these tours is to allow people to see where their food is coming from and how it is produced. The focus of the tour was on organic and efficient methods of growing food and sustainability.

Tucked away in Evans Valley, the Farming Fish farm welcomed attendees with a tour of their aquaponic greenhouses and a taste of their basil and watercress pesto.

The farm, situated on 40 certified organic acres of land, has worked hard on recycling resources for seven years. Only about 10 of those acres are used by the farm daily — seven acres of pasture and three of vegetable crops. There’s also a small orchard and aquaponic production of tilapia fish and leafy greens.

The owners, Olivia and Michael Hasey, believe that Mother Nature gardens best on her own, which is why only a small amount of their land is developed for farming. Wild mushrooms, berries, lemon balm and other native herbs grow in the remaining 30 acres and are routinely harvested.

But what is "aquaponic farming"?

“The easiest way to summarize it is the marriage of aquaculture, raising fish in water, and hydroponics, raising vegetables in water,” Olivia said. “They share a water column and have a symbiotic relationship.”

The Tilapia are raised in tanks which pumps the water they use into the next greenhouse housing the herbs and greens grown on the farm. The greens are floated in the same water the fish use. In turn, the greens receive all the nutrients from the fish water and produce algae and different nutrient rich foods for the fish. Yet, they are separated to keep the fish from eating and damaging the plants.

The Farming Fish farm is the largest certified organic aquaponic farm in the country.

“These techniques use 90 percent less water, are 15-20 more productive with space, use one-third of the energy of other methods, and produce the highest quality organic produce,” according to The Farming Fish website.

This process keeps 1.5 million gallons of water in streams every year.

The aquaponic greenhouses on the farm costs about as much as an indoor background pool would, Michael said.

“We try very hard to have minimal impact on the earth and to improve the earth,” Olivia said.

The sludge from the water is vacuumed occasionally and placed on a compost heap, often used for top-soil for the vegetable rows on the farm and unused fish parts are turned into a fertilizer.

“We don’t view our water any different than the soil,” Michael said. “My idea of sustainability is efficiency.”

The Farming Fish pesto is made at the farm with their organically grown produce and can be found at the co-op.

After sampling the pesto, the attendees loaded up once more and rode to the Rogue Creamery’s dairy farm in Grants Pass. Two calves sleepily greeted the tour-goers as they departed the bus and gathered in a nearby field.

The owner, Craig Nelson, led the attendees to a pasture filled with cows of varying sizes and colors while summarizing the workings of the farm. Grass is at the tip of the cheese-making process of the farm, Nelson said.

“I’m designing the milk at the blade of grass for cheese making,” Nelson said. The staff are very strict when it comes to the quality of grass the cows graze on, sometimes pulling weeds by hand to keep the cows eating the best grass possible.

What’s unique about this dairy farm is the two robotic milking machines named Charlie and Matilda that produce approximately 1,200 gallons of milk every 48 hours.

The machines are completely automatic and allow the cows to milk when they want to. Nelson explained the social culture cows have. They welcome each other by mooing, and have a sort of pecking order. Herding and handling cows for milking creates stress by devastating that sense of order. But by allowing the cows to choose when to be milked, the animals lead happier lives. It also cuts down on labor costs.

The cows have been trained to walk into a gated paddock when they want to be milked and wait in a disorganized line. Once in the machine, the robot recognizes each individual cow with laser technology and begins the milking process. If the cow behaves, she is fed a bowl of food determined by her weight and sent on her way back into the barn. If the cow takes too long, kicks and fidgets, or otherwise leaves the machine without being milked, she is redirected back into line. Too many cases of misbehavior and she is recorded by the machine so the staff knows to make sure she is properly milked.

Every ounce of milk is analyzed by the machines and allows the staff to understand the health of each cow. The cows are recognized by the machine with chips in their ears and tracked by transponder collars that records their habits much like a Fitbit. Their sleeping, eating, movement and ovulation cycles are tracked, making it easier to breed and milk the cows. Eventually, Nelson said the cows will be tracked with GPS, and the farm will be even more sufficient by means of grass-feeding and watering based on their pasture habits.

The organic certified farm also reuses as many resources as possible. A filtrating machine separates the fibrous plant material out of the cows’ waste near the barn. The plant material, once separated and cooled is used as a pathogen-free bedding. This also decreases the amount of flies in the barn. As does the barn, engineered for optimal air-flow. Occasionally, the farm sells the material to local marijuana growers, as well.

The remaining unwanted waste is collected into a small lagoon and then used as fertilizer on the farm.

“We use the force and our chedi-master powers everyday to make cheese,” Nelson said.

The tour ended with the group dining on a lunch made with local and organic foods provided by the co-op, right next to the two sleepy calves.

—Email Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.