Field of Streams

By | July 11, 2012
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Wayne and Barbara Miller

Or, the Proper Way to Squeeze a Trout Grow Tropical Fruit on the Cape & Other Lessons in Farm Zen

I had no idea that the oldest trout farm in Massachusetts is less than three miles from my house. Actually I hadn’t a clue that there was a trout farm in my town at all. Since I started writing for Edible Cape Cod back in 2007, with almost every article—whether I was transporting Pekin ducks in a Saab, crushing grapes with a pizza maker in a candy store basement, judging a turnip festival or standing high atop a steamy mountain of compost—I’m always left with one commonality: a reminder that I really don’t know that much. There’s a saying that goes something like, “the more you learn the more you realize how little you know”. Well, my visit to Blue Streams Trout Farm and Hatchery on Route 149 in West Barnstable held more surprises for me than a cat falling into a fish tank—and it all started with the driving directions to the farm, which basically read, “just after the bend, follow the wooden guardrail to the red reflectors.” On my ride over I couldn’t help but wonder if this mysterious farm was simply somebody’s crazy uncle who dug a hole in the backyard and threw a few trout in it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The water at Blue Streams never freezes. In fact it’s always 52 degrees Fahrenheit. When Barnstable Harbor is depositing ice chunks onto its frozen beach during February high tides, the water at the trout farm is 52 degrees. When the summer Cape Cod heat waves are steaming Nantucket Sound—still 52 degrees. If you stick one end of a pipe deep into the ground at Blue Streams Trout Farm, more likely than not, 52 degree temperature water will gush out the other end. You don’t even need a pump—just a pipe.

The nine acre farm is built over 60 natural springs of some of the freshest water this incredibly strange planet can produce, and in 1854 those springs were tapped into with dozens of pipes that to this day deliver 700 to 800 gallons per minute of clear spring water to pristinely maintained trout runs. The runs spill into three stone ponds, which were built in the 1700s for soaking hides when the property was a leather tannery. Enjoying the runs and the ponds are currently 45,000 to 50,000 swimming and jumping gilled inhabitants.

The farm is located right on a busy route, but the traffic noise is replaced with Zen-like sounds: the gentle gurgle of water from the pipes, the soft whoosh of the tiny waterfalls and the occasional splish-splash from an overzealous trout. Adding to the dreamy feel of the property are tall blue spruce, wild blueberry bushes, long, lush beds of watercress and a main house completely surrounded by gardens that would have made Monet jealous enough to fire his landscaper. But the property wasn’t always like this. When current trout farm owners Wayne and Barbara Miller read about the property from an ad in Yankee magazine in 1988, it was a completely different scene.

“The runs were overgrown with brush and non-operational,” Wayne explained. “The hatchery was still operational, but as for the rest of it, we didn’t know what we were going to do.” But what they did do—in spite of knowledge of trout seemingly limited to a fish fork and some lemon—was bid on the property over a two-year period.

In 1990 while the Millers were both still on the Mass General staff (he was a physician and she a genetics counselor), they won the bid against a team of cardiologists from Beth Israel who were all hopped up on the omega-3 craze and its heart-healthy benefits. (Trout are known for a very high omega-3 content, so if one day you find yourself riding an elevator with someone who tells you he’s a cardiologist trout farmer, now you’ll know where he’s coming from.)

Once the Millers’ farm was transformed back to a glorious, swooshing operation, they started selling their brown, rainbow and brook trout to various Cape Cod restaurants (one restaurant worth noting was the Old Yarmouth Inn, which even installed a large trout tank in the wall so you could speed date with your entrée). Although 8000 to 10,000 pounds of trout a year produced by Blue Streams seems like a pretty strong number, larger trout farms can do those numbers daily.

“It stopped making sense for us to sell to restaurants,” Wayne said. “When you’re selling to restaurants and fish markets there are too many regulations to make it economically feasible when you have only two people running it.” And Wayne would know, as he’s been the Chair of the Barnstable Board of Health since 2003.

Now the Millers raise their trout to fill ponds and rivers at private rod and gun clubs, and ponds and brooks of private estates. Just a few days prior to our get together, the Millers stocked a pond with trout for a kids’ fishing derby, something they’ve done from Martha’s Vineyard and Wellfleet, to Milton, East Bridgewater and beyond.

“There are 1352 trout in this particular run,” Wayne said as we stood at the far end of the property. I had never been on a trout farm and wanted a closer look. “Want to know how I know there is exactly that amount?” Wayne asked? I pondered the question, feeling like my obsessive-compulsive nature was being challenged. “I counted each one by hand!” (He wins).

How a trout run works is a much simpler science than I had anticipated. If you haven’t seen a trout run, they are long, and they’re divided into sections, which are also called runs (many mini-runs make up a long run). I had always thought that the trout could move through the sections in some elaborate labyrinth of passageways, but they’re actually just sectioned off. The fish are separated by weight, which is how Wayne and Barbara know how many trout are in each run; they move every fish by hand. The average fish size at Blue Streams is about three-quarters of a pound, but Wayne and Barbara are quick to reach for the big net when they come across the occasional eight-to-ten-pounder.

In the fall spawning season, the Millers sort the females who are ready to spawn (again by hand) and they very carefully squeeze the eggs from the females’ ventral halves, and then retrieve the milt (sperm) from the males by use of the same gentle technique. The eggs are then brought to the old hatchery, which is located in the back of the property. The hatchery, with its weathered exterior adorned with hanging fishnets and a stack of lobster traps next to it, looks exactly the way an old Cape Cod hatchery should.

In the hatchery, the eggs are placed on screens above small tanks of water where they are fertilized. In 30 to 60 days the eggs hatch into small pans where they continue to develop. Once developed, the trout have to be taught to eat, which is done by sprinkling food on top of the water. When one trout figures out the feed is edible, the rest follow, but unfortunately a lot of the fish don’t make it due to natural causes. To produce 8000 to 10,000 pounds of fish, 20,000 to 30,000 fingerlings (minnow-sized trout) need to survive, and because the survival rate is about fifty percent, 40,000 to 60,000 eggs are needed to get those numbers. As the trout grow in size so does their food, a mixture of all natural soybean meal and fish oil, which ranges in consistency from sandy to a pellet.

For the lucky trout that do make it to the runs, they are treated to an existence of clean, clear running water, an all-natural diet, and a stress-free environment. “We keep the numbers of fish lower to keep them stress-free. Stress is bad for their health, and the all-natural diet creates a much cleaner waste from the fish which eliminates health problems like nitrogen bubble disease.” What happens to the occasional fish that dies while in the run? “Bait for our lobster traps; nothing gets wasted here!”

From the hatchery we walk past a beautiful garden of various herbs, plump berries grown to make jam for friends, vegetables (including horseradish) and a mini forest of the healthiest columbine I’ve ever seen. The garden is a good size, and runs the entire length of the 100-foot long by 30 foot wide hoop house just behind it. Like the trout runs, the garden is meticulously clean and flourishing, is almost completely absent of weeds, and instills in me an instant case of garden envy, which was about to get much worse.

Picking up on my hoop house curiosity vibe, Barbara leads me inside. I’m met at the entrance by a very happy looking cherry tomato plant, and as the season is still early, I’m quietly questioning how flavorful the tomatoes are. “Try one of these,” I’m told (Barbara seems a bit psychic), and sure enough that first bite released a juice so sweet I would swear it was late July. “They stay that sweet year round,” Barbara beamed. “And check out how well the pineapples are doing!” “You have a pineapple plant?” I asked. “Yep, and it’s producing beautiful fruit. And we love our banana tree!”  “You have a banana tree?” “Yes, and we grow orchids year round, aren’t these beautiful?!” “You grow orchids year round?” And on and on and on it went. In retrospect, I’m amazed that Barbara’s enthusiasm never withered during my Pulitzer-prize aspiring interview. But it truly was a site to behold—fuzzy, red chenille; long, stretchy burro’s tail; eye-popping begonia and in center court, an eight-foot Norfolk Island Pine.

“These artichokes we’re going to eat with dinner tonight, and this Meyer lemon tree we’re growing for our gin and tonics.” (I started liking these two people more and more). Walking out of the hoop house, I found myself eyeballing the Miller’s peaceful looking house, wondering why the two of them needed all that space. I began the conversation I could have with them in my head. “You know, if you rent part of your house to my girlfriend and me, we could make ourselves very useful around the property…I’m pretty sure I could squeeze eggs from a fish, and I see you’re growing pomegranates—Ali makes a great pomegranate martini! We could garden and drink gin and…”

Barbara interrupted my imaginary pitch. “Many of the plants around the property belong to friends,” she said. “They give us their plants to take care of over the colder months, and in exchange we ask them for a cutting.” We headed back up the driveway to my truck, passing bleeding hearts, azalea and something called a paw paw tree, when Wayne and Barbara stopped in front of a patch of rhubarb.

“This one we take special care of,” Wayne said. “It’s our neighbor’s great grandfather’s rhubarb.” “Great grandfather’s?” I had to make sure I heard that one right. Although Blue Streams is entirely run by the Millers alone, throughout my visit Wayne and Barbara spoke a lot about their friends, and how they all help each other out, and even rely on other trout farmers to come by and take care of things when they travel.

At the end of the day, the Millers would leave their mark on me as not only being two of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, but also two of the most personally fulfilled. As I hopped into my truck, Wayne and Barbara asked if I would come back in a few days to pick up some fresh trout to take home. Of course I would. I bid them a goodbye, and I hadn’t even passed the wooden guardrail with the red reflectors when I started conspiring again. “Okay,” I thought. “If I can’t move in, maybe I can just be their best friend.”

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