Once you get Matt Oxford talking about fish, you won't be able to stop him. The father of three sons, also fishermen, has a singular passion for his vocation, and though he sells out of his product every season, he's still the consummate walking advertisement.
His product: wild-caught, in-season Alaskan salmon and cod. Oxford and his boys catch it, process it, vacuum seal it, and freeze it all upon their boat the Blue Ox, ensuring that nobody but they will touch it until you do.
"It's like apples. Every time someone handles them, the more bruised they get," he says.
The way Oxford sees it, wild fish is already perfect. The fish eat exactly what they want. They swim in clean water. It's a pristine product that he has a deep respect for.
"When you see a wild salmon like that, when you see the seals doing their bit and the Killer Whales doing theirs, it's just an honor to bring a product like that to market. It's perfect when we fish it and all we do is try not to mess it up."
In 1989 the Minnesota-born and raised Oxford was running a seafood restaurant in Homer, Alaska ("I read too much Jack London as a kid, " he says of his decision to go north), and was cashing checks for crab fishermen out of the bar. Their checks were much bigger than his own.
"I figured I better become a crab fisherman." He went on to crab for 12 winters, and fished salmon in the summer for fun.
But soon he realized he'd have to start doing everything his own way if he wanted to have his name on his product and feel good about it. "Once you lose control of your product, it's difficult to know what happens to it. The markets for fishermen are limited, and it's getting murkier and murkier."
The murky market for crab was part of his decision to turn his attention fully to salmon and cod, a product he could have greater personal control over.
Oxford says the fishing world is like anything in the food world these days. The farther you get away from the fish, the less sure you can be about what you're getting. The same reason you might want to buy your beef or pork off the farm is why you might want to buy your fish from him.
"We're a small farm, only for fishing."
This small farm operates half the year with Oxford's three sons as employees, an important part of how he keeps his overhead low. "I've been exploiting them for years," he jokes, but their smiles in the photos tell a different tale.
Then, he direct markets the fish exclusively to the Twin Cities farmers market circuit. Wholesale prices won't get him the profit margin he needs, and not having to go through a fishery means he's got that all-important control of his own product from the water to the consumer's hands.
Oxford and sons only sell what they catch, and he says the product is "like knowing a fisherman up there [in Alaska] and buying something directly from him."
Having eaten the fish I can vouch that the aroma is that of the sea, and the flesh is clean tasting and sweet.
"It's 80 hours a week, it's not easy, and nobody's gonna get rich doing, it," says Oxford. But you can hear it in his voice. He wouldn't have things any other way.
Catch Wild Run Salmon at the markets listed below. They'll be selling cod through June 11, and then you'll have to wait until August, when they'll return from Alaska with their salmon haul: