In food and agriculture, we use the phrases “pasture to plate” and “field to fork” but what’s the net to plate process?

Kevin and Stephanie Schmidt of Sunrise Salmon smoke 300 lb. batches at a time of their wild-caught Alaskan salmon at their Fergus Falls, Minn. facility. Both grew up on Minnesota farms and say their career paths went from "turf to surf" from grain and livestock farming to growing their commercial fishing family business. 
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Kevin and Stephanie Schmidt of Sunrise Salmon smoke 300 lb. batches at a time of their wild-caught Alaskan salmon at their Fergus Falls, Minn. facility. Both grew up on Minnesota farms and say their career paths went from "turf to surf" from grain and livestock farming to growing their commercial fishing family business. Submitted photo
In 2019, I visited the Fergus Falls, Minnesota, farmers market and chatted with Amy Hoffman of Hoffman Family Farms as she was selling beef. She recommended I also check out Sunrise Salmon. I did just that in June 2019 and purchased my first salmon share. For the past three summers, I’ve filled my family’s freezer with Sunrise Salmon, owned and operated by Kevin and Stephanie Schmidt of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and commercial fishermen of Naknek, Alaska.

First, I admire the Schmidt’s determination to build a unique business model by cutting out the “middlemen” in the net-to-plate process. They’re Minnesotans, originally from family farms, who catch their own wild Alaskan salmon and process it in their FDA-inspected fillet house, with the help of a team of employees they bring to Alaska with them annually.

Sunrise Salmon is owned and operated by Kevin and Stephanie Schmidt and their family includes daughters, Ruby, 9, Liesel, 6, Hattie 5, Greta, 2, and son, Finnley, 9 months. The family lives at Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and operates a commercial fishing business and FDA-inspected fillet house in Naknek, Alaska, five miles from fishing grounds. They sell their fish primarily in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. They fly eight to ten employees up to join them each summer in their fishing and processing, then bring back salmon and halibut for customers in the Upper Midwest.
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Sunrise Salmon is owned and operated by Kevin and Stephanie Schmidt and their family includes daughters, Ruby, 9, Liesel, 6, Hattie 5, Greta, 2, and son, Finnley, 9 months. The family lives at Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and operates a commercial fishing business and FDA-inspected fillet house in Naknek, Alaska, five miles from fishing grounds. They sell their fish primarily in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. They fly eight to ten employees up to join them each summer in their fishing and processing, then bring back salmon and halibut for customers in the Upper Midwest. Submitted photo
I picked up my 2019 salmon share from Kevin, 32. I’ve never met Stephanie, 31, who juggles their five kids, ages 9 months to 9 years old, and homeschooling while also working in their family business. The past two years they’ve dropped off my salmon order with my husband at our family business, which is a pickup location for others in our North Dakota area. They also sell Alaskan halibut which I look forward to trying in future years.

Sunrise Salmon is the most flavorful salmon our family has ever eaten. I’ve nearly quit ordering salmon in restaurants and now prefer the salmon I prepare at home. I share filets with my in-laws and parents and bake or grill the salmon year-round, breaking up my usual home-cooked meaty meal rotation.

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Last year, my mom prepared Sunrise Salmon on Christmas Eve alongside the family Norwegian heritage tradition of lutefisk. As I thought ahead to the holiday meals coming up, I reached out to Kevin and Stephanie with questions and asked to feature their answers to share with you in this column.

The "net to plate" process for Sunrise Salmon cuts out the middlemen of distribution of wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Kevin and Stephanie Schmidt and their employees catch the fish annually in Bristol Bay, Alaska, process and filet it and return to Minnesota to distribute the fish in the region. 
Submitted photo
The "net to plate" process for Sunrise Salmon cuts out the middlemen of distribution of wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Kevin and Stephanie Schmidt and their employees catch the fish annually in Bristol Bay, Alaska, process and filet it and return to Minnesota to distribute the fish in the region. Submitted photo
Stephanie in a recent phone call told me she and Kevin went from "turf to surf" in their careers.

Kevin’s background includes a carpentry degree with experience in grain farming with his family and driving a semi-truck. Stephanie grew up on a farm with a feedlot and earned a sustainable food production certificate. Today Sunrise Salmon is their full-time business, splitting their time between their Minnesota home and Alaskan fishing grounds and processing facility.

Below are Stephanie's words to my questions.

What led you to start Sunrise Salmon?

At age 18, Kevin joined his brother in Bristol Bay, Alaska, as a commercial fishing deckhand for the summer of 2008 salmon run. Then they purchased commercial salmon fishing permits, sites and a boat. When we married the next year, I bought out his brother's portion of the operation. In 2011, after becoming interested in direct marketing our catch, we started Sunrise Salmon and had a portion of our fish custom processed to bring home for customers. Most of the fish caught in Alaska go to China with a limited amount of quality fish to buy in Minnesota and North Dakota. In 2017, we remodeled an inspected kitchen/storage space in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, to smoke our salmon in batches of 300 pounds at a time and have a walk-in freezer.

We bought land in Naknek, Alaska, five miles from the fishing grounds, and built an FDA-inspected fillet house in 2018 to process our own catch and custom process for other fishermen interested in marketing their own fish. We packed two shipping containers in Fergus Falls full of building supplies and equipment and had them trucked to Seattle and then barged up to Bristol Bay. We fly around eight to ten people to Alaska to work for several weeks in the summer. We love having people with farm backgrounds work for us if they're able to leave the farm and are always looking for summer employees.

How did you prepare to start your business?

We had to acquire local and state licensees from the FDA, Minnesota and Alaska for food handling. We also had to buy a new trailer and commercial freezers for storage. We then had to make a website to take orders.

What are obstacles you've overcome in your business?

Obstacles include the logistics of transporting salmon home (barge, flying and trucking) and dependable help. Fishing and processing in Alaska takes hard work and grit, so it’s hard to find those types of people.

How do you market your product?

We market mainly through word of mouth from previous customers. So many people come and buy large shares after having some of our salmon prepared at a friend’s or family member’s home and talk about what a treat it is. Facebook helps a lot along with a few printed ads.

Who are your customers?

Our customers are people who want to source high-quality fish straight from the source and want to stock their freezers. A lot of times they are health conscious, but many just know that it tastes wonderful. Located in the tri-state area of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, many people pool together with friends and family for bulk rates.

Where can people purchase Sunrise Salmon or eat it in a restaurant?

We mostly sell salmon shares online in the spring/summer months. But we have a limited amount available throughout the year, including our own smoked salmon we make ourselves in Fergus Falls.

We also supply Meats by John and Wayne in Fargo, Meadow Farm Foods in Fergus Falls and Lake Country Meats in Alexandria. Our salmon is also on the menu at Maxwell’s restaurant in West Fargo.

What is ahead in the future for Sunrise Salmon?

We would like to continue growing our Salmon Share family as well as work each year to get more efficient with fishing, processing and shipping salmon home. We also look forward to being able to involve our children more in all aspects of fishing as they grow. Within the next few years, we would like to get a custom boat built to hold more fish and ice, if steel prices ever drop.

Sunrise Salmon and the Schmidt family have taught me so much about the net-to-plate process and how Alaskan salmon reaches my freezer and family’s dinner table through their family business model.

To read more of Katie Pinke's The Pinke Post columns, click here.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.