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 November 19, 1999

Despite anonymity, Cline Trout states’s largest private producer

BOULDER — Quietly tucked away behind the San Lazaro trailer park at the corner of Valmont and 55th streets, Cline Trout Farms is one of Boulder’s best-kept business secrets.

Although this family-owned company has been in continuous operation since 1946, few people know that a trout farm exists in Boulder, let alone where to find it.

Despite its anonymity, Cline Trout Farms is Colorado’s largest private producer of trout. The company was founded by brothers Kenneth and Art Cline who came home from World War II looking for something to do. Since 1979, the business has been run by Kenneth Cline’s sons Ken and Steve.

The Clines primarily raise rainbow trout, but they also produce brook trout, brown trout, Snake River cutthroat trout, cut-bow trout (a cutthroat-rainbow hybrid) and a golden-colored rainbow trout that looks more like an exotic species from a tropical lagoon than a Colorado species.

The trout hatch from eggs and milt collected from the resident brood stock. The recently hatched trout, called fry, are transferred from small hatching trays to progressively larger indoor raceways (long, rectangular holding tanks that receive a constant flow of fresh spring water). When the hatchlings are big enough to travel, most of the fish are transported in special oxygenated tanker trucks to one of Cline Trout Farms’ other locations and put out to pasture for a couple of years in long outdoor raceways.

In 1979, Ken and Steve doubled their trout farming operations with a second facility in Monte Vista. The expansion continued in 1983 with a new trout farm on a 600-acre parcel adjacent to the Niobara River in Valentine, Neb., and a site in Broadwater, Neb., in 1988. “Since then, we’ve increased our operations through a network of leases and contract-grower arrangements,” says Cline Trout Farms President Ken Cline. The Clines currently operate four sites in Colorado and five in Nebraska.

Like most trout farmers in the state, 99 percent of the Clines’ business comes from stocking fish for recreational use.

“We tried raising food-fish in the past, but we don’t have the economy of scale to compete in that market,” Cline says.

According to Jim Rubingh of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, 90 percent of the rainbow trout raised for food in the United States come from three big facilities in Idaho.

“Most of our customers are homeowners associations, fishing clubs, fish-out ponds like Trout Haven in Estes Park and individual pond owners,” says Cline. “We also do some work with counties and municipalities that have recreational fish programs and a few Indian tribes in northern New Mexico. Last winter we also sold some fish to agencies in Kansas, Oklahoma and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.”

But of them all, Cline’s most interesting clients are the pond owners.

“We sell fish to lots of individuals who just want to have the trout around as pets. If you’ve got a backyard pond, then you’ve got to have something in it. And if the fish respond to you, that’s even better. They feed them every day and get to watch them as they come up and hit the food on the surface and splash around,” Cline says.

The fish are sold by volume — how much water they displace in the transportation trucks — not by weight or size. “We know how much water it takes to fill the trucks to a certain level, then we add the fish until the tanks are full and do the math. We make the assumption that fish weigh as much as the water,” Cline says.

Although there are about 30 other private trout growers in Colorado, Cline Trout Farm’s biggest challenge comes from regulation, not competition. Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) efforts to control whirling disease — a parasite-induced malady that destroys the cartilage skeleton and nervous system of juvenile trout — can also destroy a trout farmer’s livelihood.

“One of the reasons there’s isn’t more competition is the death penalty that hangs over the industry,” Cline says. “Whirling disease could wipe us out in a second if the DOW decided we couldn’t stock because they found a spore on our facility.”

Fortunately all of the Clines’ operations have tested negative for whirling disease, and all other diseases, since the DOW first started checking for whirling disease in 1987.

“One of the biggest problems with whirling disease is that it can be transmitted by waterfowl as well as infected fish,” says Ted Smith, president of the Colorado Aquaculture Association.

Perhaps Cline Trout Farms’ best insurance against whirling disease is the use of ground water instead of surface water at all nine facilities. “It’s just better water to raise trout in because of the temperature and the absence of all sorts of protozoa, parasites, bacteria, pollution — not just whirling disease,” says Cline.

Despite such threats, Cline Trout Farms continues to grow and prosper. “This used to be a one-family operation, now we support lots of families,” Cline adds. Today Cline Trout Farms has 12 full-time employees. That number swells to 18 with seasonal help in the summer.

“If business was that good, we’d all be on the beach in Mexico right now,” Cline says. “But it has been a way to provide a living over the years.”

Thirty years ago, the trout farm only brought in $50,000 a year — less than five percent of Cline’s current earnings. “Now, we bring in over $1 million a year,” says Cline.

BOULDER — Quietly tucked away behind the San Lazaro trailer park at the corner of Valmont and 55th streets, Cline Trout Farms is one of Boulder’s best-kept business secrets.

Although this family-owned company has been in continuous operation since 1946, few people know that a trout farm exists in Boulder, let alone where to find it.

Despite its anonymity, Cline Trout Farms is Colorado’s largest private producer of trout. The company was founded by brothers Kenneth and Art Cline who came home from World War II looking for something to do. Since 1979, the business has been run by Kenneth Cline’s sons…

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