To most people, Idaho is known for potatoes. But among fisherman, it’s known for indigenous rainbow trout. The state produces about 70 percent of U.S.-raised trout, compared to about 30 percent of the fall potato crop.
Idaho’s settlers first tried trout farming as early as 1909 in Devils’ Corral, a canyon east of Twin Falls. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that trout were first raised for consumers. Idaho became famous for rainbow trout fishing in 1928 when the water source – the Snake River Plain Aquifer – was discovered to be so salubrious for the species. The large underground lake is about the size of Lake Erie. About 15,000 years ago a great flood carved the Snake River Canyon, exposing the springs.
“Copious amounts of water come out of these springs,” said Don Riffle, vice president of sales and marketing. “The very unique thing about that crystal, clear, potable water is it’s always 58 degrees and highly oxygenated – the perfect environment for growing rainbow trout.”
The temperature is warm enough so that the fish are active and will feed, but it’s cold enough to keep them from becoming lethargic. “If the water gets too warm or too cold, they stop eating. If you keep them right in the middle, they are active, they eat, spawn and grow,” he said.
Clear Springs Foods was started by Ted Eastman in 1966. He had been in the trout industry for decades, and wanted to raise trout himself. He built a farm and raised the fish but found that he could not get an adequate price when he went to market.
“So he built a small building and started gutting fish and selling them dressed. His original intent was to be a fish farmer but he got into processing and that is how Clear Springs was founded,” Riffle said.
Today the Buhl, Idaho wholesaler is the largest single rainbow trout producer in the U.S. and the world.
The company has water rights to an allotted amount of the water each year, resulting in the raising of 20 million pounds of fish. “That’s our livelihood and our limitation in Idaho.”
BONELESS TROUT FARM
Clear Springs Foods is the only trout producer in the U.S. with its own trucking fleet. “One of the issues, being in Idaho, is that we are not exactly at the crossroads of America. We had to get our fish out of the valley and into the markets. We developed our own distribution system and added trucks, delivering to all major markets in the U.S. and most twice a week with our refrigerated and frozen delivery fleet.”
The company started delivering to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City and has created routes throughout the Northeast, the nation and North America. But even before the product gets to market, the company had to overcome a huge challenge to product acceptance.
“The most limiting factor in food service for selling rainbow trout is that people don’t like fish with bones and trout have pesky little pin bones that have to be removed to have a good eating experience with the product.”
Clear Springs Foods realized that removing bones by hand was too labor intensive. The process required mechanization so the company developed specialized equipment, known as a V-cut system, for removing pin bones. “We also took some off-the-shelf seafood processing equipment and modified it to trim the belly flaps, remove dorsal fins and other tasks,” Riffle said. “So the innovation from the processing standpoint had to do with the development of equipment. That gave Clear Springs a way to produce 100 percent guaranteed boneless trout.”
One of the company’s first customers for its butterflied, boneless rainbow trout was Denny’s back in the mid 1980s. “With the automation we could run trout at a volume to support chains the size of Denny’s,” he said. “We need to have the automation to be competitive from a labor standpoint. That has been the most recent investment to compete in a global market.”
More recently, the company has improved its material handling and packaging to improve competitiveness and minimize environmental impact.
Few seafood companies remain domestic, but this one has, employing 350 and marketing only in North America. “Clear Springs has been a survivor. We have been able to keep up with the global market, hang in there and remain competitive as a result of these innovations.”
He also noted that the company’s R&D experts and efforts have made significant contributions to the science of aquaculture over the years, including genetics.
“We offer something to the retailer that makes it as easy as possible for the person cooking that product at home,” Riffle said.
Clear•Cuts® is the brand name for Clear Springs guaranteed boneless rainbow trout fillets. Since the company sells 100 percent boneless, fresh refrigerated rainbow trout fillets, the home cook just seasons and broils, bakes or sautés them.
Clear Springs Foods (www.clearsprings.com) is also committed to resource stewardship for the future, supporting safeguards for the water quality of the Snake River Plain Aquifer, the lifeblood of the company’s living inventory and a national treasure for a century. Note that Clear Springs Foods uses – but does not consume – water. It is purified and returned to the aquifer.
“We strive to be good environmental stewards. It’s part of our culture and translates to our truck routing efficiency, our packaging, and everything we do,” Riffle said.