Sunburst Trout Farms Swims Upstream

Wes Eason balances on a wooden walk board near the base of Lake Logan Dam, where 6,000 gallons of water per minute rush into raceways filled with rainbow trout. As the third generation of his family to farm and process fish at Sunburst Trout Farms, he couldn’t be more comfortable walking above the concrete raceways where the fish live from the time they are brought to the farm as fingerlings and until they’re about twelve months old.

When the fish reach maturity at about one pound, they are harvested out of the raceway and driven 20 minutes to the processing plant where they are turned into products like fresh fillets, smoked trout, jerky, and trout dip. The quality and popularity of these products are tied to the pristine environment where the fish live.

“Trout are super, super picky. If you put trout in water that’s not real pure, it’ll die. So it’s important to have the water being just so for the trout. You want the water to be moderate to cool mid-50s, to have it flow the same direction the whole time so they’re swimming against the current, which is their natural response,” Wes says. 

“When they’re having that protein rich diet coupled with swimming upstream, it’s like a finely tuned athlete—they’re eating well, exercising. They’re gonna be in good shape. I know that sounds a little bit kooky, how a fish could be in good shape, but they are. You see it in our fillets at the market or in the restaurants, and the chefs will tell you, it’s not a limp or loose filet. It’s very tight, very rigid, muscular structure around that top loin,” he adds.

Long before Asheville was a hub of restaurants where chefs clamored for local products, Wes’ family had a vision for a trout farm in the mountains. 

“It’s kind of a fascinating story. My grandfather, Dick Jennings, was the founder and he started the company back in 1948. He was a young man who was in his mid-20s from the Pennsylvania area. He came from a big oil family and they figured he would just go into the oil business. He didn’t like much about it, but he loved the mountains of North Carolina. He vacationed down here as a kid and just fell in love with it. He loved the terrain. He loved the temperature. He loved the people. It was just a great fit,” Wes says.

“He had read about and traveled to Europe, where they were farming rainbow trout, and saw that it was a good business model. He could see that it was going to be a good future. He was farming here, pretty much just selling live trout and whole trout, not processing much. He didn’t start processing much till late 70s, early 80s. They brought my dad into the business and he ran the farm for several years. We, of course, worked here when we were teenagers doing every grunt work job you can imagine. When you’re the grandfather’s grandsons, you’re not sliding into the office seat on day one, I can promise you that. I dug a lot of ditches. I got rid of a lot of trout guts. I did it all, for sure,” Wes says.

Sunburst Trout Farms has come a long way since then, gaining national attention for its “trout caviar” in the early 2000s. The trout roe and more than a dozen other trout products are produced 20 minutes from the farm at Sunburst’s own facility, which is spotless and doesn’t smell like fish at all. The employees work quickly to process the trout, which might be served in a restaurant later that day. 

“We can harvest fish at 7 in the morning and if it’s the first stop on the delivery, it could be on the lunch menu by 1:30. So swimming at 7, you’re eating it for lunch at 1:30,” Wes says. 

“In the mountains, it’s uncanny when you think about eating fish that fresh.”

Sunburst Trout Farms is one of hundreds of family farms in the region that sell to local restaurants, at farmers markets, and in grocery stores. Learn more in ASAP’s Local Food Guide:

Aired: October 5, 2020

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