The South’s First Family of Commercial Fishing

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Sunburst Trout Farms, tucked away in the picturesque landscape of the North Carolina mountains, began in 1948 as the South’s first commercial trout farm. 
With help from state agencies like North Carolina Department of Agriculture and its Got to Be NC Seafood entity, the family-owned farm has become a vital part of North Carolina’s diverse seafood industry.Today, North Carolina is ranked second in the nation in trout farming with a value around $8.5 million a year. Sunburst has grown from a modest operation to a 12,000-square-foot processing facility and a market in Waynesville, N.C. where its products (including trout jerky!) are sold.

In season five of A CHEF’S LIFE (“Chasing Trout”), Vivian takes a trip to Sunburst and learns about farm-raised trout from the South’s first family of fish farming. Wes Eason is the third generation of Sunburst farmers. We asked him a few questions about the business his grandaddy started, how it used to be, and where it stands now.

I understand that the Jennings and Eason families have called western North Carolina home for many generations. Beyond that, what makes the area a favorable location for your trout farm?  
Wes: Western North Carolina has very favorable conditions for raising rainbow trout. The water temperature is very important. If the temperature gets too warm, then the trout cannot survive. This is why you don't see trout farms outside of the mountains. Some people take issue with commercial fish farming. 

Can you explain why that is?  
Wes: I think it is because of lack of information. People have heard about more common agriculture like vegetables, cattle, poultry, and pig farming for years so it is more commonly accepted. I encourage people to read scholarly articles [rather than opinion pieces] on aquaculture to learn more about the industry. I also encourage people to visit our farm and others in the United States to see firsthand how clean and important aquaculture is.  

Are people changing their tune about this? What do you think people need to know about fish farms that would help them understand the value of them?  
Wes: I believe people are changing their tune as more information is revealed. Aquaculture is the most efficient form of farming there is if you look at how little space is needed compared to more traditional agriculture, as well as the feed ratio. With rainbow trout, you get roughly one pound of growth for every pound of feed. 

Did your family farm any other produce or animals before choosing fish?  
Wes: Yes, my grandfather raised mink for the fur back in the '40s. He realized that "food was going to more stable than fashion" so he introduced trout farming to the fold. He was the first commercial trout farm east of the Mississippi. 

Why and how did Sunburst choose to farm trout over other types of fish? 
Wes: Rainbow trout are a sustainable fish and respond well to a controlled environment like a farm. Western North Carolina climate and water temperatures are near perfect for raising rainbow trout. 

You offer a variety of different preparations for trout at your market. How did the decision to open a market and process your trout for this type of sale affect your business?  
Wes: We opened the Sunburst Market as an avenue to sell our products closer to town as the farm is rather remote. Trout is a very versatile protein and there is a plethora of options with how you can utilize it. Many people still like the original fillets the best but we have definitely found some new customers with the encrusted or marinated fillets. 

What is the most innovative use of trout Sunburst has come up with thus far?  
Wes: The trout jerky is made from meat straight off the backbone. We tediously remove the meat from the bones then mix it with delicious ingredients to produce an amazing shelf-stable jerky. We used to compost all the remains but realized there was value in the meat that remained. 

How was it filming with Vivian for the trout episode in season 5 of A CHEF’S LIFE?  
Wes: I had so much fun! It was the coldest day of the winter so Vivian and I were freezing! We have worked with Vivian at Chef & the Farmer for several years now, but it was great to get to spend some time with her and be able to share with her the sights and stories from Sunburst Trout. 

What do you think viewers of A CHEF’S LIFE will learn about trout farming and western North Carolina?  
Wes: I think that the viewers will see the beauty of both western North Carolina, as well as the trout farm.



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