A crisp wind blows through Haywood County. Gazing upward, dark clouds slowly take over the sky while a few ominous raindrops are felt. For many, it may seem to be the official death knell to summer. But for Sally Eason, it’s a sign of great things to come.
“We love this weather, and we’re probably the only people around here that do,” she chuckled.
Sunburst Trout Farms in Haywood County plans to add jobs and expand its operations thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The farm received a nearly $300,000 Value Added Producers Grant from the USDA to help expand its market, namely finding new customers to buy more trout. The grant will help with everything from hiring a sales person to the upfront cost of trout fingerlings, which are then raised to full size at the farm.
Sunburst, founded by Richard Jennings, is a third generation family owned and operated company that processes fresh ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat trout products.
“The main goal is to stabilize things financially here,” said Sunburst’s Chef Charles Hudson. “We couldn’t have done it without that funding.”
The project, which will begin in April, will include purchasing more trout fingerlings, hiring new marketing and processing workers and installing new software to increase ordering efficiency. The plan is estimated to cost $500,000. The company was awarded $10,000 from the North Carolina Value-Added Cost Share Program in addition to the USDA grant.
Sunburst in particular hopes to increase business during winter months. The months of January, February and March are typically very slow for everyone in the mostly tourist-dependent region. The majority of Sunburst’s customers are within three hours of its Haywood County location.
But if the company is able to spread to new states, it could see more money rolling in throughout the year. One possible market is Florida, which gets a seasonal influx from people trying to escape the winter chill elsewhere.
“They (Florida) are busy when we are slow,” Hudson said.
Sunburst does not hatch its own trout from eggs but rather purchases them from trout hatcheries in Western North Carolina. The grant will allow them to increase the number of fish it purchases and therefore the number of trout it is able to sell.
Sunburst hopes to add about 100 new customers a year with the help of the grant funding.
To market the extra fish, Sunburst will also create a new marketing sales position. The job will include extensive travel and focus on expanding the company’s current market in the Southeastern U.S. Most of Sunbursts customers are restaurants, though their products are also available at some grocery stores.
Sunburst will add another two other positions to help carry the extra workload at its facility.
Last year, Sunburst sold about 250,000 pounds of trout. This year, it hopes to sell more than 300,000 pounds, Hudson said.
“It’s going to be a really good thing for not only us but for the county as a whole,” Hudson said.
Hundreds of chefs gathered in Washington, D.C., Friday, June 4, to launch Chefs Move to Schools, a program designed to get healthy food into cafeterias.
Among their ranks was Charles Hudson, the research and development chef for Sunburst Trout Company in Haywood County.
The chefs, clad in their hats and uniforms, sat in the hot afternoon sun on the White House’s South Lawn as First Lady Michelle Obama spoke about the importance of children eating healthy.
“You all know how the ingredients we put in our bodies can affect the way we feel, the way we think, and how we grow,” Obama said in her speech to the chefs. “This is especially true when we’re talking about our nation’s kids.”
Earlier in the day, Hudson and the other chefs toured the White House garden where Hudson “oohed” and “aahed” about broccoli, yellow cauliflower, an abundance of fresh herbs and a beehive.
“I think that was the most beautiful broccoli I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
Hudson learned ways to get children excited about healthy food and expand on some ideas he’s started. He’d like to grow afterschool culinary clubs and partner middle-school students with elementary students.
He’s already cooked for students at Central Elementary School in Haywood County. At first, 90 percent of the kids turned their noses up at trout sausage and wouldn’t try it, he said. But after he gave the kids the chance to cook it themselves, almost all of them liked it.
“The biggest thing is to get them involved with the cooking process,” Hudson said. “It’s something to give them ownership, something they can take pride in.”
He suggests parents let their kids help cook, take their kids to a tailgate market to sample products, or pick produce with their families.
CEO of Sunburst Trout, Sally Eason, hired Hudson to be the farm’s development chef in 2005. His job is to help develop new products, and some of the most recent ideas include fish sticks called “Sunburst Sticks” and frozen dinners.
“It required a serious leap of faith but was a brilliant move,” Eason said. “We’re trying out new products every day.”
Sunburst produces trout burgers, cakes, encrusted fillets, sausage, trout dip, trout jerky and caviar.
While the trout is found on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus throughout the South, as well as in three Asheville retirement communities, Eason said she would like to expand to hospitals, college dining halls and school cafeterias.
“For the first time in my life, there is a possibility that aquaculture will become a viable business, and it’s because fish is so healthy, and people are realizing that,” Eason said.