The Walker family — Carr, Shannon and Ty in back, Gratton and Eve in front — at Smoke in Chimneys in Craig County. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Ty and Shannon Walker took a leap of faith when they opened their Smoke in Chimneys sustainable trout hatchery in Craig County four years ago.

In just two weeks, they lost nearly half of their winter crop due to low water levels. The Roanoke Valley culinary community is rallying around the Walker family to help sustain them through this devastating loss. 

On Aug. 23, Ty Walker made a Facebook post documenting the initial loss of 3,000 of his fish. Due to low water levels in the ponds holding his largest stock, he had moved the trout to a neighbor’s nearby trout pond the week prior. Things had seemed OK, he said.

Then the pipe filling the pond shifted. The water flowed out, leaving the trout with too little oxygen to survive. 

“From there, the dominoes began to fall,” Walker said. He couldn’t keep up with the dropping water levels, he said. The water pressure was low coming out of the property’s spring, which feeds all of his trout ponds and raceways. As a result, he lost thousands more trout in the days that followed. 

As of late August, Walker had lost 8,000 of the 18,000 trout that Smoke in Chimneys was raising for the fall and winter harvest. He lost another 500 trout that were market-size and due to be harvested in the immediate future. The fish that survived are smaller and require less oxygen, he said. They should be ready to market in the spring.

In the three years that he has been raising trout at the hatchery, this is the first time he has seen the water level drop so low, he said. Since Aug. 23, the water pressure has increased to tolerable levels, but it still isn’t as high as he would expect it to be, he said. 

The water level is important because the fish are raised in spring-fed ponds and raceways, which resemble long, concrete troughs. The sustainable farm uses no aerators, electric pumps or other conventional trout farming methods. When the water level dips, oxygen levels can quickly fall.

The National Weather Service’s co-op weather observation station at New Castle recorded only 8.79 inches of rain in March through May, or 3.32 inches below normal for meteorological spring. The dry spring followed a winter with only a few sporadic rainy days and very minimal snowfall.

Smoke in Chimneys was able to harvest and process another 1,500 fish with the help of friends and neighbors. The Walkers put a call out on Facebook, asking for people to help them process and freeze fish immediately. Folks responded. 

Fincastle-based Eastern Appalachian Adult & Teen Challenge sent 16 volunteers to help with cleanup and processing. Neighbors and friends also pitched in to help the Walkers. 

“They’re a faith-based family like we are. We share a kindred spirit,” said Jason Anuszkiewicz, owner of Roanoke-based Gladheart Wine & Brews. His shop recently held a fundraising event for the family that featured wine tasting, food and live music. 

“We had never met them before this,” Ty Walker said of his relationship with Anuszkiewicz and his wife.

Anuszkiewicz said he reached out to Walker regarding the fundraiser after seeing his Facebook post. 

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to run a business and lose everything like that,” he said. 

Roanoke restaurant Bloom also hosted a fundraiser for Smoke in Chimneys, serving cookout-style foods like roasted corn and grilled trout on its outdoor patio.

Bloom has served Smoke in Chimneys’ spring-fed trout in a number of ways over the last few years, according to owner Nate Sloan. Before that, Sloan and Ty Walker were friends. 

“Ty and Shannon and their family are a good group of folks. The community is trying to band together to do what we can to support them,” said Sloan. 

The community support is giving Ty and Shannon Walker the encouragement they need to rebuild and keep going, they said. 

“To lose that many fish and that much money is bad. It has been a spiritual experience to see the response,” Ty Walker said. 

* * *

Tiny trout occupy tanks in an outbuilding called The Hatchery. They take about a year to reach maturity, Ty Walker said. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

The Smoke in Chimneys hatchery is located off a winding, mountainous road in New Castle. Visitors who pull into the short gravel drive are greeted by an idyllic homestead. A red farmhouse stands tall, overlooking the fish ponds and concrete raceways. Chickens occupy a coop out back, and a small garden grows nearby. Cats lounge in the sun while two large, white dogs hurry to greet new faces. 

The yard is dotted with riding toys; the Walkers have three children: 5-year-old Eve, 3-year-old Gratton and 6-month-old Carr. Shannon Walker helps with the farm as she can, but most of her day is filled with caring for the children. 

On any given day, Ty Walker and his employees might balance feeding fish and cleaning ponds, responding to threats from natural predators, weeding and caring for the grounds, and preparing trout for shipping and delivery. Walker also dedicates time to growing his business and will routinely visit with chefs, providing samples of his trout and explaining why his sustainable farming methods produce cleaner-tasting fish than conventional farms.

Feed from Canada arrives by truck on a regular basis and neighbors stop by to check in and buy trout directly from the farm. 

Every Monday, Walker says he and his five employees spend the entire day processing 500 trout for Tuesday deliveries to local restaurants. 

An old sign on the property attests to the site’s earlier use. Photo by Lindsey

Ty and Shannon Walker are operating Smoke in Chimneys at the site of an almost 100-year-old fish hatchery. The site operated as a fish cultural station, a type of research facility, for 50-plus years, according to Ty Walker. After the facility closed in the 1980s, several other attempts were made to operate a fish hatchery on the 5-acre farm. None stuck.

Along came the Walkers in 2019. They had been operating Smoke in Chimneys as a pastured pork and raw milk share farm in Glade Hill. The name came as an homage to Ty Walkers’ grandparents, who had originally farmed the same land. 

“There were two old chimneys on the land. We were filling them with smoke again,” he said. They wanted to bring life back to the land.

“We thought we’d be on my grandparents’ farm forever,” he said. 

But New Castle was calling. When he wasn’t farming, he enjoyed fly fishing. He recalls that his friend told him about this old 1930s fish facility in New Castle. It didn’t hurt that the land was close to the Jefferson National Forest and plenty of fishing opportunities, according to Shannon Walker. 

“She thought I’d be fishing all the time,” Ty Walker said. 

“I was reluctant because all I heard about was that [the property] bordered a trout stream,” Shannon Walker said. But then she saw the house.

At the time, the family was living in a single-wide trailer. The house at the hatchery had three bedrooms, with plenty of room to spread out. The Walkers were also drawn to the homesteading life, they said. They signed a 10-year lease on the house and land.

Shannon had grown up around horses in Maryland. She loves the smell of barns, she said, and she knew she wanted to lead a rural life. Her husband wanted the same thing. He wanted to be able to spend time with his wife and kids while working the land or, in the case of the hatchery, the trout ponds.

Prior to moving to Ty Walker’s hometown in Franklin County, the couple lived on the West Coast. They had completed a farm intensive in Oregon. That’s when Shannon Walker knew they were meant to be farmers, she said. 

The intensive was a lot of physical labor without much meaning, according to Ty Walker. While he enjoyed his time on the Oregon farm, he knew he needed to combine farming with spirituality. 

“We were healing the land, but being sacrificed on the altar of growing our own food,” Ty Walker said, regarding his experience with the farm intensive. It wasn’t rewarding to work that hard while neglecting his spirituality, he said.

In the four years since they moved to New Castle, the Walker family has worked diligently to honor their family values of farming, food and prayer.

“This is what we do. We raise our own food and provide for our family,” Ty Walker said. The family places importance on being self-sustaining, he said. 

They have put a lot of work into reaching that goal. 

For the first year, they cleared the land. The ponds were overgrown with weeds and were full of trash, Ty Walker said. He removed eight dump trucks of garbage that year.

The second year was spent learning to grow trout. There aren’t many people around who know how to operate a fish hatchery, Walker said, so he turned to a 1930s book about raising trout. 

“There for a while, we killed more than we raised,” he said. 

The Walkers also spent that year seeking approval to process their fish. 

“The state wanted me to take the fish to [an established] processor,” Walker said. In Virginia, fish processors are close to the Eastern Shore, along the Chesapeake Bay. 

“The meat processors in this area process red meat and poultry,” he said. 

Initially, Smoke in Chimneys rented space in Roanoke’s Local Environmental Agriculture Project kitchen. Then, they found processing space in New Castle. 

From there, the trout initiative grew. While Shannon continued raising pastured pork and producing raw milk, Ty started approaching area restaurants to serve his trout. 

A springhouse on the Walkers’ property. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

“Chefs are busy. I would show up and offer samples, asking for five minutes of their time,” he said. He says he was deliberate about finding establishments that would be a good fit for his product. 

“We are focused on elevating the Appalachian cuisine with our product,” he said. 

Smoke in Chimneys’ trout is served in restaurants across the Roanoke Valley and the state. Walker sends his product to Charlottesville, Richmond and Washington on a weekly basis. 

As for prayer, he says that he wouldn’t be anywhere without his faith. 

“I previously struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. My relationship with God got me through all of that. [Faith] is real for me. It’s about life or death,” he said. 

The family has prayed their way through every decision on the farm, he said. On Wednesday, they opened a new prayer room. The building, located close to the farm, will double as an Airbnb on the weekends. On Wednesday mornings, the Walker family will gather with friends and neighbors to pray.

“Praying adds a spiritual rhythm and intentionality to the day,” Ty Walker said. 

This initiative is part of a 12-week farming internship that Smoke in Chimneys plans to offer in the future. The goal will be for participants to learn how to farm in a sustainable way while growing in spirituality. 

“People are 28, 29 years old and looking for a change,” he said. He hopes the internship will provide participants with fulfillment and a sense of purpose. 

As for his fish? They’ll keep growing. Tiny trout occupy tanks in an outbuilding called The Hatchery. They take about a year to reach maturity, he said. 

They might eventually add one or two aerators to provide additional oxygen during crises, Shannon Walker said. But she is adamant that their farm will continue to use the sustainable methods by which they were founded. 

“We’re not going to suddenly switch our ponds to aerators. That changes the sustainability,” she said. 

Ty Walker remains optimistic, in spite of his losses. This fall, he plans to expand Smoke in Chimneys’ retail offerings by selling smoked trout and trout cakes directly to the consumer, he said. 

“By spring, we’ll be rocking and rolling. We’ll have about 25,000 trout,” he said.

Weather journalist Kevin Myatt contributed information to this story.

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...