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Tank To Table: Sturgeon Caviar From North Carolina

Editor's Note: The headline has changed this story was posted. The original headline said this was the only farm harvesting sturgeon caviar in North America. That is not the case. A similar statement has been stricken from the text below.

The Yadkin River is by no means a tributary of the Caspian Sea. About the only thing the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Black Sea have in common is the reference to color in their names. And yet, in Caldwell County, you’ll find the only farm on the continent that produces one of the world’s most expensive delicacies. 

Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News
Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon's facility in Happy Valley, near the outskirts of Lenoir.

The farm is an anonymous compound of long red sheds nestled behind a cornfield on the outskirts of Lenoir just off Indian Grave Road. "This is the last place you’d expect to find a sturgeon farm right?" jokes Elisabeth Wall.

And she's right. Yet this is a fish farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

"If it's not from sturgeon it's not caviar," says Wall, who runs marketing and sales for Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon. The company was dreamed up by four friends back in 2000. "One of them was a cargo pilot. And he was flying in and out of Russia where he would refuel his jets and also himself on a little bit of caviar."

But, says Wall, he was more than just a consumer. He was also a realist and a conservationist who saw what over-fishing and the dramatic jump in caviar production after the fall of the Soviet Union would create. "He could see that pretty soon most of the fish were going to be endangered. And today all sturgeon are."

Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News
The interior of the fish farm.

In 2005 the U.S. government banned the import of caviar from the Beluga sturgeon, the most expensive and sought after kind. It was the same year Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon broke ground on their facility.

The first thing you notice about a sturgeon farm - it’s really dark. "You’re eyes will adjust," Wall reassures. "We keep it dark in here mainly for heat and cooling and also to keep them from going into spawn."

The second thing you notice are the 32 giant corrugated metal tubs. The fish tanks. Each of which is covered by what looks like a giant hair net. "The nets are here because the sturgeon are huge jumpers," says Wall, "In the wild they’ve been known to jump up onto the decks of sailing ships."

They have around 20,000 sturgeon in these tanks from three different breeds - Atlantic, Siberian and Russian. And any one of them could pack a wallop. Sturgeon date back to pre-historic times.  Some of these armor-plated dinosaur era fish grow to five or six feet long.

Elisabeth Wall says the cash cow of this farm is the Russian sturgeon which produce a type of caviar known as osetra. "It's probably comparable to beluga caviar in the world of people who know caviar."

But unlike the banned beluga, this caviar is available and, they say, completely sustainable. They buy the eggs from a sustainable farm in Germany. When the sturgeon hatch they do so in a closed water system that circulates well water through the tanks. "So it's all natural, North Carolina Blue Ridge pristine mountain water." Which, Wall says, is more environmentally friendly and creates better tasting caviar.

Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News
The tanks are covered by what look like giant hairnets.

The fish, of course, have to eat. Sturgeon are bottom feeders so they’re fed with pellets that fall to the bottom of the tanks. They go through 50 pounds worth per day, per tank.

Anything that eats well, produces waste. The fish waste is filtered and used to fertilize nearby corn fields.

And each fish is tagged for tracking as well as for study. North Carolina State is a partner in the farm. The school studies the sturgeon as they grow to learn all they can about one of the most mysterious types of fish on the planet.

But eventually all things must end, especially if you’re a mature sturgeon on a caviar farm.

That’s when they’re moved into what’s known as the staging area. Wall thinks of it as a "little hospice for fish."

One by one the fish are harvested, weighed, washed, the meat cut into filets or bullets, packaged and sold to restaurants. "One of my biggest buyers," says Wall, "is Lincoln Restaurant in New York at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center."

Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News
Caviar ready to be sealed into its tin.

The precious eggs separated out. The impurities plucked out by a steady hand and a good set of tweezers. The caviar is then lightly salted by weight and packed in a tin. The caviar here deemed of such quality that famous purveyors like Petrossian of Paris carry North Carolina caviar.

And Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon has a ton to sell. Literally, says Wall after she does a little math, "It’s 2.2 pounds per kilo and we’re looking at about 1000 kilos for 2015."

With a sticker price of $80 an ounce for much of their caviar. Still, this fish farm has yet to make a profit. It takes seven years to raise a female sturgeon. This harvest is only their third. But the demand for farmed caviar continues to rise. And more and more stores are looking to sell it. This month Whole Foods stores across North Carolina started selling caviar from this farm under the Caviar Star brand.

Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.