State’s trout farms see some growth but face challenges

earthWeather challenges and unchecked predators are limiting the growth of Virginia’s small trout farming industry, according to one trout farm operator.

The annual trout production report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on March 6 found Virginia’s dozen or so trout farmers saw a slight increase in revenue in 2014, but there are significant barriers to future expansion.

“The trout industry is not going to expand much in Virginia, but that’s due to a lack of resources, not a lack of demand,” said Bryan Plemmons of Rockbridge County, who owns four trout farms and serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Aquaculture Advisory Committee. “Trout require a very unusual set of circumstances to farm. You have to have an abundant supply of cold, clean, flowing water. Those resources don’t exist in many places, and where they do land has become very expensive.”

The USDA reported the value of trout sold in Virginia in 2014 was $1.48 million, up from $1.36 million the year before. Nationwide the value of trout sold in 2014 was $102.5 million, up from $97.4 million in 2013. The USDA found 48.2 million trout were sold in 2014, up from 41.2 million the previous year. Virginia trout farmers sold 430,000 fish in 2013 and 480,000 in 2014.

“That’s in response to better precipitation,” Plemmons explained. “We’ve gone through almost two decades of extreme drought conditions in the mountains, except for the past two years. A lot of trout production in Virginia is sold for recreational fishing. People have to have water to put them in, and streams have been pretty dry in the fall.”

Virginia trout producers saw their losses grow from 224,000 to 394,000 fish, mostly due to predators. Plemmons cited herons as just one problem predator. “We’re seeing an increasing number of eagles,” he said. “We have four farms, and every operation has their resident eagles. Also mink and otters seem to be on the increase. And we’re seeing an increasing number of bears visit our farms.”

Trout farmers fence streams and ponds, and Plemmons said they’ve added electric fences in some places. But many times a bear just crashes through a fence or climbs a tree to get over it. And eagles are federally protected.

“We’re not like other farmers, where we can legally remove our predators,” Plemmons said. “We cannot kill eagles. We can get damage permits to remove bears, but that’s not easy. They’re nocturnal and range widely.”


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