By Amber Stott
Photos By Ryan Donahue
There’s a big fish tale waiting to be told. It’s the story of Passmore Ranch and its owner, Michael Passmore. I first met Michael on a brisk, spring morning at the Sunday farmers market in downtown Sacramento. I had just purchased some honey. Clutching my precious jar of golden syrup, I lowered it gently into my shopping bag. As I turned around, I noticed a crisp, new tent tucked into the corner. Below it sat four water-filled tubs.
Intrigued, I moved closer. A small crowd was gathering, watching. When I reached the stall, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Live fish! Swimming happily! And big!—the length of my forearm and twice as thick.
Before my lips could part to form the question, I was greeted with a chipper, “Hello!” Michael Passmore stuck out his hand in greeting. His grip was firm, and attached to a football-player physique. He was smiling ear to ear. I was immediately engaged.
“How does this work?” I asked. “Do I take it home like this? Can you clean it for me?”
Michael, and his fish farm, Passmore Ranch, represent what is raw and real about our food system. Instead of featuring his fish neatly wrapped in clear, air-tight plastic, his fish come to market freely swimming in giant water tanks. They are wet, strong, and very much alive.
To purchase one, Michael explained, you simply point to a massive swimmer. Michael then fishes it out of the tank with a net. Next, as it flops about, he bonks it on the head to quickly kill it, and throws it in a bag for you to take home. It’s up to you to know how to fillet the fish to feed your family. Legally, Michael isn’t allowed to clean it for you.
This method, what Michael describes as “Fish to the People,” is far messier than slicing open a grocery store package of cellophane and sliding prepared chunks of flesh into a pan. When you buy from Passmore Ranch, you experience several steps of your fish’s life cycle. You look it in the eyes.
“I don’t know if science says whether fish have feelings, but I think there is an honorable way to treat any animal whether it’s dinner or not,” Michael says about this process.
I bought a fish that day. I wasn’t certain I could properly gut the thing, so I bought a small carp. When I got it home, my husband and I laid it on a cutting board and stared at it. Should we cut off its head first? It’s tail? Should we leave the skin on?
Eventually, we just started cutting. Well, hacking would be more accurate. But we quickly identified what appeared to be fish flesh, and threw it on the grill with some herbs from the garden. A few minutes later, the cooked carp stacked on a plate, we started grabbing at the pieces with our fingers and slurping up the tender meat. There were bones to work around, but this was good fish—not “fishy” tasting like the day-old stuff you buy at the grocer.
The next day, I received an email from Michael. He wanted to know if I had enjoyed my fish. Now that’s customer service!
I have gotten to know Michael a little better each week, whether from chatting at the market or reading his many updates on Facebook. I have come to know that Michael is a stand-up guy. On a recent visit to his farm near Rancho Murieta, I learned that he has been known to make half a million dollar deals on a handshake. He’s passionate, funny, and uses a lot of one-liners when he talks. To know him is to immediately be considered his friend.
If you visit his fish farm, Michael will likely offer you a beer. When you take a swig, you’ll note the slightly fishy flavor of the bottle, which sits in a cooler next to lots of beautiful, freshly gutted fish.
“Some people think I’m a freaky guy because I love filleting sturgeon. But it’s creating something. When I’m breaking down my fish, I sharpen my knife and get a glass of wine. There is something fulfilling about planning and preparing the food you cook.”
Indeed, this seems to be the allure for customers of Passmore Ranch: engaging more intimately with both farmer and fish. “I’ve been thrilled with the acceptance from foodies,” Michael says, beaming. “These are people who really have a passion for what they eat.”
In fact, many of the area’s finest restaurants have signed up to make Passmore Ranch’s fresh fish a regular feature on their menus. Ella, Grange, and Hawks are just a few of Michael’s buyers.
While the eating elite are taking a candid interest in Passmore Ranch, Michael still can’t believe that people are labeling him with terms like “innovative” and “ground-breaking.”
“When I was researching farmers markets here and in San Francisco, I met all of these fish buyers, but nobody was selling live fish,” says Michael. “I still think, ‘I can’t be the only guy to have thought of this.’ It’s too elementary!”
Yet, often the best ideas are the simplest. In a world filled with 12-aisle grocery stores selling 20 different varieties of crackers, it’s rare to find such simple pleasures. Passmore Ranch sells four kinds of swimmers: silver carp, black bass, catfish, and white sturgeon. You won’t have to flip a package over to read the ingredients. There’s just one: fish.
In fact, Michael doesn’t believe in messing with the “ingredients” of his fish on the farming end, either. “We choose not to control nature,” he says. “We get more than we need, so why would I inject them with hormones?”
It’s not that Michael has a “philosophy” about using chemicals or hormones. He’s too practical for that. It just doesn’t make sense, so he chooses not to do it. Rather than wasting money on expensive chemical treatments to control algae, Michael moves his carp from pond to pond on the farm, and they nibble away at it naturally.
With fish this organic (a term that Michael says the government does not allow for farm-raised fish), you’d be surprised at the hesitation to buy it. Every time I stop by the Passmore Ranch booth at the Sunday market, I hear people ask Michael whether he can clean the fish for them. When he tells them he’s not allowed, they leave empty-handed. “Maybe next week, I’ll bring my son along. He knows how to clean a fish,” they might say.
Although there are plenty of customers buying out Michael’s stock at each week’s market, he’s the kind of guy who hates to turn people away. Ever-attentive to his would-be customers’ needs, Michael asked us if we might put together a photo illustration on how to fillet a fish. And we did.
I hope this empowers you to look a fish in the eyes and take one home with you. When you see him at the market, tell Michael I said “Hi!”