Fishing for an Iowa market
Published in January 13, 2014 in the Des Moines Register
Picture one of those Family Circus cartoons that show little Billy's circuitous path to anywhere at all with a fat, black, dashed line that always ends up, much later, back where he started. That gives you a pretty good idea of Tony Neal's life.
Neal's dashed line started in Des Moines, and 70-ish years later, it led him back here, much like the wild salmon he fishes for swim back to their natal river. Neal, the founding owner of The Popsie Fish Company, still calls Homer, Alaska, home, but he heads this way frequently to spread the good word about his wild-caught salmon. He's determined to show Iowans what fresh salmon really is.
"Catching salmon is a lot easier than selling it," Neal said on a recent visit to Des Moines to drum up new customers. In this neck of the woods, Neal works with Peter Woltz of Timber Ridge Cattle in Osceola to market and distribute the salmon. Timber Ridge produces flax-fed beef that is high in Omega-3s, like salmon. "It seemed like a great fit," Woltz said. "It's a great, fresh product; we're lucky to have it in Des Moines."
About two years ago, Neal, 71, who owns a summer fishing camp at the edge of the Bering Sea north of the Egegik River, decided that the folks in his home state ought to have access to his product, which is caught, handled and processed following Alaska's strict salmon-fishing regulations that ensure sustainability, plus Neal's own high standards that ensure quality.
"You can't get fresher fish," Neal said of his "gold-label" fish. Fishing for what will become the company's premium line of salmon, "happens after the huge yearly run tapers off (usually about mid-August) and after most of the processors have shut down for the season. We are licensed processors and we contract part of that to a small company; they do only our fish, under our direction. We control every aspect from catching to delivery in Everett, Wash.," where the fish are then flown to buyers. "The fish are (cleaned), vacuum-packed and flash frozen immediately (after they are caught)."
Roots in farming
Commercial salmon fishing probably isn't the stuff of most landlocked Iowa boys' dreams, but Neal said it's not that different from farming. You need to work hard and know how to fix things and build things. "I come from a farming family, and worked on my grandparents' cattle farm in Osceola. I put myself through ISU by cattle farming."
After graduating college with a degree in construction engineering, Neal decided he'd go to Australia, just like that. "I just told my mom I was leaving, and I packed up and went." He started working with a large city contractor in Sydney building skyscrapers, eventually opened his own home-building business and married an Australian woman.
Here, Neal's dashed line starts getting tangled: The couple hitchhiked around the world, hitting 80 countries in about a year. But it's also here that the line points toward Alaska, after he got an offer from (then) Des Moines-based company Green Construction to go to work for them there. In 1969, he settled in Homer, and later started his own construction company. "And I've been there ever since," he said.
One of Neal's company's specialties was building water projects — like the Esther Island Fish Hatchery in Prince William Sound, the largest salmon hatchery in the world. Neal was looking for another business to support his kids as they got themselves through college. So salmon fishing it was.
A family business
Fishing site licenses, "limited entry permits," in Alaska are limited to a certain number, and are worth big bucks, Neal said. "You basically have to know someone who will sell you one and they're very expensive. We bought some sites but at the time, we didn't really know anything about commercial fishing," Neal said, "It was mostly just on-the-job training." Now fishing is the only family business and the Neal family works during the season at the fishing camp, along with some other hired help, to make a crew of six or seven.
Neal said "We work as long as there are salmon to catch — sometimes we'll work for two weeks straight on about two hours of sleep a day." As they are caught, the fish are loaded into big slush ice-filled containers and hauled up to the processing plant by four-wheelers. All day (and night), all season long (June 1 to mid-August). The Popsie crew catches about 100,000 pounds of sockeye, coho and keta (which is used to make the company's smoked salmon) salmon in a season.
An eye on quality
Woltz, the Iowa distributor, is happy to be a part of Popsie's growth into Iowa (its biggest market is Portland, Ore.) — and of the wild salmon industry's resurgence. "Farmed salmon (also known as Atlantic salmon) has a lot of environmental issues that go along with it, but that's what people and lot of chefs are familiar with. Atlantic salmon really damaged the wild salmon industry — almost killed it — but it's coming back. The reception here, especially through the Iowa Food Cooperative, has been overwhelming. People are more and more concerned about where their food comes from."
"Almost all of our salmon is graded No. 1 — best quality," Neal said. The fish are bled immediately after being picked from the net and never picked up by the tail (this causes bruising along the spine); they are protected from sunburn and drying out by wet burlap; the slush ice they travel in immediately lowers their body temperature and slows any degradation.
According to Neal, the quality difference between his fish and other "fresh" salmon is not just in the way it's caught and handled, but, maybe counterintuitively, because it's always frozen. "Flash-frozen salmon is much fresher than salmon that's never been frozen," Neal said. "If you're eating 'fresh' salmon in Iowa, it could be five or six days old. It's at least three or four. And fish deteriorates very quickly.
"We're very proud of this product."
You can buy Popsie Fish Company products locally from Gateway Market, Campbell's Nutrition Center, the Iowa Food Cooperative (www.iowafood.coop) and Wallace Farms (www.wallacefarms.com). It is also available at Wheatsfield Cooperative in Ames. Restaurants that carry Popsie salmon are Christopher's, Des Moines Embassy Club and HoQ.