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Posted: Thursday, December 15, 2011 7:00 am

If beef is what's for dinner, then salmon bacon can be for breakfast.

The fish cut snagged the attention of more than one customer Sunday, as Kenny the Fish Hugger shuffled frozen packs of salmon and beef like a deck of cards atop his cooler. The Ahwatukee Farmers Market was open, and the Fish Hugger was ready to deal. Within arms' reach was Kenny's wife, Brenna, who deftly swirled flat, wooden sticks in jars of honey when customers asked for a taste.

For Fish Hugger owners Kenny and Brenna Aschbacher, the Ahwatukee market is part of their circuit of three local farmers markets from about Halloween to Tax Day. The couple and their three children, ages 4 to 9, winter in Phoenix during that time. Then the husband and wife go in separate directions each summer.

Brenna, 39, moves with the children to New Mexico and runs the Fish Hugger table at farmers markets in the Albuquerque area. Kenny goes to Kodiak Island in Alaska, where he has fished for the past 17 seasons. The fisherman, 39, holds a lifelong permit for the island.

During the salmon season's two to three months of action, Aschbacher is a fish hugger turned sharecropper.

"I work for someone else's boat because I don't have a million dollars to spend on a serious fishing boat," Aschbacher said. "I could buy a rink y-dink rowboat that I would have to work on every day and be uncomfortable and wet - for $100,000. I don't want to do that. I'd rather go up there as a glory crewman and take my pay in fish."

Aschbacher's pay each summer has averaged about 10,000 pounds of salmon during the past decade. He ships the catch home each summer. Then the hard part comes: retail.

"Only a few of us (fishermen) actually want to sell our product at retail because it's a very finite skill to talk to people," Aschbacher said. "Retailing is way harder than fishing to be successful."

The Aschbachers' brand alone went through a couple of revisions before arriving at the Fish Hugger name. The label cropped up when some environmentalists at a farmers market gave Kenny a hard time.

"They were saying, ‘You're raping the ocean. You're destroying the environment.' I said, ‘You may be a tree hugger. But I am a fish hugger.' I know what I'm doing," Aschbacher said.

Still, Aschbacher was reluctant at first to officially use the name for the business.

Brenna said the name made Kenny's fishermen friends "really howl. They think it is so hilarious."

For years Kenny did not even write down the name.

"I just said it. I'd use it to disarm people," Kenny said. "It worked really well because most of our clients are women feeding men and children."

"And they don't want to buy from Fish Killer," he added.

Another element of Kenny and Brenna's business philosophy was to "Keep it small. Keep it all."

The maxim pointed them "to find a small percentage of the population that really cares," Aschbacher said. "Those people are at farmers markets. Either the really sick or the really healthy spend their Sunday mornings in Ahwatukee finding food, meeting people that produce food and asking questions."

And health isn't the only motivator.

Brenna said, "They're looking for more of a relationship than you would get with the butcher guy at Whole Foods or the produce guy at Sprouts."

Jenny Robertson, 44, is an Ahwatukee resident who picked up her usual $200 worth of Fish Hugger food on Sunday. She and her husband have been Fish Hugger customers for about five years, Robertson said. They buy from the Aschbachers every six weeks.

The Aschbachers' business name was the first thing to reel in Robertson's attention, she said. She and her husband spoke with Kenny and Brenna and found their philosophy "jived with ours," Robertson said.

"We're very aware of eating food without pesticides and not putting chemicals in our body," Robertson said. The Aschbachers knew even more about that lifestyle, she added.

Kathleen Engstrom, 59, and her husband, Michael Allen, 62, were new Fish Hugger customers on Sunday when they bought a package of sockeye salmon bacon and keta salmon fillet.

"We should all buy wild-caught fish, and it's getting harder to find," Engstrom said. "Being able to talk to the guy who caught it, that's incredible. I mean, we live in Phoenix. How often do you get to talk to a fisherman?"

Kenny the farm boy

For 18 years, Kenny the Fish Hugger harvested from the land rather than the ocean.

"Everything was on the farm, from the farm," Aschbacher said. With the word "fresh" punctuating every other word, Kenny described his family's diet of chicken, beef, cow milk, eggs, garden produce and dairy products on their New Mexico farm.

"It was an abundant food supply (but) drudgery - massive amounts of work early in the morning (to) late at night," Aschbacher said. "I didn't want to be a farmer anymore because that's a lot of work. It's too much work for most Americans. So, I left there to go to college, get a job so I could have a lot of stuff and not work so hard. Essentially that's the promise, right? You work hard, go to school, get a big job, and you'll get the gold watch every 20 years."

But college food didn't stack up for Aschbacher.

"It was all bland," Aschbacher said. "It was worthless. I didn't feel good. I got fat. And the lack of quality food, the lack of good work and the lack of good sunshine affect the brain. We're not really made to be that way, I don't think."

Bored and unhappy, Aschbacher left college to seize a new adventure. He got a job on a fishing boat in Alaska, only to find the farm again.

"Everything I learned on the farm directly applied to the fishing boat: the catch method, the harvest, spare parts, diesel engines, hydraulics, long way from town, long hours (and) brutal conditions sometimes," Aschbacher said.

Brenna later did some Alaskan fishing as well, after she graduated from college.

But for the most part Brenna worked as an accountant in Phoenix for seven years, where Kenny and Brenna settled after school. And Kenny worked as a carpenter in Arcadia and Scottsdale during the salmon off-season.

The Fish Hugger does business

The couple decided in 2001 to promote Kenny's fishing full time.

"With that first year of Kenny's "bring-home fish," Brenna said, "we spent most of the next year trying to figure out how to sell that to people."

The Aschbachers initially marketed silver salmon, also known as coho salmon, at a farmers market in Scottsdale.

"We had one product, and we just guessed on the weight," Kenny said. "We didn't have a scale because we didn't know what it worth or who wanted it. We had no idea."

The Aschbachers established a table at the Ahwatukee Farmers Market a few years later.

The market's coordinator, Samantha Halvorson, said the Aschbachers "were bringing us grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon when we couldn't get anyone else."

"I think they showed Arizona ranchers it was viable to sell grass-fed beef at a Phoenix farmers market," Halvorson added.

The Aschbachers later augmented their goods with grass-fed lamb, raw and unfiltered honey, bee pollen, olive oil, spice rub and other products.

"I like outsourcing to people doing what they want to do," Kenny said. "I can invent. I can brainstorm. I can find products and have clients."

It's an approach that has built a network of product sources.

The olive oil came from a family in California.

The spice rub was a mix that Aschbacher designed and then contracted out "to a person who likes making spice rub," Aschbacher said.

And the honey first came up about seven years ago, when the Aschbachers eliminated white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, agave nectar and corn syrup from their daily diet.

"We were dying for something sweet," Aschbacher said. "So, we turned to honey."

The Fish Hugger gets into bees and beef

Two years after the Aschbachers' cut out sugar, Kenny delved into beekeeping. He read beekeeping books, knocked on beekeepers' doors and attended their meetings.

Now, the family has several honey sources to satisfy sweet cravings and to share with farmers market customers.

A similar curiosity drove the Aschbachers to produce grass-fed cattle.

Kenny coordinated with his dad in 2003 to devote 10 yearlings on the family's New Mexico farm to a grass diet, instead of grain. Cattle require a year of grass consumption in ratio to the 60 to 90 days that grain-fed cattle need, but the meat is better quality, Aschbacher said.

A grain's regimen makes cows "butterball really quick," Aschbacher said. "They get bigger (and) fatter faster. It's like a teenager on a Krispy Kreme diet. It has an effect. You will get your child big. But it won't be a healthy big."

The Aschbachers now have a grass-fed herd of about 100 head. The cattle are at all stages of development, which means roughly a third of the herd is ready to be butchered each year.

Brenna said that during butchering, "Every cut of meat is identified to the cow it came from."

Asked whether that's normal, she and Kenny laughed.

"Oh no," Kenny said. "That's weird."

The Fish Hugger goes Tupperware

The Aschbachers eat what they speak, and they've shown customers how to do so as well.

The couple use a "Tupperware method" of hosting private parties in customers' homes. Kenny arrives to cook "with your pots, your pans and your spices and show you how to do it my way," he said.

"The homeowner gets a little spiff for hosting a little party," Aschbacher said. "And I try to sell salmon, beef, lamb and honey to the people who come in. Or not. It's in the truck. But it's mostly fun. It's building community."

The parties follow Aschbacher's belief that "What you eat, where you eat (and) who you eat it with will determine what it does to you."

For more information about Fish Hugger products, visit fishhugger.com or call (602) 286-9233.

Winter hours at the Ahwatukee Farmers Market are from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays from October to May. The market is located in the parking lot of the Ahwatukee Community Swim and Tennis Center, 4700 E. Warner Road. For more information, visit arizonafarmersmarkets.com. The market will be closed on Christmas Day.

• Kiali Wong is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. She is a senior at Arizona State University.

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