2020 was going to be a big year for Sunburst Trout Farms in Waynesville, North Carolina. The family-run business has over 70 years of experience raising and selling rainbow trout, and recently leased an additional farm to meet the growing demand for its trout and trout products.
Then the COVID-19 crisis hit. The restaurants that served their trout closed or shifted to take-out when North Carolina restaurants were mandated to close their dining rooms. Wes Eason, Owner and Director of Sales at Sunburst Trout, says they lost 75 percent of their sales overnight.
“It was panic, for lack of a better word, because it’s so frustrating. Last year we had loads of demand, but not the supply to meet the demand. And then all of sudden it completely turned on its head. It was devastating, but we looked at the bigger picture of how everybody is pretty much in this together,” he says.
Wes feels a sense of solidarity with other local farmers and food producers who are wrestling with similar issues. He points out that farmers often face extreme weather, flooding, or droughts that disrupt their businesses overnight, but it’s unusual that so many farmers are facing the same challenges at the same time. “It feels so different that we’re all struggling together,” he says.
Wes and his family jumped into action to protect employees and customers. “Top priority was not to get anybody sick. Then we were like, OK, we still have some business. There are grocery stores that are going to continue to buy, so we want to keep the doors open. We want to still harvest fish and keep people fed by employing them.”
Sunburst Trout Farms is unique in that they both raise the fish and process them themselves. With only nine people on the production line, they were able to immediately shift gears to keep people safe.
“We’re an FDA regulated production facility, so we have to have specific sanitizing solutions all around the place anyway,” he says. “So we just ramped it up. For about three weeks now, everybody’s been wearing a mask, and our processing line is not nearly as tight as some massive food production facilities.”
He bristles at the idea that the U.S. food supply chain is breaking. “Talking about the food system being broken, so to speak. What you see with all these massive virus outbreaks at some of these super large production facilities, that’s scary,” he says. “But it’s not broken from my end. And by that I mean that the medium and small scale distributors we work with, they’re still ordering from us. We’ll continue to provide them with as much as they want.”
Sunburst Trout has an abundance of fish swimming in runs at the base of Lake Logan Dam. Wes says farmed trout are just like any other crop, affected by the weather and other factors, but that the fish have not been impacted by the slowdown yet.
“The fish aren’t tacked on top of one another. We’re not scrambling, at least now, freaking out, saying what do we do with all these fish in the water? Now, the closer we get to summer, especially once temperatures rise, that’s when you don’t want as many fish in the water,” he says. “They can get stressed out as it is. So if you’re not pulling many out each day and you’re continuing to feed them and they’re putting weight on, that can be a little problematic. So, yeah, we will need avenues to sell these fish for sure.”
In addition to the medium-scale distributors and grocery stores Sunburst Trout continues to work with, Wes is also strengthening relationships in the local community by selling fish directly to customers. Currently, the public can order through the website and Wes will meet them for contactless delivery twice a week at a central location in Asheville. Sunburst also ships trout and products like trout dip, jerky, and caviar, anywhere in the U.S.
Wes does see a silver lining during the crisis. He hopes people will incorporate more fish into their diet, try proteins that are new to them, and buy from local businesses even more than before.
“In supporting Sunburst Trout, you’re supporting not just a corporation, you’re supporting essentially a family and a pretty extended one. We’re third-generation family owned and operated. We’re all invested together. We don’t want this thing to go down. So anything anybody can do to help support a family business like ours, it means a lot.”
Growing Local visited Sunburst Trout’s aquaculture and processing facilities earlier this year. When we return to regular programming, we’ll share the sounds of trout swimming in their runs and a tour of the whole operation.
Until then, more information about Sunburst Trout Farms and where to find its products is in ASAP’s online local food guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: May 11, 2020