Big Fish: Western North Carolina's pioneering trout farmers

written by Bill Kopp

At the start, Dick Jennings had no particular background in aquaculture. Nonetheless, in 1948 the enterprising young Pennsylvania-born engineer established a commercial trout farm. And the business that Jennings launched has grown into a thriving enterprise that continues to this day. A Western North Carolina family-owned and operated business now led by brothers Wesley and Benjamin Eason (Jennings' grandsons), Sunburst Trout Farms celebrated its 70th year in 2018.

Sunburst Trout has its processing facility in a Waynesville, North Carolina industrial park. And the fish come from the family trout farm, nestled in a valley eight miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The farm stands in the shadow of a nearly 100-year old dam in the pristine headwaters of the Pigeon River's west fork. Above that dam lies 80-acre Lake Logan, situated on property owned by an Episcopal church. "There are only two houses above the lake," says Ben Eason, co-owner and manager. "And then beyond that, it's National Forest."

The history of Sunburst Trout Farms is an unlikely one, a three-generations-and-continuing tale that speaks of forging one's own path, learning on the job, taking risks and being unafraid to change direction when it feels right to do so. It begins shortly after the end of World War II, not in Western North Carolina but just outside the industrial metropolis of Pittsburgh.

From minks to raceways
"Our [maternal] grandfather, Dick Jennings, founded the company," says Wes Eason, co-owner and director of sales. Jennings lived in Sewickley, a Pittsburgh suburb with just over 5000 residents. But by his mid 20s he was well traveled. "He'd spent some time in Europe," says Wes. Jennings had recently earned his engineering degree from Yale, and it seemed reasonable to expect that he would go into the family business. "He came from an oil family," Wes recalls, "but he just did not want to be that kind of businessman."

So Jennings moved to Western North Carolina. "He had vacationed down here as a child with his parents," Wes explains. The family owned property in the Lake Toxaway and Cashiers region, "a big swath of land called Lonesome Valley." Jennings had long since fallen in love with the area, so in the mid '40s he acquired a tract of land within his family's property and started a mink farm.

That endeavor wasn't as odd as it might seem today; in postwar America, mink coats and stoles were wildly popular. "He would raise minks, process them there, and sell them to furriers, mostly in New York City," says Wes. "I don't know why he thought mink would be his cup of tea," Wes says with a bemused chuckle.

The business was a successful one, but Jennings yearned for greater challenges. During his earlier visits to Europe, he got a firsthand look at the thriving aquaculture industry there; in particular, salmon farms were popular. "They were doing a lot of it in France," Wes says. "He was seeing how they were hatching fish, raising them, feeding and harvesting them."

Thus inspired, Jennings added a trout farm to his list of endeavors. "He did it just to have another business," Wes says. "He had plenty of space, and beautiful water in Lonesome Valley, so he ran both [businesses] at the same time." The company's original name was Cashiers Valley Trout Farm.

But within a few years, Dick Jennings sensed that things were changing. "He could see the writing on the wall: food was a much more stable business than fashion," says Wes. "So he got out of the mink business and kept farming trout." Jennings was a pioneer in his field. "Today there are hundreds, if not thousands" of trout farms in the United States, Wes says. But most of those are out west; Sunburst Trout Farms is one of only two in Western North Carolina.

Dick Jennings' trout farm didn't deal in retail. "He was just selling live fish to stock ponds and lakes," Wes says. But the business kept on growing. "It wasn't until the mid '60s when he moved the farm to its current location that he branched out," says Wes. Jennings also changed the business name to Jennings Trout Farm.

Jennings' primary reason for moving the farm had to do with water volume. "There's nothing wrong with the water up there in Jackson County," Wes emphasizes. "It's great. But if you have a drier, hotter summer, those creeks and springs that were on the property would dry up." And that spells danger to a trout farm. "You need a pretty substantial volume of water to raise rainbow trout," he explains. The new location would provide that all year round. "Because of the depth of the lake -- we're pulling from the bottom -- we can pull 6,000 gallons per minute," Wes says.

Sunburst: The next generation
In 1985, after 40 years at the helm, Dick Jennings began to step away from the business. "But just a little bit," Wes adds with a chuckle. At that point, Jennings' daughter and her husband -- Wes and Ben's parents -- ran the farm and processing facility. In 2001, Dick Jennings was recognized for his efforts and success: he was inducted into the North Carolina Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Brothers Wes and Ben Eason came on board that same year, but it was never a foregone conclusion that they would have roles in the family business. "We would work here as teenagers," Wes says. But he had plans to work in the field of juvenile delinquency. "I did an internship in Charleston," he says. "And it opened my eyes. I have great respect for people in that line of work, but it's not what I wanted to do. I found it difficult and sad."

Around that time, Wes' parents told him that they were a little short-staffed at the farm. The asked him, "Do you want some hours while you figure things out?" He said yes. "Twenty years later, here I am," he laughs.

When Wes returned he brought a new perspective. "I saw the places that we sold to, and how fresh this product was," he says. "I looked at it as more than just a job. The pride and the challenge of this business is what brings me in. I love what I do. I love everybody I work with. I love the customers that I deal with. Everybody respects what we do, and I'm proud of every sale I make."

On the surface, Ben's path was different, but essentially similar. "I thought I was going to be a chef," he says. He spent a year in culinary school and -- like his brother -- realized that his first choice of career wasn't right for him. "It was like, 'Man, this is a really high stress type of thing. Why's everybody screaming? What's going on here?'" he says. He didn't fit in at all. "I'm a laid-back person," he explains.

Like Wes, Ben came home and picked up some work hours at the farm. "But I was still partying, rocking and rolling," he admits. For two years he clocked in regularly, but still harbored dreams of doing something else. Yet eventually he found himself taking on more responsibility, and he enjoyed the work. "I paid my dues and stayed on the processing line for another couple of years," he says. "After three or four years I was like, 'I like this. I think I want to stay.'"

Dick Jennings passed away in 2017, shortly after his 93rd birthday. Today, many members of the extended family are involved in Sunburst Trout Farms' day-to-day operations. And Wes emphasizes that everyone gets along. "A lot of people talk about the challenges of family business," he says. "We do have challenges in our business, but they have nothing to do with us being a family."

The secret to that success is balance. "When it's a small family business, you wear a lot of hats," Wes explains. "But nobody wants to wear the hat of the other person. Ben doesn't want my sales hat. I don't want Ben's fish inventory hat. Everybody does their own thing, and that takes stress out of the equation."

The race is on
A company in rainbow trout's native Pacific Northwest ships eggs to hatcheries via FedEx. "The eggs come in little trays with just a little bit of water," Wes explains. "There are thousands of eggs in each one." The hatcheries raise the fish until they're "fingerlings" -- six months old, about four to five inches long and weighing about one ounce -- and then deliver them to farms like Sunburst, using live haul trucks with stainless steel tanks. "They're in transit for two hours, max," Wes says. Each shipment includes about 20,000 fingerlings.

"The driver pulls up, puts a chute up to the side of the truck, and opens the hatch," Wes explains. The fish pour out into one Sunburst's ponds or raceways. The latter are a row of long, concrete-lined troughs that look like single-lane swimming pools. He notes that 20,000 fingerlings in a raceway doesn't look like much. "They're so small, it's nothing. There's so much extra room for them to roam."

The trout at Sunburst are fed a diet of pressure-cooked pellets. "Feed companies manufacture it," Wes explains. "And that's the safest thing, because you know that there's not going to be any bacteria whatsoever -- nothing harmful -- so no parasites are going to grow." He says that the feed contains "fish meal, fish oil, wheat, soy, vitamins and minerals, all scientifically formulated to maximize growth and health."

As the fish are fed, they grow to a target weight of two pounds each. "And as they grow, all of a sudden the raceway looks fuller," Wes says. "We don't want to overcrowd them, so after they reach about eight or ten ounces, we separate them." There's a simple but clever device designed to help that process. "A grader is a solid screen with little gaps in it," Wes explains. "You take that screen, put it in the raceway and start walking alongside. The fish that are lean enough can fit through the gaps; the bulkier ones can't fit through." The larger fish end up gathered at one end of the raceway. "You keep that screen in place and net out the smaller ones, putting them in a neighboring raceway."

Typically the netting is done manually, but Sunburst has a tool for larger jobs. Motioning across the property, Wes says, "For a really big load, we can use the boom truck. Drop its crane in the water and we can pull up 600 pounds of fish at a time."

The grading process happens two or three times during the trout's life cycle. "Once they're ideal processing size -- which for us is one and a half to two pounds each -- it's time to harvest," Wes says. The time it takes for the trout to grow to target size and weight is determined by a number of factors. Trout like cold water; they get sluggish and lose their appetite when it's warm, Ben Eason explains. "But if the weather's good and we can feed them pretty much all year, it takes about 10 months" to grow to harvestable size.

From farm to table
At harvest time, workers fill up Sunburst's own live haul truck with fish for the 20-minute drive to the company's processing plant in Waynesville. There the fish are placed into recirculating tanks inside the plant. "If we need them [for processing] right away, they're there maybe ten minutes," Wes says. "Or it could be up to four days if that's the whole week's inventory." The next step is an ice bath for the fish. "We put them in an ice slurry to get them nice and cold," Wes explains. In this context, "cold" means "dead."

Mere moments after a fish gets its ice bath, it's time for processing. Sunburst's tidy and organized facility is modestly sized yet somehow roomy; the dozen or so workers on the processing line aren't huddled together. Each has his or her own specific task. Wes Eason explains that each fish is first run through a "heading machine," which is just what it sounds like. "The head goes down one chute, and the body goes up a conveyor belt."

The next step is done by hand. "We split the belly, pull the entrails and -- if the fish is egg-bearing -- separate the eggs," Wes says. (Those eggs are for Sunburst's prized trout caviar.) Next, a machine fillets the fish and removes the ribs. "Then it goes to a table where it's trimmed by hand," Wes says. "That's to make it look nice and neat for the supermarket or restaurant."

After a quick rinse, the fish's next stop is the pin bone machine. "It plucks out the 28 pesky little pin bones," Wes says. Quality control inspectors stationed at the end of the line check the fish for missed pin bones, removing them manually as needed. And quite often, it is needed. "Rarely does the machine do its job the way we want," Wes says with a warm chuckle.

Asked how thorough the inspectors are at eliminating every single pin bone, he laughs again. "Depends on which chef you ask. That being said, we are selling a bone-out product, and ideally, all of the bones have been removed. But any person who orders a fish at a restaurant understands that at some point that fish was full of bones."

After those pin bones are removed, each fillet is weighed and placed in one of several tubs based on its size. Then it's off to the packing station. Orders are packed according to when they're scheduled for shipment. The packaged fish go onto a multi-shelved speed rack which is rolled into a large freezer; after 45 minutes, they're transferred to a cooler where they remain for up to a few hours until shipping.

The entire trip from live delivery to cooler can be measured in feet, not yards. The fish that go out the door on any given day were swimming that morning, Ben Eason emphasizes.

Putting the nose-to-tail philosophy into practice, at Sunburst, nothing goes to waste. Unusable materials are sold to feed and fertilizer processors. And pieces of trout too small for market size are used for the company's sausage or as a base for its trout dip. Larger fishes, on the other hand, are ideal for smoking. Sunburst's smoked trout ranks among its most popular products.

Healthy fish make happy consumers
Wes and Ben Eason are both keenly aware of consumers' increased interest in natural, unadulterated foods. "In the early 2000s we started to see the first uptick in people wanting to eat more fish," Wes says. "People got a little less scared of aquaculture." Sunburst Trout Farms' fish have no antibiotics, hormones, mammalian by-products or PCBs. Ben Eason says that makes their farm fairly unique. And he emphasizes that the clean water source -- with headwaters in Pisgah National Forest -- is good for the fish, too.

Of course, not every fingerling makes it to harvest. The survival rate for Sunburst's fish runs about 95%, Wes says. "Summer has the highest mortality [rate] because the temperature is apt to be warmer. "Last year was a little dry, and very hot, so we might have lost 15%," Ben says. And he admits that there are occasional bad years. "I've seen us lose 50% of our fish in a summer."

Additional steps are taken to keep the fish healthy and disease-free. "It's pretty much industry standard that the fish are vaccinated," offers Wes. "Either we do it, or the hatcheries do it," he says.

In part because of the commercial feed used at farms, there's no such thing as organic seafood in the United States, Wes Eason says. "We don't genetically modify any of our fish, but while the feed companies source good ingredients, they can't assure us that they're GMO-free when there's American-grown wheat and soy used in the feed. So we don't advertise as GMO-free."

Some consumers express a preference for wild fish instead of farmed. But you'd have to hike into the mountains to get what fly fisherman call "native" trout. There's no way that a theoretical wild trout supplier could keep up with demand. "Hey! We've got three fish," says Ben with a hearty laugh. "Let's go sell them at the market!" Wes also points out that when it's done right, trout farming is a responsible, sustainable practice.

Quality control
Wes Eason says that state and federal inspectors visit the farm and processing facility about twice a year, unannounced. "They typically spend two and a half days with us," he says. He cites some typical questions. "What temperature was your cold-smoked trout when it went into the cooler? How long did you salt them? How much salt did you use? Show me your math on your caviar formula; did you use enough salt for that? How long did it brine?"

The Easons don't fear those inspector visits. "Because we've been doing this for so long, and they've been working with us for so long, our day-to-day setup doesn't change," Wes says. But he notes that inspectors have gotten more stringent in recent years.

"About four years ago, they started a new test," he explains. "In your kitchen, where you're making trout dip that somebody is just going to open the lid and eat, they don't want to see bacteria growing there. We were randomly selected, and they came to our processing plants. They did 88 swabs; all over. They even swabbed an air conditioning unit, something that trout would never touch."

With a smile, he recalls the warning the inspectors gave him at the time: "We're probably going to find something, and that's okay. Because then we're going to show you how to clean and treat it." Wes' smile broadens. "Out of 88 swabs, they didn't find a single bit of listeria," he says. "Not a single one."

Ben Eason speaks to the water quality side of inspection. "Every trout farm has to have a NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit," he says. That inspection involves a "grab sample" of the water flowing out of the farm's ponds and raceways just before it re-enters the river. "They're just making sure that the water going back into the river isn't full of crap," he says with a laugh. Sunburst has never run afoul of the regulations.

Supply, demand and more demand
"We saw a big uptick [in demand] about 2012-2013," Wes says. He says that opposed to thinking that rainbow trout is "something you eat in the summer when you're staying at your cabin on the river," today more chefs realize the appeal of trout. "They say, 'This is a high-end, fresh, delicious, affordable product that we can put on our menu.' It's something different that's not salmon, salmon, salmon."

Sunburst Trout Farms keeps conditions for the fish as close to natural as it can, while maintaining capacity to supply large and growing demand. "This farm can hold right around 200-250,000 pounds of trout," Wes says. "And you basically double that number to figure out how much we can produce in a year, because we always have new fish coming in and big fish coming out. It's a cycle."

But as a practical matter, Sunburst never operates at full capacity. "It's too great of a risk," Ben says. "Because we never know what the lake is going to do." During hot and dry periods, Champion Paper -- owner of the Lake Logan dam -- may increase flow, bringing the water level down. That causes an increase in the temperature of the water Sunburst takes via a dedicated pipe installed in the dam. "And when the water starts heating up, the fish's stress level goes up," he says.

The company keeps close tabs on production. "Under ideal circumstances, processing is based on demand," Wes says. "In the summer, if we have plenty of fish in the water that are harvestable size, we'll process, say, 10,000 pounds in a week." He says that demand is constant for that level of production.

But Sunburst can't always keep up. "Last summer, inventory was about 80% of where we needed it to be," he says. "We were processing about 7,500 pounds in a week. Demand was higher than our inventory. Typically, what we process is based on demand, but sometimes it's supply."

Though fresh trout can be considered a commodity, Sunburst's prices don't fluctuate like grain or gasoline. "We try to stay pretty steady," Wes says. "We definitely don't fluctuate up and down within the year. We had a price increase back in February, and we won't schedule another one for at least two years."

The most significant obstacle to growth is inventory, Wes says. "At least once a year for the past five years, there have been times where we couldn't fill all of our orders." He acknowledges that when that happens, customers -- especially restaurants that have put together popular menu items around Sunburst trout -- can get frustrated. "The nice thing is, 95% of our customers are pretty level-headed; they understand that we're not a factory that pushes a button," he says. "We're not making shoes here."

Even now, Wes says that he's constantly forced to turn new customers away. "Someone calls and says, 'Hey, I'm a distributor in south Florida. I'd love to bring on North Carolina trout.'" But they need 200 pounds a week. "It just pains you to have to say no," We says. "Because if you say yes, you're cutting into your existing customers. And that's the last thing we want to do. You want to grow the business, but you don't want to grow it too fast, because then you can't take care of everybody else."

A burst of growth
To allow increased production, Sunburst recently took a lease on another farm in nearby Cruso, North Carolina. The new farm is situated at a higher elevation than Sunburst's primary facility, so the water coming out of the east fork of the Pigeon River stays cooler. In mid-March, that new facility was mere weeks away from going back into operation. "That'll be our saving grace as far as being able to hold additional inventory during the summer months," Ben says.

During the winter months, the primary farm's higher water temperature is a blessing. "This place can grow fish really well in the wintertime; we'll stock it heavily for fall, winter and spring." And then toward the end of spring, Sunburst will ramp up stock at the Cruso farm. "That way we'll have plenty of fish coming into the fall and winter," he says.

"When Ben and I started here full time in 2001, we used to sell larger orders to fewer people," Wes says. "Typical customers were distributors or wholesalers, buying a couple hundred pounds each." He says that margins were thin. "They're still kind of thin," he admits, "but now we're selling less volume [per order] to more people, and we're going more direct than we did back then."

Much of that share of direct sales is coming from restaurants, and bypassing some distributors to sell directly to grocery stores. Wes says that a decade ago, most of Sunburst Trout Farms' orders were local and regional. "But our brand has grown," he says. "There's more of a national demand."

Climate change is an acknowledged challenge. Those trout like their cold water. "Things don't look great down the road weather-wise," Wes admits. "As a planet -- certainly as a country -- we need to make some changes. Because there's only so much we can do here to control it."

With that in mind, Ben and Wes are looking ahead toward a method called recirculating aquaculture. "I think that's going to be important in the future," Wes says. An indoor facility with filtered, recirculated water would take climate out of the equation for the farm. "Because then you don't have to worry about how hot and dry it is outside." But for now, the added facility in Cruso -- with its naturally brisk water -- looks to provide at least a short-term solution to the challenge.

The future looks sunny for Sunburst
Sunburst Trout Farms' current annual revenue is around $2 million, and trending upward. "We've got a good model of being able to handle demand," Wes says. "We have more fish swimming on this farm than we've had in 15 years," Ben adds.

In recent years, the company has expanded its operations to include a retail store. Sunburst Market opened in 2012 in downtown Waynesville. Along the way, products from other local and regional vendors were added to the shelves. More recently, the company moved its retail operations to Sunburst's processing facility. Walk-in traffic at an industrial park is, of course, less than before. "But the people who come in are usually on a mission to buy product," Wes says. Online and retail sales account for about 10% of Sunburst's revenue.

That new Cruso farm is just part of Sunburst Trout Farms' forward-looking plans. "Right now, we do everything except hatch," Wes says. But one of Sunburst's goals in the next few years is to turn a currently unused processing building at the farm into a hatchery. "That way we've got complete control over inventory," Ben says. And in a way, doing so would bring things back to the way Dick Jennings did things. "Hatching's not easy," Wes says. "But my grandfather did it up until the early '90s."

When Wes's alarm clock goes off every morning, he's excited to embrace the day. "It makes me happy when people share their pictures of doing cool stuff with product that my brother and I grew and fed, and my team processed," Wes says. "I get super excited to see where our beautiful products end up, and what chefs can do with it."

"I don't ever dread going to work," Ben says. "I work on days that I have off. I'm like, 'I'm bored. I'm going to go drive to the farm and check the fish, and make sure the water flows are good.'" When he feeds the trout, he finds himself doing mathematical conversions in his head. "Let's say I feed 400 pounds of feed in a day," he says. "I'm growing about 360 pounds of fish on that. And it's just fun. I enjoy it."

Asked what he would buy if a bunch of money fell out of the sky tomorrow, Ben has a ready answer. "More fish. And a truckload of feed." Wes laughs and chimes in. "You stole my answer, dude," he says, quickly coming up with another of his own. "A new hatchery. And more farms."

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