Is there a Southern Appalachian cuisine? Yes…a rapidly evolving one, as a new generation of chefs takes traditional mountain fare in new directions in places like Asheville, Atlanta, and Birmingham. Trout is one of its cornerstones. Sunburst Trout, a third-generation family business in Western North Carolina is perhaps the main ambassador for farm raised trout in eastern North America, and it’s all about the water.
Wes Eason points to the clean, plentiful water of the West Fork of Pigeon River, and thousands of acres of protected mountain forests from which it flows – “That is the key to our success” he says. Sunburst Trout Farms is situated in a watershed nestled high in the Southern Appalachian mountains with more than 25,000 acres of federally-designated Wilderness Area. His grandfather, Dick Jennings understood the abundance of this mountain watershed when he moved his Jennings Trout Farm (established 1948) from nearby Cashiers to this location in 1960, on 100 acres he inherited from his grandfather, and became the first commercial trout processor in the Southeast. The interconnections between trout, humans, mountains, trees, soils and water here are impossible to ignore – and they are evident in the flavor of trout raised at Sunburst.
At first, Jennings Trout Farm supplied fish to sportsmen and anglers for stocking streams and lakes. In the 1960’s, interest in trout as a healthy source of protein took off after studies were published illustrating the relative health of cultures dependent on a fish-based diet. If terroir is a way of describing the influence that soils, climate, and culture can have on the flavor of foods produced in a given region, Dick Jennings understood that fish raised in mountain water have their own unique version of terroir, and he was good at marketing that concept. Jennings sold trout to a growing network of upscale supermarket chains along the East Coast. At a time when the Southern Appalachians were becoming a popular destination for tourists, Jennings began selling trout to chefs at fine dining establishments – notably the Biltmore Estate and Grove Park Inn and Spa. Sunburst Trout Company, LLC was born in 1980 when his daughter Sally and her husband Steve Eason joined the business. Sally eventually stepped in as CEO of Sunburst and has led its growth to become a recognized leader of sustainably-produced, high quality products. Jennings, who will turn 90 this year, still calls regularly with questions about the water and the operations he built from scratch.
The third generation joined the family business in the late 90s, when Sally's and Steve's sons Wes and Ben came on board, adding new ideas and innovation to the aquaculture systems, processing equipment, marketing, packaging, distribution and even waste management that have helped keep Sunburst a leader in the industry. By 2011, the name Sunburst Trout Farms and the current logo were developed as a way of celebrating their roots and steady innovation. Sunburst currently employs a loyal and skilled staff of 29 individuals, many of whom have been there between 10 and 20 years.
Dick Jenning’s strategy of marketing to top chefs has developed into a solid and successful market for Sunburst, with the majority of their 400 customers being restaurants. Wes Eason often sends samples of his products to chefs who then place an order. He finds that the best marketing happens without any advertising – through word of mouth recommendations about the quality of the product that spreads from one chef to another. Often these are James Beard award winners or nominees. Daniel Boulud features the trout on menus in his New York restaurants such as Daniel. So do Steven Satterfield at Miller Union in Atlanta, Tandy Wilson at City House in Nashville, Sean Brock at Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, and the Beall family at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. Appearing on the menu of any one of these chefs has certainly translated into growth in sales for Sunburst.
In the kitchen at chef Jacob Sessoms’ pioneering Asheville restaurant, Table, Sunburst Trout is turned into something special. He takes a whole 2 – 3 lb fish, grills it low over a gas flame until it is just cooked through, and serves it up with a mix of sweet pea blossoms and fresh herbs. Sessoms says it’s all about retaining the fat and collagen – cooking the fish whole this way infuses the omega 3 fats from the belly and the bones into the meat, keeping it rich, soft and succulent – something that is lost in filets. He appreciates Sunburst as a local company providing a superior product that embodies the traditions of Southern Appalachian cooking – foodways shaped by the steep topography, isolated settlements, abundant wild game, cool mountain streams, limited arable land, and families of Scotch-Irish descent. The region developed its own food traditions separate from those rooted in a system of plantation agriculture and African and Caribbean influence in so much of the South.
Sunburst Trout Farms is situated on 100 acres in the Southern Appalachian Mountains near Asheville, at the outflow of Lake Logan along the West Fork Pigeon River in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina’s largest protected area. With an elevation of 3,100 feet, Sunburst is surrounded by forested slopes reaching up above 6,000 feet, with 25,000 acres of these designated by the US Forest Service in 1964 as the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness Areas, where human impact is minimized. The Southern Appalachian Mountains are ranked by The Nature Conservancy as having the highest concentration of biodiversity in the eastern United States due to their unique mix of varied elevations, isolated cove forests, clear mountain streams, and pockets of habitat with minimal human disturbance. It is this wilderness landscape and its rich biodiversity that provides the “ecosystem services” supporting clean, plentiful water to grow healthy trout at Sunburst.
Native Cherokee people hunted, gathered and fished in these mountains for many thousands of years prior to the arrival of Scotch-Irish settlers in the late 1700’s. The area remained relatively wild with scattered mountain settlements until the early 1900’s, when the Sunburst Mill and logging camp was founded here. At that time, the CEO of Cincinnati-based Champion Paper visited the area and noticed the abundant timber and water needed to process wood into paper pulp. Champion acquired the land and established a mill town of 1,500 residents at Sunburst, and established a paper mill in nearby Canton. Champion did not practice sustainable forestry, and in just 20 years they had exhausted all of the local timber and moved their operations.
The Sunburst mill town was abandoned, and in 1932 Champion dammed the West Fork of Pigeon River to create a lake as a reserve water source for the mill in Canton, which is still in operation today. The 87-acre Lake Logan, stocked with trout, became a centerpiece for the Lake Logan Hunting and Fishing Club. Dick Jenning’s grandfather held title to 100 acres at the outflow of Lake Logan, which would turn out to be a fine place to start a trout farm. It is here that Cold Mountain looms overhead, the namesake for Charles Frazier’s historical novel and the subsequent film. Today, 300 acres including Lake Logan is a retreat center owned and managed by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. To avoid oil and gas pollution, guests are only permitted to use non-motorized boats.
Water flowing out of the Lake Logan dam forms the West Branch of Pigeon River, and approximately 12,000 gallons per minute is diverted via a 36 inch pipe and into a series of concrete spillways where Sunburst trout are raised. This is a small fraction of the river’s base flow, yet it provides enough water for Sunburst to maintain a flow of up to 20 feet per minute across a series of raceways to keep the trout actively swimming and the water cool and clean. This water volume and flow velocity, double the normal practice in the industry, is the key to growing high quality trout in less crowded conditions.
Cool, flowing water mimics the natural condition of a mountain stream, providing a continuous stream of vital oxygen and current for the fish to swim against to maintain healthy metabolic activity. With surface water coming off the lake in all seasons, water temperatures can fluctuate. 57 degrees Fahrenheit is the optimum temperature for trout, and is common year round among large trout farms in Idaho. 72 degrees is lethal, and winter temperatures below 57 the trout eat less and grow more slowly. Sunburst manages to stay on the cooler side within these limits. This natural variation in temperature means longer, slower growth than trout raised at a constant 57 degrees. Sunburst contracts with several partner farms in the area to raise trout in similar watershed conditions.
As with any farm, there are challenges to be overcome. The Jenning/Eason family has learned over the years that excessive heat and drought can be devastating – the die-off of fish during the 1986 drought nearly drove them out of business. Flooding has had its impact as well – with back to back hurricanes in 2004 again threatening to shut the business down when most of the fish were lost due to flood debris blocking the source of oxygenated water. River otter and black bear are attracted to the trout farm – otters for the fish and bear for the feed – and must be kept out with the aid of a single-wire electric fence. But it was humans who may have had a greatest impact – in 2007 a fire destroyed the processing facility at Sunburst and 700 lbs of their prized trout caviar were stolen. After an investigation the fire marshal ruled that it was arson. The family continued on at 40% of capacity while rebuilding the plant.
The surrounding forests draining to Lake Logan and the West Fork of the Pigeon River are predominantly a mix of hardwoods - oak, hickory, maple, and tulip poplar. Hickory is another key factor in the Sunburst story – hickory (not harvested on site) is the basis for all of the hot smoked trout produced here, while native red oak provides the subtle smoke for cold-smoked trout.
Sunburst is convenient to major highways such as I-40 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, yet Reaching Sunburst requires a winding drive through small mountain communities up above Canton. Coming from the east through Pisgah National Forest on NC-215 is a wonderful climb through the mountains.
Oxygen tank keeps dissolved oxygen levels in the water at levels that are good for trout and the Pigeon River ecosystem, particularly on the hottest days. The water is recycled only four times before flowing through a series of stepped settling ponds where it is naturally aerated and filtered before being discharged back to the river. The word among local fishermen is that the trout fishing is good downstream, and is not impacted by the high concentration of fish at the farm.
All Sunburst trout are Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are native to the cold water streams and rivers flowing to the Pacific Ocean in North America and Asia. Rainbows are larger and better suited for culinary use than the Brook Trout that are indigenous to the Southern Appalachians, and the Brown trout introduced to the area from Europe as a sport fish.
The trout are all female (known for better flavor and more active nature than males) and arrive as fingerlings (immature fish) from trout hatcheries in the region.
Wes Eason explains that the premium diet combined with the fast-moving water ensure that Sunburst trout are like highly trained athletes. Trout are natural insectivores which is the basis of pinkish flesh. Sunburst chooses a custom feed that closely mimics the wild diet with a high-protein mix of mix of fish meal and fish oil, and no grain fillers, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s), antibiotics or growth hormones. The feed is also designed to be low in phosphorus to avoid causing algae blooms that could degrade the West Fork Pigeon River.
The fish are harvested daily, placed in an ice slurry to stun and preserve them (as in winter), then run through a custom beheader, gutted and fileted by hand, placed in a rapid chill freezer then a cooler at 36 degrees (not frozen) and shipped in insulated boxes (10 to 60 lbs) via Federal Express overnight to be served fresh in restaurants from New England to Texas the next day, or shipped in bulk to grocery stories. At any given time, 7 to 10 employees process up to 10,000 lbs of trout per week. Sunburst also maintains 5 local delivery routes, owing to the prevalence of their products in stores and restaurants across Western North Carolina.
Another key to Sunburst’s ongoing growth is the family’s ability to develop innovative value-added products that transform trout in ways that are both new and old. While 10% of the trout are sold as whole fish for restaurants, generally weighing 1 to 3 lbs, or sold retail as 1 lb filets similar to salmon, the majority are raised 8 months to about 2 lbs in size to be used in filets which Sunburst sells hot smoked, cold smoked, marinated in bourbon, or encrusted in hemp and grits. They sell trout any way you can imagine - trout jerky, trout caviar, trout dip, trout sausage, trout burgers, and even smoked trout tomato jam are all part of the product line, and have helped to expand Sunburst’s production.
The recent development of trout burgers is an especially good example of this ingenuity. Debuted recently when Sunburst hosted a fundraiser for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, trout burgers are the result of using the whole fish. With a value-added producer grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Sunburst was able to purchase a special machine for stripping and extracting the remaining meat off of the bones left over from the fileting process. What had been good, edible meat that had been composted as scraps, was now a source of delicious new food item and even new jobs that can be created as demand for trout burgers grows.
In the 1980’s, Dick Jennings saw an opportunity to develop a line of both hot and cold smoked trout to appeal to more sophisticated American palettes, while at the same time drawing on the Southern tradition of smoked, cured foods like pulled pork. The hot smoked trout has a flaky texture, while the cold smoked is more succulent like lox. Dick traveled to Europe to seek out traditional European smoking techniques, and thanks to his fluent French was able to befriend French trout farmers. They were smoking larger trout with similar methods as the traditional Scandinavian smoked salmon, but with a milder flavor. Sunburst added the nuances of spices, smoke from native hardwoods like red oak for cold smoking and hickory for hot smoking, and even local grapevine clippings to enhance the flavor of their smoked trout. More recently, as larger trout (3 to 4 lbs) are now being raised on farms, Sunburst has introduced a cold-smoked Scottish Trout similar in appearance to salmon, but milder and more delicate. Premium Portion-Cut Cold-Smoked Filets are also sold in 4 ounce sizes, and larger Cold-Smoked sides, generally in grocery stores.
Sunburst recently worked with another USDA cost-share grant to purchase a computerized smoker from the smoked salmon mecca of the Pacific Northwest. This new device is much more precise, consistent, and efficient than their previous smoker, which often resulted in up to 25% of the product being overcooked and too dry. The new smoker regulates the humidity and temperature to be just right, adds the correct amount of wood chips as needed, and the result after 6 to 7 hours steadily raising heat (up to 175 degrees) is trays and trays of perfectly hot-smoked trout.
Since 2002, as the trend toward sustainably-produced American caviar continues to grow, Sunburst has introduced a line of Exotic Rainbow Trout Caviar. The bright orange eggs are harvested regularly and yield a subtle caviar taste that is less salty than caviar traditionally harvested from sturgeon. This helped to boost Sunburst’s coverage in the food media, with coverage in magazines such as Food and Wine, Bon Appetite, Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Garden & Gun, the Local Palette, and Forbes.
Sunburst operates according to a minimum waste, cradle-to-cradle production model, in which even their scraps are turned into something useful. Every scrap of fish is composted every day in a series of bins and windrows enhanced by sawdust to spur the growth of natural bacteria forms which breaks down the tissue leaving only beneficial minerals and nutrients. Native Americans who buried a whole fish when they planted their crops learned a thing or two by observation – fish makes an excellent natural fertilizer with nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and trace minerals. Each spring local farmers and gardeners buy the compost from Sunburst for a nominal fee, hauling it by the truckload, and completing the cycle of nature by returning trout to the soil as food for plants.
What’s next for Sunburst? Expanding production, diversifying its product line, while retaining its high standards for quality. The family is currently developing an aquaculture and processing facility in the nearby historic textile town of Waynesville, NC. According to current plans, the current trout farm location will be redesigned to include a hatchery, as it was up until 1985, and the trout will be shipped via live haul truck (8,000 lbs at a time) to the new facility where they will be kept for 4 days prior to processing on site. This system will allow Sunburst to better control its supply of young fish (rather than relying on a network of hatcheries) while also bringing economic life back into a town that was hit hard by the globalization of the textile industry. As mountain tourism continues to grow in Western North Carolina, visitors to Waynesville will be able to take the Sunburst Trout Farm tour, seeing every step of how these fine semi-wild foods are made, from stream to plate.
Sunburst Trout Farms
128 Raceway Place
Canton, NC 28716
Phone: (828) 648-3010
Where to Buy:
Regional Grocery Stores: Earthfare, Ingles
Food Co-ops: Weaver Street Market (Chapel Hill, NC)
Specialty Food Stores in Western NC and eastern TN
Asheville City Market, NC
Restaurants: (300+ restaurants in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast)