By Emma Castleberry
Just 20 minutes southeast of Waynesville, 16-acre Lake Logan is nestled in the Pisgah National Forest. Lake Logan is a privately held lake and no motorized boats are allowed on its surface. There is no industry or agriculture upriver from the lake—only mountains. Lake Logan is filled with cool, clear, clean mountain water, and it is in this water that the Eason family, owners of Sunburst Trout Farm, raise their fish.
“We pull water directly from the bottom third of the lake and put it into our raceway system,” says Wes Eason, co-owner with Ben and Anna Eason of Sunburst Trout Farm. Raceways are rectangular, concrete pools with 6,000 gallons of water fl owing through them every minute, simulating a river. “We divert the water that would normally pour over the dam into the river, raise the fish in it and return the water right back where it was going.”
Wes is the grandson of Dick Jennings, who started Sunburst in 1948 under the name Jennings Trout Company. “He would sell to country clubs and private properties to stock ponds so that people could go and fish,” says Eason. In 1985, Jennings was joined by his daughter Sally and her husband Steve Eason and the name was changed to Sunburst Trout Company. Sally’s and Steve’s sons, Wes and Ben, joined the company in 2001. In 2007, Ben’s wife, Anna, took over marketing and human resources duties at the company, and in 2011, the name was changed a final time to Sunburst Trout Farm. “We are very fortunate that everyone in the family has a different skill set that completes the business as a whole,” says Anna.
In the early days of the family business, Jennings hatched his own trout eggs. The hatching process requires very different equipment than raising and processing trout, so hatching was phased out in the 1970s. Now, Sunburst purchases juvenile trout from three hatcheries in Transylvania County. When the fi sh reach about fi ve ounces, they are moved to the raceways at Sunburst, where they remain until they weigh between one and a half and two pounds.
Trout are finicky creatures. “They eat best at 57 degrees,” says Eason. “When it’s colder, their systems slow down and they don’t eat much or grow. In the summer, when the water temperature is in the 70s, they won’t feed because digestion stresses their systems.” This means that the growth rate of the fish is completely out of the Easons’ control. “We are at the mercy of the lake,” he says.
This is a repeating theme at Sunburst Trout Farms. In an industry so closely connected to the natural world, natural conditions are the determining factor for almost all business operation. In the summer and fall of 2016, a regional drought caused Lake Logan to dry up considerably, with water levels 15 to 20 feet below average. “The lake looked more like a valley with a river running through the middle of it,” says Eason. “If there isn’t enough water coming through the mountains, the oxygen levels drop and the water temperature is too high. You can’t feed the fish much at all.” This means that the fish from the following season (this past summer) have missed out on about four months of growth. “Fish that should have been a pound and a half are only a pound,” says Eason. While a one-pound fish tastes the same, it causes problems for the business. The raceways hold a consistent number of fish. If all of those fish are one pound instead of two, that means Sunburst has half as much product to sell. “Nature is, by far and away, our biggest challenge,” says Eason.
But Sunburst’s loyal customers need not fear: the farm is mostly recovered from last year’s drought and the coming year looks promising. Sunburst’s primary customers are people like Katie Button, executive chef and owner of Asheville restaurants Cúrate and Nightbell. Button has been purchasing trout from Sunburst since Cúrate opened in 2011. At Nightbell, the kitchen uses both trout and trout roe from the farm. Button says that the fresh, mountain spring water in which the fish are raised “translates to the flavor of their trout and the texture of the flesh.” Button also appreciates that Sunburst makes twice weekly deliveries to restaurants within a 60-mile radius of their processing plant. “They will pull them out of the water the very morning that I receive the product. It couldn’t be fresher.”
Sunburst Trout Farms processing plant is located at 314 Industrial Park Drive in Waynesville. Their products can be purchased at Sunburst Market at 142 North Main Street in Waynesville, Monday through Sunday. For more information, visit sunbursttrout.com.