Who would have guessed a land-locked state included the largest rainbow trout farm in the world? Clear Springs Foods sits in Buhl, Idaho, beside immense rock walls. The company raises between 24-26 million pounds of trout annually. At any given time about 10 million fish thrive in their fresh water facilities.
I flew to Idaho to participate in Taste Idaho, a culinary tour that I assumed would include a lot of potatoes. It didn’t. What’s that they say about making assumptions? This year the potato harvest came early, so the fields were clear of potatoes. But I did learn a lot about agricultural operations and visited a beef and dairy farm, wineries, a fruit ranch, and a trout farm.
A natural phenomenon occurs at the walls of Snake River Canyon creating an ideal situation for trout farming. Heavy winter snows in the Tetons area melt in the spring, thus filling a massive underground lava rock aquieir –the size of Lake Erie. The fluid works its way southwest via gravity and emerges at Buhl in a gushing roar of pure, oxygenated water at a constant temperature of 58 degrees. Since those are the exact environmental conditions trout prefer, this location makes the most perfect spot on earth to raise Rainbow Trout.
No surprise then that trout operations in the area date back to 1928, however, Clear Springs was founded in 1966. The company now manages the entire production process from selective breeding to growing, harvesting, cleaning, deboning, packaging and distributing nationwide.
I toured parts of the plant, seeing labs used for testing and the breeding area which felt a little like walking into a science fiction movie. Although trout typically spawn in the fall, by careful selection and specialized lighting to adjust the length of day, Clear Springs can stagger the normal spawning cycle to provide a continuous supply of eggs year ’round. The eggs are placed in incubators where they are bathed in spring water for about ten days until they hatch. The young fish (called fry as in small fry) are then transferred to indoor ponds to continue their growth. When they reach three inches in length, they’re moved to outdoor ponds. Here they are nurtured for up to an additional year until they reach a typical market weight of 16 to 28 ounces.
The outdoor pools are alive and thriving. I heard flapping fish tails and saw lots of splashes. You feel like you could throw in a net and catch enough food to feed an entire town. My favorite part of the tour was the underwater viewing window that gives you a peek into a trout’s world.
All ponds are constantly inventoried and monitored for health. The fish are fed a consistent diet of high-quality nutrition including vitamins, minerals and protein.
At the optimal time, live trout are trucked to the nearby processing plant and placed in holding ponds. The fish then travel through computerized weighing and sorting lines and into chill tanks for about 30 minutes. They are then packaged as “Dressed Fish” meaning they still have their head, tail and fins or sent to other stations for further processing such as filleting and breading. Trout burgers, anyone?
Finally, the trout are shipped fresh or frozen in refrigerated trucks across the US. Some customers receive air shipments.
The 500,000 gallons of water per minute that flow through the farm and processing plants are closely monitored under very strict codes. The plants manage their waste by manufacturing liquid fertilizer and are non-consumptive water users. Environmentally safe and good for everyone.
Later that day, I was served some rainbow trout, courtesy of Clear Springs, at Elevation 486 in Twin Falls. The restaurant overlooks the spectacular Snake River Canyon and the famous Perrine Bridge used by B.A.S.E. jumpers. However, it was a windy day, so no one was jumping. Nonetheless, the stunning panoramic vista is worth a visit.
Disclosure: Many thanks to Taste Idaho for hosting me on this trip.