Lehigh Valley trout farm finds new success supplying top restaurants
The third-generation trout farm has been a successful supplier to sport fishing clubs since 1950 is now serving Philadelphia restaurants.
BANGOR, Pa. — A constellation of shadows darted and swirled beneath the placid surface of the Green-Walk Creek. And then Ty Bartosh showed up with a scoop and feed barrel and started raining down food. The leaf-dappled water reflecting a clear, blue autumn sky suddenly erupted into a churning froth as 4,000 ravenous rainbow trout attacked their meal with a frenzy one might mistake for a school of piranhas.
“Our fish are known as lively,” says Bartosh, 44, the third generation owner of Green-Walk Trout Hatchery in Northampton County near the foothills of the Poconos. “When you hook ‘em you think they’re bigger than they are. They’re firm and muscular because they swim in currents.”
He lifted a weighty net filled with a writhing, slippery tumble of iridescent fish before he let them leap back into the water like a proud papa showing off: “I raised them all from eggs and bred their parents, too. Been with them 24/7 their whole lives. I love my fishies.”
That feisty spirit, combined with the family’s passion for their craft, has made this trout farm a successful supplier to sportfishing clubs since 1950, when Bartosh’s grandfather Raymond “Mouse” Williams and his brother, Charlie, built their first five ponds fed by the sand spring headwaters of the creek and artesian wells on 60 acres of wetlands fringed with poplar, red oak, hickory, and birch trees.
It has grown to 300 acres over the decades with an intricate network of 80 ponds teaming at any given time with 300,000 brookies, browns, rainbows, and hybrid tiger trouts. But as the sportfishing industry began to lag, due to the distractions of technology and regulations, Bartosh has looked to diversify. Over the past three years, he’s found an eager audience for his fish in the restaurant worlds in and around New York and Philadelphia.
“It’s the closest thing I’ve had to a wild trout,” says Sean Weinberg of Malvern’s Restaurant Alba, where I recently ate a crispy-skinned grilled brown trout over escarole with brown butter vinaigrette, hazelnuts, and blueberries. “We’ve had farmed trout on the menu before, but these fillets are much meatier, with better fat content, and a flavor that’s just another level.”
‘It tastes fresh — just like the water’
His enthusiasm is shared by many.
“It’s really one of the best Pennsylvania products I’ve come across in a long time,” says Nicholas Elmi of Laurel where, before its recent winter shutdown due to the coronavirus, he was grilling then steaming the trout inside cedar wood sheets.
“It tastes fresh — just like the water — and there’s a cleanness to it,” says Anthony Andiario, who dangles the fish over the wood-fired smoky hearth of his eponymous West Chester restaurant. “A lot of farmed fish has an iron-y, unclean flavor. These have no impurities. They’re special.”
Weinberg first noticed Green-Walk’s fish on the Instagram feeds of Michelin-starred New York destinations like Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Acquavit, and Gabriel Kreuther, the market where Bartosh started his restaurant push after an introduction from Daniel Leiber, who grows squab and rabbits at nearby StarDust Farm in Pen Argyl.
With at least half a dozen Philadelphia-area chefs now regular customers — at least, until the recent indoor dining shutdowns due to COVID-19 — restaurants have quickly become 50% of Green-Walk’s income, consuming about 600 fish a week.
The transition, though, hasn’t been seamless. Aside from the dramatic difference in the rhythm of production, with weekly demand now from restaurants versus the three-month burst for spring sportfishing, Bartosh has had to reconcile with a new role: executioner.
“I didn’t know if I could kill them,” he said. “Because I grew them all from an egg and a lot of my fish end up at catch-and-release clubs where they go on to live an awesome life. But we raise them with love and harvest them with respect ... if you can kill respectfully.”
“My fish don’t suffocate in an ice bath. They swim until their last breath,” he says, showing me the heavy, metal hand tool he uses to thump the fish for an instant death inside the steel shipping container beside the creek that he’s converted into a USDA-certified kitchen.
A larger kitchen is being built to expand Bartosh’s food service efforts (including a coming line of smoked fish), as his reluctance has been allayed by the artistry and kindred passion he sees in the chefs he sells to: “I’ve learned so much from these chefs.”
His knowledge of raising fish, he said, is a birthright passed down from his mother, Jacqueline Bartosh, who’s now retired at 73 but still puts on her boots to catch fish in the ponds during egg season in late September, when they gently remove egg sacks by hand without hurting the fish, and transfer them to the hatchery, where they’re mixed with milt from the males and left to mature for 40 days.
Ella, 16, one of Ty and Carly Bartosh’s three children, has taken on the responsibility of learning to care for the baby fish in the hatch house, cleaning the tanks, monitoring the pumps that oxygenate the water, and feeding the tiny fish that emerge and eventually become fingerlings that can graduate to the raceways fed by an artesian well.
“When there’s three generations of our family working together in the water,” says Bartosh, “that’s when all the hard work pays off.”
It can take more than a year or more, depending on the breed, before the fish have reached maturity to be sold at 11- to 14-inches long.
“There’s no rush in fish,” says Bartosh. “They feel our steps coming alongside the ponds. And if I’m pushing them too hard, they feel that and they suffer. The fish tell us what they need and they dictate our day.”
That’s why Bartosh refuses to crowd his ponds, which flow with water from the creek and are stocked at levels he estimates are 20% capacity of competitors out West that farm fish for food.
Green fish farming
“I understand the balance between environment and economics, and I’m an environmentalist,” he says. “I could raise a million fish a year here [as opposed to his current pace of 100,000], but the quality would go down and the pollution would go up. When the water leaves our facility, I take pride in it being clean. I’m the steward of this land and I’ll be here until the day I die.”
Bartosh has ambitious plans to increase the farm’s environmentally green practices, with an energy-generating water wheel already installed and plans for more micro-hydro turbines to generate enough electricity to power all the farm’s vehicles.
“This has been a 70-year project,” he says, “and I want my legacy to be renewable energy for the next generation.”
The chefs, in turn, regard Bartosh’s care for fish and family enterprise as a key reason why his trout taste so good.
“It’s beautiful up there and he has it down to a science,” says chef Randy Rucker, who smokes the roe and pickles and grills the meat at River Twice. He visited Green-Walk with his new neighbors, the chefs of soon-to-open Ember & Ash on East Passyunk. “I’ve been looking for that [quality of] product since I got here [from Texas]. I’d never bothered with farmed fish because they often have a nasty cardboard flavor from sitting in stagnant water. But these taste of flowing water, like wild fish.”
The only problem, says Rucker, is that Bartosh’s trout arrive “almost too fresh,” still stiff from rigor mortis before it then relaxes, and the meat’s proteins begin to tenderize and enhance the flavor. Numerous chefs suggested dry-aging Green-Walk’s trout for three to seven days in a walk-in, among them Elmi, who dips the fish in beeswax to let them age without losing moisture.
Green-Walk’s trout isn’t available yet for retail, although Bartosh says they’re considering a food truck to sell fried trout bits, smoked fish, and raw trout on day trips to Philly and New York.
For the moment, though, the recent transformation of this 70-year-old family business into the restaurant world has been rewarding enough. Although, as with many wholesale purveyors, he says it’s been an emotional roller-coaster to watch his friends in industry struggle with the pandemic.
“The fish don’t know the difference. They don’t know what COVID is,” he said. “So we continue to give them more space and continue to feed them, and I’m going to have some beautiful trout when everything subsides. Hopefully there will be restaurants left to take them.”