Julia: Your father started this trout farm. Why trout?
Sally: Dad came from Pittsburgh to his grandfather’s land in western North Carolina when he was a child. It got in his blood. He left Yale after one year and headed south to try his hand at trout farming. Why? He loved the outdoors and the idea of farming on this beautiful land.
Back then, he raised fish for stocking purposes. Now, we raise fish for upscale restaurants with discerning chefs across the country, as well as high-end grocery stores/markets.
JS: Did you always know you would end up in the family business?
SE: Not at all. I was a pediatric nurse on maternity leave after my third child when Dad asked me to come help him with payroll; his bookkeeper had quit without notice. That was the fall of 1985, thirty years ago. I’ve been here ever since.
JS: It must be exciting to see your fish re-imagined in so many different ways. What are some of the best interpretations you’ve had?
SE: With over four hundred chefs serving our trout across the country, it’s difficult to name one favorite, but I can name a couple. One would have to be a dish prepared by my good friend, Katie Button, at her restaurant Cúrate, in Asheville. It’s called “Esqueixada de montaña”, a local version of a classic Catalan dish. It uses Sunburst Farms trout sliced thin and served raw with tomato fresco, black olive, sweet onion, and lemon vinaigrette.
Another would be when Jacques Pepin came to do a “Chefs Afield” series with Sunburst in 2004. After the shoot, he cooked for my whole family. He served trout stuffed with herbs, preceded by a crisp potato pancake slathered with crème fraiche and “iced” with a ridiculous amount of Sunburst Trout caviar.
JS: When did you create the whole operation at Lonesome Valley? Was the high-end hospitality business something that comes naturally to you?
SE: Lonesome Valley was my Dad’s original trout farm. It wasn’t until 2006 that my siblings and I made the decision to develop with an environmental conscience, which segued into an opportunity to incorporate high-end dining into the property. It was a natural transition.
JS: Can you explain your aquaponics venture? How is it the wave of the future?
SE: In the last two years, my children have taken over the function of managing Sunburst Trout. I started “Sunburst Chef and Farmer” with my former research and development chef from Sunburst, Charles Hudson. The new company is not connected to Sunburst Trout, but we did borrow the “Sunburst” name to draw the connection to our longtime association with the food world.
Sunburst Chef and Farmer is an aquaponics company which will farm fish and plants symbiotically. The system uses 90% less water than terrestrial farming, and the grow period is much shorter. A nitrification process transforms fish waste into usable nitrogen for the plants. It is compact, can be done vertically, and sets up indoors. It’s the most efficient way to farm. Aquaponics is reducing the risk factor of farming in a way we’ve never seen before.
JS: What do you do when you are not working?
SE: My work doesn’t feel like work – when I am working, I am playing at what I enjoy most. But I do love to run, to read, and to travel.