BUHL • With a 10 year lawsuit over water rights out of the way, Clear Springs Foods has expanded its operations by at least 15 percent in the last 10 months, said Larry Cope, the company’s president. As the rainbow trout giant calibrates its expansion efforts, worries over below average precipitation in the Magic Valley has Cope’s eyes on this winter’s snowpack.
Clear Springs already produces roughly 70 percent of the nation’s commercial trout product and is now on track for upping that to 90 percent, said Lt. Gov. Brad Little last week at the hatchery’s corporate headquarters.
“Our company is doing well, it’s growing,” Cope said. “We’re looking to expand our international footprint. We have partnership arrangements with southern Chile, a family owned business down there. They do the same thing in southern Chile that we’re doing here.”
A 10-year lawsuit between local farmers, Clear Springs and the state was settled in December, allowing Cope to focus his energy on the company’s expansion. Since then, Clear Springs bought Clear Lake Farm, around a three million trout production facility, and picked up a long-term lease agreement with Rim View Trout Farm in Wendell, he said.
“For us to have this issue removed from us gives us an opportunity to focus on our business and be engaged. …It gives us a better ability now to really become engaged in long-term strategic management for the growth of our business,” Cope said.
But it hasn’t been all roses. Below average precipitation this year from last in the Magic Valley has Cope raising his eyebrows. The hatchery is dependent on the Lake Erie-sized East Plane Aquifer and this year’s snowpack will be vital to water levels, he said.
“I expect next year’s spring flow to be worst than this year,” he said. “This region needs a good snowpack this winter. If we don’t get it, it’s not going to just effect spring users, it will effect everybody.”
Regardless of what this winter brings, Cope said it would take several more years of water loss to affect the way he steers the helm of the massive fishery.
“Our business relies entirely on the water springs into the canyon. Water for us is the lifeblood of our business and for the rainbow trout industry in the valley,” he said. “Water is the lifeblood of our economy to a great extent. All of our ag industry is connected within the use of water.”
Clear Springs provides trout to 650 customers worldwide including restaurants and retailers, including Sysco, one of the world’s largest food distributors.
Cope is credited with much of the hatchery’s expansion over the last 15 years. In the early 2000s he turned the company’s ownership over to its 370 employees. Clear Springs is one of the only employee-owned food corporations in the Magic Valley, Cope said.
Cope said the move saved Clear Springs from foreign control.
“You would have had someone working at a desk in Europe, in this case it would’ve been a Dutch company and a Norwegian company. Decisions would have been made 5,000 miles from here.”
Being employee owned, Cope says, keeps dollars in Idaho and strengthens synergy within local agriculture.
So, how did the nation’s largest trout producer wind up in a desert?
“To my knowledge there is nothing else on Earth that equates to how well (the East Plane) fits to trout farming. The volume and quality of the water and consistency of the flows is remarkable. It’s a resource that needs to be protected,” Cope said.