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  • Norfolk Farms

Den Besten goes from fish out of the water to rising tide of smoked rainbow popularity

Updated: Apr 25

Hank Den Besten
Hank Den Besten stands in front of the finishing pond at his family’s 25-acre trout farm. In between Den Besten and the pond is a smaller area where fish are captured prior to processing.

Henk Den Besten transitioned from hogs through a virtual fish out of the water in the trout farming business, to a rising tide of farmers’ market popularity for his smoked fillet recipes.

“Ninety per cent (of customers) are the same people who come every week or two weeks,” he smiled recently at his Langton-area (244 11th Concession Road) property.

Farming or smoking fish were not on Van Besten or his wife Wilhemina’s minds when they emigrated from Holland to a hog farm near Brownsville in 1998. However, depressed industry prices through the final five of 13 years in that endeavour encouraged consideration of other options. In 2011 they plunged into trout farming, purchasing their current 25-acre farm from its previous owner, who Den Besten says was looking to retire.

Smoked Trout in Package
Henk Den Besten produces between 90 and 100 pounds of smoked trout fillets three times daily, twice a week in his on-farm smoker.

Its attributes include a fast-running stream, whose water was sourced for fingerling to fillet rainbow trout production. In basic terms, water is pumped into a tank to allow sediment to settle before being re-routed through an indoor raceway or onward to an outdoor pond.

The sequential progression of successive crops of three-to-five-centimetre-long ten to 12-gram rainbow trout fingerlings to two-point-five to three-pound market-ready fish takes around 15 months. They are started inside in part for protection against natural predators including birds, before graduating to an estimated point-four of an acre pond, protected by a mink-proof fence.

Henk Den Besten, pictured here adjacent to his indoor raceway where rainbow trout fingerlings are housed, shows off the feeders which fish are trained to operate.

They are fed pellets, most recently sourced from Nature Feeds in Burgessville, trained to swim past and interact with a ball submerged below feeders mounted on a bridge over the pond. The feeders are carefully calibrated to release enough to satisfy fish’s appetites, without excessive waste. Fish manure sinks to the bottom, with their habitat drained, cleaned and washed out on a regular schedule.

Although generally healthy, fish must be constantly monitored, says Den Besten.

“You are looking and looking and looking.”

Keeping water moving and at the right temperature - cool enough - is key to fish well-being, farmed rainbow trout preferring a water temp of between 15 and 16 degrees Celsius, said Den Besten. When it’s too cold, fish will head to the bottom and not eat, resultantly not putting on production weight. However, if their water is too warm, fish need more space, and ultimately, too much heat or little space can prove fatal.

If problems do arise, fish veterinarians can be sourced from the University of Guelph.

“It’s very expensive,” says Den Besten, who administers any necessary medication within a combination of feed and vegetable oil. He has however, been fortunate to keep issues to a minimum.

March and April are ideal months to ship finished fish, given their air and water temperatures, however working within a water-based farming environment through the winter can be less than pleasant.

“Every farm has problems,” Den Besten shrugged.

Den Besten uses a fish processing plant in St. Thomas, which alerts him to openings in their schedule. Fish are encouraged into a smaller area through strategic feeding, corralled and herded into a smaller zone yet, with final capture of around 300 pounds via net.

For their first couple of years, the Den Bestens sold their fish to the plant, before an experiment smoking fish for their family and friends opened a new avenue.

“They loved it,” said Henk, whose initial foray into the Woodstock Farmers’ Market expanded through a second event in St. Jacobs to seven or eight locations in total from May through October or November. They attend three in the winter months and feed a number of retail locations happy to sell smoked Den Besten product. “It’s growing and growing.”

Smoked fish is considered a delicacy by many. By rough calculation, a market-sized three-pound will yield one-half that weight in fillets, one-third of its live weight, or one pound when smoked. “That’s the reason it costs what it costs,” said Den Besten.

In the summer, he smokes 90 to 100 pounds of fillets three times a day, taking two to three hours each time, twice a week. He has the capability of smoking with gas and wood pellets, “but I like it better with wood.”

He prefers apple or birch, cut either from his own extensive bush or the orchard of a friend, but also finds cherry and oak appropriate smoke source material. Den Besten smoked trout comes in natural, maple, lemon pepper, garlic pepper, cajun and a Dutch spice flavour, the latter combining dill, parsley, mustard seed and onion.

The 68-year-old Den Besten’s fish farming experience has come full circle. Having taken over the operation from a retiring producer, wear and tear on knees and hips have taken their toll.

He has slowed down on the fish farming side of the business, although smoking and tending to a 35-head flock of breeding ewes and five milking goats for his family’s use, keep him busy.

Not too busy however, that he can’t enjoy looking back on a positive life change initiated by low hog prices, including not only satisfaction in its own right, but direct access to delicious smoked fish.

Natural and maple are his top two sellers, however Den Besten admits to a prefernce for his garlic pepper option.

“That’s the best for me.”

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