Archived Outdoors

Fish On The Farm: Tour Highlights Importance, Challenges Of Mountain Aquaculture

Trout fins pepper the surface of the water at Sunburst Trout Farms below Lake Logan. Holly Kays photo Trout fins pepper the surface of the water at Sunburst Trout Farms below Lake Logan. Holly Kays photo

Whenever Wes Eason runs across a potential customer who’s hesitant about eating farm-raised fish, he points to the picture on the front of the Sunburst Trout Farms brochure.

It’s the same photograph that hangs on the wall of the business’s processing facility in Waynesville — an aerial shot showing the raceways zigzagging just below Lake Logan Dam, the 500,000-acre Pisgah National Forest filling the rest of the frame.

“That speaks for itself,” he said. 

Effort to educate

Eason, who co-owns Sunburst with his brother, Ben, was the first stop on an all-day tour showcasing Western North Carolina’s aquaculture industry Friday, June 9. Standing along the raceways in the cool morning air, Eason spoke to a group that included agriculture professionals, educators, members of the media and elected representatives — N.C. Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe) and a field representative for NC-11 Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson). Rep. Karl Gillespie (R-Macon) would address the group during a dinner program later that day.

“The fact that we are here is a huge advantage,” Eason said above the gentle roar of water spilling from the Lake Logan Dam, just visible through the trees circling the farm. “We'd be hard pressed to find a watershed like this if we were just starting out.”

Sunburst Trout, which was founded by Eason’s grandfather, Dick Jennings, got its start in 1948 under the name Cashiers Valley Trout Farm. The family moved its trout-growing operation to the current site near Lake Logan in the 1960s. Upstream, there’s nothing but national forest until the Pigeon River’s headwaters near the county line. The water that Sunburst diverts from the Pigeon, then runs through its raceways and cleans up before sending it back to the river, is about as clean as it gets. That’s important, because for trout clean water is more than  a luxury.

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“They just won’t survive if it’s not pure and clean,” Eason said. “They’re very sensitive creatures.”

Sponsored by the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, N.C. Farm Bureau and N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the aquaculture tour was the second in a series of “Best of the West” agriculture tours aimed at increasing understanding of the importance agriculture in Western North Carolina has to the rest of the state — and understanding of the obstacles the farmers who form its backbone face every day. Three-quarters of the funding came from the NCDACS pool of funds left over at the end of the budget year from vacant positions within the department.  

North Carolina’s population is increasing, but its agricultural acreage is decreasing — meaning fewer people have the automatic introduction to farming that occurs when your neighbors’ livelihoods revolve around growing food.

“It's basically just to help educate, which I think is becoming more and more important for agriculture, because even though agriculture is the largest industry in the state, there's not many of us working in agriculture,” said Sim McIver, assistant director of domestic and horticulture marketing for Got to Be N.C., an initiative of NCDACS. “It's a low percentage, so the ones that don't work in agriculture, we have to educate them on what we do.”

From farm to table

Fish farming might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about agriculture, but it offers an incredibly efficient way to produce animal proteins for dinner plates across America. For every 1.1 pounds of feed Eason puts in the water, he gets about a pound of growth on his fish. For other animals, the return is much smaller — for beef cattle, for example, it takes somewhere between 4.5 and 7.5 pounds of feed to achieve one pound of growth.

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Wes Eason, co-owner of Sunburst Trout Farms, speaks to the tour group near the raceways. Holly Kays photo

After touring the raceways, Eason took the group to the processing plant, where every week about 6,400 pounds of fish is transformed into fillets, smoked or made into specialty products like trout jerky. Sunburst is North Carolina’s second-largest supplier of trout.

“Nothing’s older than 24 hours out of the water when it leaves the facility,” Eason said.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of pounds the business processes each year, it’s close to a zero-waste operation. Meat left on the bones when the filets are cut is extricated for use in jerky, while the fish guts are picked up for use in fertilizer.

For the afternoon, the group headed to Cherokee for a traditional meal prepared by the Native American Indian Women’s Association and a visit to a fish farm in Big Cove operated by Andrews-based Carolina Mountain Trout.

Launched in the early 1980s, Carolina Mountain Trout is a newer company than Sunburst but an even larger producer. Its Cherokee farm is located about 25 minutes toward the north end of the picturesque Big Cove community, and at any one time there’s about 420,000 pounds of fish swimming there. The trout are processed at a facility in Andrews, where two-thirds of the fish that Carolina Mountain Trout processes come from other area farms, making it the largest trout organization east of the Mississippi River.

Grappling with mother nature

Growing fish may sound simple, but it’s hard work. As the fish grow, the farmer must monitor them to make sure the raceways aren’t overcrowded, and that the fish are healthy and free of disease. Fish are constantly being moved around, as the larger ones head off for processing and newly hatched fish, typically about two inches long, are dropped off. Carolina Mountain Trout owner Howard Brown purchases about 1.2 million of these fingerlings each year, and his staff vaccinate each by hand to guard against the most common diseases afflicting trout.

The biggest challenge, though, is mother nature, Eason said. Trout need clear, cold water to grow — 57 degrees is perfect. But during a dry, hot summer, when the lake gets low and the water heats up, trout struggle. They stop growing, and mortality rates increase.

Too much water is a problem as well. In addition to the lives and homes Tropical Storm Fred destroyed as it roared through Cruso in 2021, the flood demolished Sunburst’s satellite trout farm along U.S. 276, sending 70,000 pounds of trout swimming away. The company now has funding to rebuild that farm but is waiting for the county to finish a stabilization project in the area to begin construction.

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EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle addressed the tour group at the trout farm in Cherokee. Holly Kays photo

A separate flood that occurred much longer ago has imperiled Carolina Mountain Trout’s operations. Back before the company built its fish farm in Cherokee, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians realigned a portion of Ravens Fork to facilitate a paving project on Big Cove Road, building a diversionary dam in the late 1970s. After severe flooding in 1992, the creek bed was stabilized with wire Gabion baskets as a temporary fix. But now those baskets are disintegrating, and with each new rain erosion deepens along the edge of the trout farm. In 2020, the Bureau of Indian Affairs identified the dam as a hazard at risk of failure.  

EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Secretary Joey Owle hopes to see the problem fixed soon. The tribe has gathered funding to remove the dam and restore the downstream reach, hoping to start construction sometime next summer.

“When you try to take nature and manipulate it to that scale, you're going to end up with these kinds of issues, and having to go back and continually stabilize,” Owle said. “And so hopefully, with this next project, it’s something that will last much longer than 20 years with the Gabion baskets.”

Regulatory challenges

Fish farmers also struggle against more bureaucratic challenges. Howard Brown, president of Carolina Mountain Trout, is working to create new technology in response to tightening limits on the amount of water he’s allowed to divert.

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Howard Brown, owner of Carolina Mountain Trout, shows the group around his fish farm in Cherokee. Holly Kays photo

These new limits are “a big deal,” he said — so now he’s working with researchers to develop new technology that will allow him to cost-effectively clean and recirculate water within the trout farm, reducing the amount he needs to draw from the creek. He hopes to try out the first unit by the end of the year.

“To me, that's really the only alternative,” he said. 

Government regulations have a direct impact on trout farmers’ day-to-day lives, their budgets and the viability of their businesses — so McIver was pleased that so many legislators participated in the tour.

“I think it’s great that we had some political folks come in on this trip, because it's going to be important to educate them as well, because they're going make decisions based on what they know,” McIver said. “And if they don't know anything about agriculture, then they're going to make decisions that will negatively impact.”

One of the participating legislators, Gillespie, is already quite familiar with the world of agriculture — he runs a cattle farm in Macon County. During a dinner reception following the tour, he told the group about his recent efforts to combat what he understands to be burdensome regulations on fish farmers.

Gillespie said trout producers in WNC began contacting him with concerns about a new N.C. Division of Water Resources rule requiring them to test discharge from their farms quarterly rather than annually, as had previously been required — without compensation for the cost of the additional testing. Gillespie said he couldn’t find any past issues that may have spurred this change beyond a general philosophy from federal agencies offering comment during the rulemaking process that more frequent testing means any potential problem will be caught more quickly.

“In itself that makes perfect sense,” Gillespie said. “Check the oil in your car every morning, you will know if you’re low on oil. Anybody do that?”

Gillespie has been working to get the quarterly test requirement repealed and expects to be successful in that endeavor. The repeal was accepted as an amendment to the North Carolina Farm Act of 2023, which has passed through both houses and now awaits action from Gov. Roy Cooper.

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Workers extract fish meat missed by the filet machine for use in trout jerky. Holly Kays photo

Aquaculture is a significant part of the U.S. and North Carolina economy, but it could be larger. The U.S. imports the overwhelming majority of the fish it consumes, Brown said. The United States must find more creative ways to boost its production of food fish.

“People need to understand how valuable us growing our own food is,” said Leah McGrath, a consultant who helped organize the tour and a dietician by trade. “I mean, it is incredibly valuable. When we saw that during the pandemic, when you have disruptions in the food supply, being able to have a local food supply is really important.”

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