Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Series 1: Opening Farmer Profiles, Episode 5
I've been past the Beaverkill Trout Hatchery hundreds of times over the past 12 years. But I had no idea about the kind of operation they had until I visited trout farmer Sherry Shaver, now at the hatchery's helm. Sherry is the 4th generation of Shavers running the farm. Sherry and her family -- now two generations deep -- grow five different kinds of trout for stocking ponds and rivers, and for food. I don't really want to tell you any more... listen to their amazing story here.
If you've missed the previous four episodes, take a few minutes to binge -- a goat dairy that's right in the middle of town, a lamb farm that stars on the dinner plates at the hottest Brooklyn eateries, micro greens and the dirt that makes them grow, the conversion of a dairy farm to something new... It's all there.
And if you have any ideas, know any farmers I should meet, or have some feedback for the show, there's a new Suggestions link on the show's website where you can say what you have to say. I encourage you to do it!
Finally, sharing is caring. If you found this episode the least bit interesting, amusing or touching, share it with a friend. I am not whining, but making a podcast is a ton of work and getting it to new folks to listen is even more challenging. For now, we have thousands of new listeners in over 10 countries. Hoping to turn that into tens of thousands with your help. Share it for me if you like, but really... share it for the farmers. We should all know our farmers better. To me, they are famous. I want them to be more famous to you and to others too.
All of the music in this episode is by Lobo Loco.
All Night Long (ID 774) and Spencer Bluegrass (ID 1230)
www.musikbrause.de Creative Commons License (by-nc-nd)
Of course, the most special thanks to trout farmers Sherry Shaver and Tyler Shaver for their time (Two and a half hours of tape is crammed into a a 20-minute episode!). I thoroughly enjoyed every moment on the farm with you. And, yes, I will be back. Save me a seat at the next egg harvest!
For expert consultation, thank you to Cliff Kraft, an aquatic biologist from Cornell University, for his consult on fish behavior, and the context for hatcheries in NY state and beyond.
For editing support, huge thanks to Shia Levitt for the many hours of engaged review and good ideas.
I also recently participated in a two-day Podcast Boot Camp at Union Docs in Brooklyn, NY. Thanks to Sally Herships and Sarah Wyman for all the tips, practice and useful resources.
The following is a full transcript of the show, in case you prefer this format. If you can, listen to Sherry. She's amazing.
Talk Farm to Me, Season 1, Episode 5
Where Fishing Begins -- Beaverkill Trout Hatchery
Farm Girl (00:16):
On Talk Farm to Me, the farmer takes center stage and we find out what they do and how they do it, and no matter how you spend your time, I'm pretty sure you have more in common with farmers than you think. So sit back and relax, and I'll bring a farmer and maybe a cow or two right into your living room for a chat.
Farm Girl (00:49):
The Beaverkill Trout Hatchery is nestled on the shores of the Beaver kill river. For the past 60 years, the hatchery, a veritable fish farm has been supplying trout to these waters. Without it, there would be far fewer fish to catch here. The hatchery is just 15 miles from Main Street in the town of Livingston Manor, New York. To get there, you follow the river on a long, winding road linked with old farmhouses. On your way, you'll pass the big white house where Irving Berlin, a famous composer and lyricist lived. He was likely alluding to these local waters in his 1935 hit, Dancing Cheek to Cheek. (singing... "Oh, I love to go out fishing in a river or a creek...").
Farm Girl (01:41):
The Beaverkill River is a tributary of the Delaware River. Along its 44 winding miles, bald eagles are repopulating. Blue heron and black bear hunt here. In the water, otters play, beavers dam, and trout lurk in the cool shadows. For more than a century, fishermen have traveled here in pursuit of peaceful downtime in the great outdoors, hoping to find their own version of the fish tales that these trout have inspired.
Farm Girl (02:11):
A light blue farmhouse serves as the hatchery's headquarters. A big, red barn displays a family tree of sorts made up of wooden fish. Each one is hand carved with the names of five generations of one family who have worked in this family business. Just across the road a series of small ponds separate schools of growing trout. A larger pond invites visitors to fish in paper what they catch. There's a lot more to this farm than meets the eye. Trout farmer, Sherry Shaver, is now at the hatchery's helm. She is the fourth generation of her family to run the farm and the great granddaughter of its founder.
Sherry Shaver (02:59):
The Beaverkill Trout Hatchery was founded in approximately 1963 by Fred D. Shaver. That was my great-grandfather. We have five generations of family. Our primary business is stocking live trout, hand measured, that we have grown throughout the state of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and we do a lot of business in Connecticut to private fishing clubs, pond owners. We do a lot of kids' fishing contests. We go all the way to Lake Placid.
Farm Girl (03:40):
Recreational fishing is big business. In 2018, nearly 50 million Americans went fishing for fun, mostly in fresh water where trout live and this number is on the rise. According to the US census Bureau's most recent numbers, fishing and fishing related expenditures totaled more than $80 billion a year. $80 billion!
The key to all of this of course is the fish. If you catch a fish, you're more likely to go fishing again, and if you catch a big one, you're hooked. What most people don't realize is that both public and private fishing holes are stocked with fish that come from hatcheries.
Sherry Shaver (04:24):
Fish don't exactly stay where you put them. I mean, they travel up and down this river.
Farm Girl (04:30):
The fish stocked in the river also feeds a larger ecosystem than just the fishermen. I spoke with an aquatic biologist from Cornell University who has tracked trout with electronic transmitters, only to find the devices in a tree after an osprey ate the tagged trout for lunch.
Sherry Shaver (04:49):
We have a big predator issue with eagles, bears, otters, mink, you name it, blue herons. So the fish have a lot of competition to survive with all this stuff going on. Plus, people fish them out.
Farm Girl (05:08):
Fishing lodges, private fishing clubs and fishing instruction schools cater to folks who love to fish and will pay top dollar. Just down the road from the hatchery is a famous fly fishing school. The fish are the main attraction for the school, a local hotel, and several private fishing clubs nearby.
Sherry Shaver (05:28):
Well, the thing with these private fishing clubs, the members pay a lot of money to belong, so they want to catch fish. A lot of your, the people putting them in their ponds want to be able to fish to eat, and also, it's cheap entertainment.
Farm Girl (05:43):
75% of Sherry's business is stocking ponds, rivers, and streams. She and the next generation of her family work year round to raise hundreds of thousands of trout. It's tough work.
Sherry Shaver (05:58):
This is a very labor intensive operation. We don't just go out here and the fish jump on the truck for the fish order that's going out tomorrow. When we have an order of fish, we don neoprene waders, rubber gloves, aligners, all of the clothes you can get on because it's pretty darn cold. Then we go to catch fish, go take the a 40 foot seine. One person goes out in front of the other one to the end of the pond, turns, comes back, and we bring all the fish back with us and net the fish into our grade box where the fish are all hand measured within a half an inch of desired size. Some days we'll be catching 1,000 fish. We've caught as many as 3,000 fish in one day, all hand measured. But remember, in that process we're also handling probably 10 to 15,000, 20,000 fish to get the desired sizes.
Farm Girl (07:05):
If you're like me, you're wondering, "Where do they get all these fish?" Sherry took me on a tour of their hatch house.
Oh my God.
Inside, six long metal troughs are full of moving water.
They are teeming with hundreds of thousands of one-inch baby trout.
Sherry Shaver (07:27):
We take our own eggs from our own fish in the fall and hatch them out. We'd get in the pond, and when a female is ripe, we somewhat cradle her, and you just touch her belly and the eggs will just start to come out, and the same with the males. You kind of have to strip them to get the milt, sperm. We probably hatched out 100,000 browns, 50,000 brook trout, and 80,000 rainbows.
Farm Girl (08:00):
It's pretty common for hatcheries to use chemicals such as formaldehyde to help in the trout breeding process, but this hatchery does it the old fashioned way. For the first six weeks after the eggs are fertilized, they inspect them, hundreds of thousands of them by hand, removing any dead eggs with an eyedropper.
Sherry Shaver (08:21):
So that's quite a tedious process. There are easier ways. We kind of like the old school way, without chemicals and what have you.
Farm Girl (08:31):
At the Beaverkill Trout Hatchery, they raise five different kinds of trout, brook, brown, tiger and two kinds of rainbow. They are all good for eating, but the tiger sound like the most fun to catch.
Sherry Shaver (08:45):
The tigers are a cross between a brown female and a brook trout male. They're sterile like a mule. They get super big and they are some fighters.
Farm Girl (08:58):
I think you might be surprised at how long it takes a fish to grow to 12 inches.
Sherry Shaver (09:04):
Rainbow is a year and a half to two years. browns are the slowest, takes them all of two years.
Farm Girl (09:11):
Besides the teeny trout in the hatch house, the hatchery has older trout growing outside in more than 30 ponds and a few long cement troughs that they call concrete raceways.
Sherry Shaver (09:24):
The concrete on the flat, we have 80,000 rainbow trout right now between five and let's say nine inches. Browns, we've probably got 70,000 browns now that are between four to seven inches that we hatched last year.
Farm Girl (09:44):
Her grandfather and great grandfather started stocking fish as a side business to their main gig as dairy farmers at the request of a local fishing lodge.
Sherry Shaver (09:54):
In my eyes, they were visionaries, because how could something like this have started back in '63 as more or less a hobby and blossomed into the business that we're now running today.
Farm Girl (10:10):
Now, they are delivering over 200,000 fish to approximately 200 customers in four states and growing.
Sherry Shaver (10:19):
At the time that the hatchery started out, I mean, if they raised 10,000 fish a year probably, they raised a lot. We have an excellent reputation. Some of our customers we've had for 40 years. Our customers have watched us ride in the fish trucks with our father, grandfather, when we were kids, and now we're running the business. They can always say, "Oh, I knew you when you were just a little Shaver," and they'd be correct.
Farm Girl (10:53):
Now 58 years old, Sherry remembers her father asking her to come and work for the family business after college. As an avid horsewoman, she dreamed of running her own horse stable, but she pivoted quickly and took on the job of feeding the fish on a regular schedule.
Sherry Shaver (11:12):
I came home and my dad's like, "Will you go to work for me?" So the horses took a, kind of a back seat to the fish.
Farm Girl (11:22):
When we are in the hatch house, we take a look at the fish feed. It's 50% protein, plus vitamins and important nutrients the fish need to grow, but Sherry remembers when they used to make the fish food themselves.
Sherry Shaver (11:37):
Before we had good quality trout feed, we used to buy beef liver and grind it and feed it to the fish. It was a mess. So to make baby food, we would take the ground beef liver, mix it with water in a blender. So it was like a liver milkshake. It was awful. Awful.
Farm Girl (12:06):
Sherry's role feeding the fish on a regular schedule changed the pace of the business.
Sherry Shaver (12:12):
Once they saw that, once someone was doing all this feeding and stuff, how much growth, how much better things were becoming as far as producing the fish, things really got better.
Farm Girl (12:30):
Sherry's dad had always been her biggest inspiration. They were on the front lines of the business together for years. To her, he seemed invincible.
Sherry Shaver (12:40):
We have been through it all. We've been through floods, we've been through droughts, we've been through it all. You name it, we've been through it.
Farm Girl (12:49):
So Sherry and her family were unprepared for what came next. On March 13th, 2009 her father, Gary Shaver, died of a massive heart attack.
Sherry Shaver (13:05):
I don't know. To me, he was indestructible, and it's really tough going on without him. It really is because there's so many memories on this place. It's like when I'm driving around here, you see him here, you see him there. But he would be elated to see what we have done here since he passed away and that's, I just, that's what I do this for, is my father.
Farm Girl (14:04):
Sherry took over the day to day farming. Her mother handled the books. her brothers and cousins and their kids stepped up their involvement too. She remembers one particular day two summers ago when she looked out at the farm and marveled at what they had accomplished together.
Sherry Shaver (14:22):
We had six descendants of Fred Shaver who started this, this business working together on this farm. I thought that was just the coolest thing.
Farm Girl (14:37):
One of the younger members of the family, Sherry's 26-year-old nephew, Tyler Shaver, started working on the farm a few years ago.
Tyler Shaver (14:45):
Thank God my aunt called me. I was waiting for the call for a few years. Just, "Hey, do you want to start working at the hatchery?
Farm Girl (14:51):
Tyler has seen the family in action. His Aunt Sherry and Uncle Frank have modernized the farm with more efficient systems. Future plans include a large barn to further streamline their operations.
Tyler Shaver (15:04):
Aunt Sherry is known for doing, pulling us out of a hard spot for sure after grandpa passed away, and keeping us going through grandma passing away, and just streamlining a lot of things here.
Farm Girl (15:20):
In the last 10 years, as upscale dining options have taken hold in the local area, a new business stream has blossomed for the hatchery. Sherry says selling fish as food in addition to the more traditional stocking of rivers and ponds is now a quarter of their business.
Sherry Shaver (15:38):
Our business has blossomed into the restaurant trade. There wasn't a real big demand for what we call food fish till the past 10 years. People just weren't really into trout, and now trout being probably one of the cleanest fish that you can get, things are really, really coming around for us. We laugh and say, "Trout: The New Lobster."
Farm Girl (16:06):
Let's talk money for a minute. Stocked fish are sold by the hundreds or the thousands and range from 6 to 14 inches. Prices range from $180 per hundred fish for the smallest to $6,500 per thousand for the largest. Any way you slice it, the income is upward of $500,000 a year and growing in every category. But it wasn't always this way.
Sherry Shaver (16:35):
We've not always been this fortunate. The restaurant part of this in the wintertime is what's given us a big boost. Because 10 years prior November came, well, everything got picked up and put away. There was no income from November to March. That's pretty rough.
Farm Girl (16:58):
The history of the family business is not lost on Tyler. After some courses at a local college, he thinks about how his forefathers' story shares some parallels with Andrew Carnegie's shift from large steel ships to just selling steel.
Tyler Shaver (17:15):
Well, he went, sold off all the ships and then switched over to just doing steel, and it was just such a brilliant idea at the time. Everybody thought he was crazy, but it just turned into, he was the biggest steel manufacturer in the world at one point. I know it's not on that level, but just for my great, great grandfather to go to a different thing in the middle of all that -- there was nothing wrong with the dairy business that was going on -- or I think personally for him to see way out that far ahead and switch over was a very cool idea.
Farm Girl (17:48):
For Tyler's Aunt Sherry, the survival of the family empire their ancestors started 60 years ago depends on whether Tyler and his generation are ready to put what it takes into the future of the business.
Sherry Shaver (18:03):
See, in my eyes, I'm going to live forever. I'm indestructible. But I know sooner or later someday I'm going to have to give it up. But there's a lot that they need to learn. And no one has ever had a formal education in this trout raising business. It's always been hands on, trial and error, and learning from your mistakes.
Farm Girl (18:30):
While New York City is only two hours from the hatchery, Sherry is cautious about expanding the food fish business too quickly.
Sherry Shaver (18:38):
We really don't need to look right now for new customers. We have all we can do to keep up with what we've got and what's coming in. We are very fortunate that the Livingston Manor area is booming right now, so a lot of our business is within 30 miles of this place. I mean, I think that market will always be there, but we just don't need it. We're local. We can be local. There's a lot of money involved when you start going into New York City with fish.
Farm Girl (19:16):
Tyler is on the same page.
Tyler Shaver (19:19):
It's just not enough for us to try and go down to the city, not to mention we've got to stay within our means. You open up the city door, that's possibly thousands of, could even be breaking into tens of thousands of extra fish we've got to produce, and part of that, part of the whole expansion thing is you want to push it, but don't go over the line. Don't start trying to sell fish that you don't have.
Farm Girl (19:50):
So if you want to eat a trout that got its start at the hatchery, you'll have to catch it yourself or visit one of the area's restaurants. You can also buy a trout from the hatchery's farm stand or catch one in its fish and pay pond. It's $6 per pound for the fish you catch, but don't try to sneak one past them. Sherry and her family have seen that move before.
Sherry Shaver (20:18):
One day this lady's pocketbook was hopping off the porch because she was trying to steal fish. Ha, ha.
Farm Girl (20:26):
I have driven past the Beaverkill Trout Hatchery many times over the years. I always slow down to peek into the ponds to get a glimpse of the fish circling. Still, I was surprised by everything I learned: the quantity of fish, how the eggs are harvested, how they are raised, how long it takes, and how far the business reaches. The wooden trout mounted on the barn bearing the names of all of the Shaver family members involved stand as a testament to the Shaver family's deep commitment and pride.
Farm Girl (21:01):
Before I leave the farm, I head down to one of the concrete raceways holding hundreds of 10-inch rainbow trout. From a distance, I can see the smooth water rippling. But as I approach, it looks like it's begun to boil. I am flattered. Aw, they're happy to see me. Each one swims on top of the next to get a better position. Then I realize they're just hungry -- looking to grow another inch -- and they're hoping that I have brought them some food.
Farm Girl (21:50):
It's been great to have you along for this episode of Talk Farm to Me. Special thanks always to our farmers for talking farm and doing what they do best. For more information about this episode, including a look behind the scenes, head on over to talkfarmtome.com. This season's music is by Lobo Loco. You can find more episodes as they come out on talkfarmtome.com or subscribe to the whole season wherever you get your podcasts. Either way, please share your feedback right on the website or give us some love on iTunes. I'm your host, Farm Girl. Stay tuned for a new episode every two weeks when I bring a new farmer and maybe a cow or two right into your living room for a chat.