In the Tank
Brown trout thrive on a Wheelock farm
Written onJuly 03 , 2013
On a sunny spring day earlier this year, steam was pouring out of sugarhouses, calves and lambs and kids were being born, and greenhouses were teeming with plant starts. And on Curtis Sjolander’s Mountain Foot Farm in Wheelock, in the barn just behind his house, hundreds of brown trout were swimming in their large tanks, slowly growing in cold waters until they could be sold to Vermont restaurants and customers at the St. Johnsbury farmers’ market.
The Sjolanders (Curtis and his wife Joan, who’s a nurse by profession) started farming vegetables in the 1980s, but a quirk of weather brought surprise one year—and with it, an opportunity.
As Curtis describes it, “It was 1988, a drought year, and our spring stopped running. [The family relies on the spring for all of their water needs.] So it was a good time to find another, and we went looking farther up the mountain, and we found a great one. It was flowing 30 gallons a minute, and it got us through that dry summer. So I tried to think of another use for it. My father had seen an episode of UVM’s ‘Across the Fence’ about another fish farm and he thought I should do that, too. So we went to talk to the woman who ran it about aquaculture.”
Soon after, Curtis added fish to his farm, although he kept on with his career in computer programming (“to fund my farming habit,” he laughs). He put 100 fish in an outdoor pond and 100 in a tank in a shed. “I figured we’d see what would happen.” Every day, he’d go to feed and check on the fish, as any farmer would check on their livestock, but then one day he noticed there were a couple of fish missing from the pond. And then there were a few more missing, and he suspected something odd was going on. “You learn how to tell when something’s spooking them,” he says, “from their behavior when they’re fed.”
Then one day that winter he went to the pond and did a double-take: the pond was completely empty of fish. He talked to neighbors and farmers and they said that a common winter behavior of minks is to prey on fish. “They’ll take just a few fish and then when they establish that they’ve found a good supply, they’ll clean you out and put them in snowbanks to stockpile to get through the winter.” Curtis did eventually find two fish left in that pond, hiding inside the tank’s exit pipe.
Curtis began to use his observational skills and habit of careful record keeping to refine his approach. He installed 1,000-gallon tanks and then built a barn around them, learning how to deal with predators and how to balance the work required by both vegetables and fish, taking into account the different seasonal needs of each. When all three of his children were living at home, they were available to work on the farm. But as they grew and their labor became more scarce, it made sense to shift toward fewer vegetables and place a greater emphasis on fish farming, which is less labor intensive than vegetables. All three children still help, but “they’re not farmers,” Curtis says.
In 2012, Mountain Foot Farm sold more than 3,000 trout. And while that represents many years’ investment of time and resources, Curtis knows it’s well below the level of demand for locally produced fish in Vermont. Although eager chefs and grocery buyers have been clamoring for his product, he has been taking his time to scale up because he sees no reason to compromise on the quality he wants. “I’ve been raising trout for 20 years, but only at this scale for five or six. I needed to take that time to make mistakes and learn,” he explains.
He once raised rainbow and brook trout as well, but now focuses on brown. “Brown trout are more likely to survive when something goes wrong, and they’re heartier overall.” But brown trout are slower to grow than other varieties like brook and rainbow; it takes roughly three years for one of Curtis’s trout to reach the size that most chefs want.
Curtis says the steps for producing great-tasting fish are simple. “It’s cold water, aeration, and keep ‘em clean. That’s it.” But as he showed me around the barn where the fish live, it became clear that those three elements each carry their own complexity. For instance, just before I arrived, some of the gravity-fed spring water had stopped flowing into the barn, and when the water stops flowing, the temperature slowly rises in the tanks and the oxygen levels decrease. The fish can survive for a little while that way, but not too long. Curtis shook his head and laughed as he tapped on an overhead pipe. “That’s why I’ve learned to have multiple sources of water running into the tanks.”
The whole process starts in the spring, with the purchase of thousands of fertilized eggs from the Vermont State fishery in Salisbury, which provides fertilized trout eggs to Vermont fisheries and farms. The eggs are placed in hatching trays that allow oxygen-rich water to seep up through screens, mimicking the sandy environment in which trout lay their eggs in nature. Before long, the heads and tails come out, and the emerging fish live off the egg sac until it’s gone.
The fry are then moved to “fry troughs,” and from there into a series of “grow-out tanks.” Along the way, they are carefully monitored so they can be sorted by size and placed with others in the same size range. Curtis explains that because trout are carnivores, you “never want a trout that’s less than half the size of the largest in that tank or pool,” or else the larger fish tend to eat the smaller ones. But there’s another reason, too: fish grow bigger and faster when they’re with others of similar size.
The trout also eat a specialized high-protein feed made from grain, vegetable, animal, and marine products, and this feed represents Curtis’s biggest expense. He invests in more costly, higher-quality feed because it’s healthier for the fish and leads to better flavor. He also doesn’t use antibiotics in his operation.
Curtis’s attention to detail makes a difference to his customers. He says fishermen come up to his booth at the farmers’ market and say that “farmed fish don’t taste good,” compared to wild caught. His response is always the same. “I tell them that the flavor is based on what the fish eat, and that I’ll give them their money back if they get the fish home and don’t like it.” He says no one has ever come back to ask for that refund.
Michael Kloeti, chef-owner of Michael’s on the Hill in Waterbury, is a primary customer and big fan of Curtis’s product. “It’s outstanding,” he says. “It’s so fresh, so local, because he’s so close by. It’s all about freshness, and it’s fantastic that I can have something that local for people who want it. When you get the mass-produced trout, there isn’t that much flavor in there.” At the time we spoke, Curtis’s trout was being served at the restaurant with a pink lentil crust over spinach from Hazendale Farm, with bacon and a light lentil stew. Chef Michael called it ”a nice spring dish. The trout has a nice, mild flavor so you don’t want to overpower it.”
Michael is one of just two chefs to whom Sjolander sells (the farm also supplies Claire’s restaurant in Hardwick) because he’s operating at the capacity of what his current system can produce. Until he has a greater supply of fish, he lets new potential customers know they’ll have to wait a bit. He says there’s plenty of room for more aquaculture in Vermont, but he’s cautious while encouraging. “Fish farming is not easy and that’s why there’s much more demand than supply for local fish,” he says plainly. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Wow. Why don’t I go ahead and do this, too?’ ‘Please do,’ I tell them!”
Asked about his plans for the future, Curtis says he muses about doing his own breeding (an enterprise he’d find fascinating, he says, with a gleam in his eye that makes it clear he’d relish the steep learning curve). He estimates that he could double his production over the next several years and describes the infrastructure and expansion that growth would involve: protecting outside tanks from predators, and perhaps increasing the water that flows through the fishery.
Whatever Curtis does, he’s determined to keep his operation scaled to what he himself can do. “I’m just not interested in being an employer,” he says. ”I don’t do this to get rich. It makes sense to do this in a way that I can continue to enjoy. Some people succeed and are happy at scaling way up, but many more are the opposite.”
And though that’s a decision that might leave some Vermont fish lovers disappointed, that’s fine for this “small-by-design” farmer.
To try Mountain Foot Farm trout or vegetables, visit their booth at the St. Johnsbury farmers’ market, eat at Claire’s or Michael’s on the Hill, or get in touch with the farm to arrange a pickup of fish at mtnfootfarm.net.