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PHOTO BY COREY ARNOLD, COURTESY OF ILIAMNA  - Reid Ten Kley, right, and his sister Krystal Foote haul Bristol Bay salmon aboard their boat. The fish are now being offered via a CSA, community supported agriculture venture, in Portland. Ten years ago, Reid Ten Kley was selling wild salmon from his family's fishery in Alaska and shipping it to upscale grocery stores in New York City.


It worked, but it didn't feel right. 

"We had a garage full of Styrofoam packaging," says Ten Kley, co-owner of Portland-based Iliamna Fish Co.

"We had 56 orders for New York one day. We said this is ridiculous. We're a city of a million people. There's got to be enough people here who can eat all this fish." 

Yet he still didn't have the right business model to distribute the fish locally, considering all the logistics required. He found the idea he needed on a trip to Italy, at a Slow Food conference in 2006 that Ecotrust had sponsored him to attend. 

"I had talked to a cattle rancher on the bus from the hotel," Ten Kley says. "He said, 'Why don't you try a salmon add-on at a CSA? It worked for us with steak.'" 

CSAs, which stands for community-supported agriculture, sign up subscribers who get regular bundles of the food that’s produced in an enterprise, giving the operators a regular source of customers.

Excited, Ten Kley reached out to several CSAs in Portland and heard back from two of them: Viridian Farms and Dancing Roots Farm.

That season, 2007, he sold a total of 35 shares through the two farms, giving members 20 one-pound boxes of boneless, vacuum-packed wild sockeye salmon that they could stick in their freezer and enjoy all year long. 

For $200 (now $220), it was an extreme value, considering the quality of the fish. 

Portlanders clamor over the deep red sockeye, harvested from the cold waters of Bristol Bay, a pristine ecosystem that's been threatened by developments like the proposed Pebble Mine site. 

For three generations, Ten Kley's family has sustainably harvested salmon from the bay near the mouth of the Kvichak River, which connects the bay to Lake Iliamna — Alaska's largest freshwater lake. 

Ten Kley founded the company with cousin Christopher Nicolson, who lives in Brooklyn, and Lyle Wilder, who lives near Bristol Bay. 

His wife, Eike Ten Kley, and sister, Krystal Foote, work full-time on the share program. 

For three generations, the family has fished by hand by “set netting" — using small nets that catch salmon in small amounts so they're not crushed under the weight of others. 

PHOTO BY COREY ARNOLD, COURTESY OF ILIAMNA  - Iliamna partner Christopher Nicolson and
his crewman Walter Shepherd pull netted Bristol Bay salmon aboard their boat. Their second season as a CSA add-on, Iliamna doubled the amount of shares. Since then, growth has skyrocketed, solely by word of mouth. It's been the city's best-kept fish secret. 

Today Ten Kley won't divulge the number of their shares for competitive reasons, but says it's more than a semi-trailer full of product each season, and they're basically at capacity. 

"We sell more than any CSA in the region I've ever heard of," he says. 

This summer, the business just hit another milestone as they became the first tenants of The Redd building — fittingly located on Southeast Salmon Street and Seventh Avenue.

The soon-to-open regional food hub is an initiative of Ecotrust — which gave Ten Kley his first connections and has supported the company along the way. 

The new space lets Iliamna gain a long-term presence in the urban core, where their customers live.

It's allowed them to expand by 19 percent from last year, when Ten Kley was operating from home. He expects to expand by another 15 to 30 percent with the new space in the near future. 

Once a year they load the salmon on a freezer barge from Alaska to Seattle, then haul it by truck to Portland.

Once it's in town, the fish is all picked up in person by share program members — there's no further shipping of product, no online orders. 

Since some of their crew of about 20 fishermen live outside of Portland — Corvallis, Eugene, New York and Alaska — Iliamna made those pick-up locations for members as well. 

The company is now part of a growing collection of Community Supported Fisheries. 

Members only have to do one pickup per year, and it's not a hard sell.

Portland is known as salmon nation, with the fish found on nearly every menu in the city. Grand Central Bakery just introduced a Bristol Bay salmon sandwich, featuring Iliamna's fish. Bamboo Sushi executive chef Jin Soo is partnering with Iliamna for a salmon handroll at Feast Portland's Night Market, coming up this weekend. 

While Iliamna doesn't need media attention to attract business, Ten Kley says the spotlight is reaffirming for his customers: "Publicity helps members realize they're part of something bigger than their order." 

Twitter: @jenmomanderson

Find out more

Sign-ups for the Iliamna Fish Co. share program are sold out, but more go on sale April 20. 

Each year the company accepts about 100 new members. 

Visit: redsalmon.com.

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