LENOIR NC — Growing up in the lush foothills known as Happy Valley, on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, Joe Doll learned very early how to dream. Very soon, he’ll see one of those dreams come true.

Doll, 60, had the wherewithal to dream of helping to restore the mighty sturgeon, one of the world’s most exotic fish — while making a good living for himself at the same time.

In about 10 days, the first shipment of sturgeon meat and caviar will leave his Atlantic Sturgeon and Caviar Co. in Caldwell County’s Happy Valley community bound for consumers around the world. It will be the culmination of some nine years of hard work since the idea first crossed his mind.

After earlier careers as a fireman and police officer in Charlotte, Doll entered a third career flying cargo planes in and out of Russia. Part of what he witnessed was the depletion of Russian varieties of sturgeon native to the Black and Caspian seas.

The sturgeon is harvested both for its rich-tasting meat and for its caviar — a lightly salted appetizer made from the eggs, or roe, as it’s called. The caviar is a delicacy that becomes more expensive as the species of fish becomes rarer.

Caviar generally ranges in cost to the consumer from $75 an ounce, and more. Sometimes, much more.

Doll eventually joined with three partners in 2003 to begin the process of cultivating sturgeon in a controlled environment, called aquaculture.

It’s been a long haul putting everything into place.

“We’re going to smile a lot,” he says, “when that first shipment rolls out of here.”

Since the Atlantic Sturgeon and Caviar Co. was born, partners Louis Pugh of Morganton and Ralph Reese of Florida have retired, and Bill White of Caldwell County has died, willing his controlling interest to the N.C. State University Agricultural Foundation.

The foundation has been actively involved in helping the venture avoid costly setbacks, since it, too, will share in the eventual profits.

“We thought it would be a nice project to carry us into retirement,” Doll said.

He became the managing partner after retiring from Polar Air Cargo Co. in 2008. The planes carried commercial, industrial and military goods into northern hemisphere locations.

He had to “go to school” on everything related to the sturgeon.

“You read a lot and you ask a lot of questions from people who know. Big fish like this are almost extinct in the wild,” Doll explains, “some from pollution, but mostly from over-fishing. “This is a very risky endeavor, but hopefully, in 3-4 years, we’ll be on our way to making a good profit.”

Doll, who has a mechanical engineering degree from UNC-Charlotte, did “a lot of the initial spreadsheet work,” costing and planning, before ground was broken on a piece of Happy Valley bottom land a few football fields away from the gentle southward flow of the Yadkin River.

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