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There's more to Valley Springs than meets eye

ESDAILE -- Everyone has heard about Valley Springs Trout Farm, run by Larry and Mary Gerdes, but few know much about the depth of the business.

Mostly known as a hatchery for trout, Valley Springs has grown into a major supplier of other products all over the world.

The Gerdes' story begins in the '50s, when Larry and his father Wally built a fish hatchery in a quiet river valley in the Bay City rural area. Larry attended Ellsworth High School and went on to work for a while for Western Airlines. He returned to the family business.

In 1965, Larry bought a trout hatchery in Eagle River and he and his wife Mary and young family moved up north.

In 1971, the Gerdes sold that business to the Department of Natural Resources and they moved back to Bay City to take over his father's growing operation.

The business raises and stocks fish for sportsman's clubs who stock streams and supply sportsman's shows for young people to experience the joy of fishing for trout. Valley Springs raises trout from eggs to editable size fish. The company also raises elk and they currently have 45 head.

Several years back, members of the Eau Galle-Rush River Sportsman's Club started bringing a portable fishing tank to the Shrine Hospital for Children in the Twin Cities. The pioneers of this venture were Arby Linder, Tom Buckman and John Markquart.

The Shrine connection

About seven years ago, the St. Croix Valley Shrine Club became involved. Today, the Shrine Club provides the labor, the sportsman's club provides the set up and Larry Gerdes provides the trout at no cost.

Larry likes the idea that young children, especially the ones at the Shrine Hospital, get a chance to catch a fish.

"Often is the first and only time these kids will have the chance to fish like these," says Gerdes.

Larry shared a story underscoring his feelings about the process. One year, a nurse, who had been caring for a child at the Shrine Hospital, told Larry that, when a child in her care caught his first fish, it was the only time the child had smiled in three years.

It is stories like this and many more that keep Larry Gerdes coming back to provide fish to the Shrine Hospital Children every year.

The Elk Farm

One of the little known aspects of Valley Springs is the breeding and raising of elk. Valley Springs keeps a large herd of the majestic animals for breeding and for meat and also harvest their large horns which are sold to China and other Asian countries.

The horns are freeze dried and shipped to pharmaceutical companies, where they are ground and placed in capsules for sale to China, where they are used as herbal medicine for ailments like arthritis. The market changes rapidly in this business. The going rate for the product is $30 per pound. Gerdes has set up a pool of growers in the area who bring their horns to him for processing. Valley Springs has invested in expensive free drying machines to handle the influx of business.

According to Gerdes, the neighbors often wonder why there are so many refrigerated vehicles parked around his place during pick and delivery days. Valley Springs has shipped 40,000 lbs. of freeze dried horns so far this year.

This, along with the trout hatchery, keeps things busy year around at Valley Springs. Larry reports he has 5,000 lbs. of edible trout in stock in half and ? lb. sizes. He has hauled 9,000 lbs. since the first of the year.

Gerdes not only survives in this ruggedly independent business, but thrives. In fact, he has outlasted many "wannabees" who got into the business for a fast buck. As he says, "we are in it for the long haul."

The Shrine Trout Pond for this year was postponed due to bad weather, according Shrine Club Chair Bob Hering of Roberts. However, plans are being made to try to schedule a day at the Shrine Hospital in September.

Those who know of child who might be a candidate for free expert medical care at the Shrine Hospital in the Twin Cities should call 612.596.6100 or 1.888.293.2832. For information, visit