Kelp farmer seeking to expand to Stonington Harbor

Bren Smith of Thimble Islands Sea Greens explains the operation of his kelp farming venture off Branford on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Smith has applied for permits to start a similar kelp farming operation off Ram Island in Fishers Island Sound. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Bren Smith of Thimble Islands Sea Greens explains the operation of his kelp farming venture off Branford on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Smith has applied for permits to start a similar kelp farming operation off Ram Island in Fishers Island Sound. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

By the end of next month, when the region’s apple orchards and pumpkin patches will be yielding the last of their harvest for the year, Brendan Smith will be just beginning his growing season at a farm that uses boats and buoys instead of tractors and fences.

In the waters of Branford Harbor, busy in the summer months with motor boats, kayakers and tour boats cruising amid the Thimble Islands, Smith and others on his Thimble Island Ocean Farm crew will be seeding a new crop of kelp spores along a vertical field of lines, anchors and buoys.

By May, the long, pale brown ribbons of what he calls “the new kale” will be harvested and readied for market.

“Kelp is one of the fastest growing crops in the world,” Smith said one morning earlier this month, as he and Asa Dickerson motored through the harbor toward his farm, where he also grows shellfish. “The kelp just grows naturally, and requires no fertilizer, no fresh water, and captures five times more carbon than land-based plants. And it creates an artificial reef that makes for some of the best fishing around.”

Now, as part of an effort to expand the supply of kelp by seeding new small kelp farms throughout New England, Smith is seeking approval to grow the native seaweed at a 12.4-acre site near Ram Island in Stonington Harbor.

While still in the pre-application phase for permits and a lease for underwater lands needed from the state Bureau of Aquaculture, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the proposal is a manifestation of increasing interest in this crop.

Once he obtains the permits, Smith plans to turn the Stonington site over to another farmer to run, who would sell the harvest to Smith for processing and distribution.

“The market is wide open,” said Charles Yarish, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, who has worked with Smith and owners of 15 other existing and proposed kelp farms throughout New England.

After researching seaweed and its aquaculture potential for more than a decade, Yarish recently has turned his attention to making the product more commercially viable by contracting with a Korean manufacturer to bring kelp processing machines to farmers here. Smith is owner of one of the three machines sold thus far through the arrangement, which turns kelp into different types of noodles that can be flash frozen for sale, Yarish said.

“This resolves a major bottleneck in how to process kelp and increase shelf life,” he said.

'Hurricane proof' aquaculture

Smith said he is selling about 10,000 pounds a year of kelp noodles from his processing plant near his home in the Fair Haven section of New Haven.

Major customers include the cafeteria of Google Inc.’s Manhattan offices as well as restaurants in New York City and New Haven, where one bar serves a “kelp cocktail.” There are no retail sales, although online sales are planned for the future, Smith said.

At Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro in New Haven, Smith’s kelp is used in a “compound butter” that’s served over steak, among other dishes, said owner Jason Sobocinski.

“My favorite way to serve it is pickled in vinegar and served over top of a hamburger,” he said. “We’re now working on making a sour German-style beer with kelp as the main ingredient. I’m really enamored with this product because it’s grown pesticide-free and has zero impact on the environment.”

Smith, who has told the story of how he went from commercial fishermen to oyster farmer to kelp farmer to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, said one of his  goals is to “de-sushify” and “de-hippify” kelp, bringing it into the mainstream as a common, nutritious vegetable instead of as a minor ingredient in soups, sushi or side dishes.

The way to do that, he believes, is to get professional chefs to incorporate it into restaurant meals that acquaint the public with it.

“The Italians used to cook with it, and in Newfoundland (where he was a commercial cod fisherman), it was one of the only fresh vegetables,” he said.

The species of sugar kelp he grows, he said, is one of the most palatable of all edible seaweeds, with a slightly sweet, slightly salty taste. It can be served raw instead of lettuce in a simple salad with shredded carrots, cucumbers and dressing, where it has a pleasing, crunchy texture and mild taste. Or it can be cooked in a stir fry with tomatoes, garlic and shrimp, among other uses.

“This isn’t the thick, rubbery stuff you think of when you think of seaweed,” Smith said.

He began growing kelp at his site in Branford in 2012, he said, after Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy ruined much of the shellfish crop he’d been tending for the last 15 years. When he came across Yarish’s work promoting seaweed farming, he said, he realized he had found a “hurricane proof” form of aquaculture.

After getting the farm established and harvesting for four years, Smith took a one-year break last year to start the nonprofit Greenwave, which was awarded the Buckminster Fuller Prize in 2015 for its model of fostering the creation of new seaweed farms to restore marine ecosystems and the economies of coastal communities.

Challenges remain

Across Connecticut, three other commercial seaweed farms are located on Long Island Sound in addition to Smith’s, a fifth is in development and inquiries from new potential farmers are coming in regularly, said Tessa Getchis, aquaculture extension specialist at Connecticut Sea Grant, located at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.

“There’s a great deal of interest in kelp aquaculture now,” she said.

Among those considering starting kelp farms, she said, are former commercial fishermen and shellfishermen who own much of the equipment needed. One of the main attractions of kelp farming, she noted, is its relatively low startup costs for the basic equipment — lines, buoys, anchors and a small boat.

But there are still challenges that must be resolved to bring kelp farming to its full potential.

This fall, Sea Grant, which channels federal funds toward marine research, conservation and sustainable economic uses of the ocean, will survey the public to gauge familiarity, interest and availability of seaweed products, Getchis said, to help farmers expand the market for their products. Yarish said he is planning a similar market analysis.

One further barrier to expansion of the industry, said Anoushka Concepcion, assistant extension educator for marine aquaculture for Sea Grant, is the lack of federal guidelines for water quality and other health standards for how seaweed is grown and processed for human consumption. Concepcion said she is working to create a safety standards guide for seaweed growers.

Getchis said the state Bureau of Aquaculture tests waters where seaweed is grown commercially, and also tests the harvested seaweed before it is sold to ensure there are no pathogens or other contaminants. But consistent federal standards are needed, she said.

An additional factor that will limit the industry’s growth in Connecticut and elsewhere, she said, is that kelp farms must be located in areas with clean water at depths of about 15 feet, where sunlight can penetrate to reach the kelp ribbons and where the lines wouldn’t interfere with commercial and recreational boat traffic and other uses.

At the Branford site, Smith said, boaters and fishermen are not restricted from maneuvering around the kelp lines, although the lines are removed from the water during the most active part of the boating season.

Support in Stonington

Thus far, Smith’s plan for the Stonington site is drawing support and interest from town officials.

Blunt White, chairman of the Economic Development Commission, said the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development promotes expansion of aquaculture.

“It’s generally supportive of things like this,” he said.

Don Murphy, chairman of the town’s Shellfish Commission, said that while site is located in waters governed by the state, his group is aware of the plan.

“We’re trying to encourage this,” he said, adding that the location would not be in conflict with existing shellfishing areas.

Smith said he hopes kelp will be growing at the Stonington site by this winter, once permits and a lease is obtained, a willing farmer found and the simple setup of the lines, anchors and buoys completed.

“We can put the whole thing in in a day and take it out in a day,” he said, adding that the Stonington site could grow 20,000 pounds or more of kelp per year.

j.benson@theday.com

Bren Smith of Thimble Islands Sea Greens explains the operation of his kelp farming venture off Branford on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Smith has applied for permits to start a similar kelp farming operation off Ram Island in Fishers Island Sound. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Bren Smith of Thimble Islands Sea Greens explains the operation of his kelp farming venture off Branford on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Smith has applied for permits to start a similar kelp farming operation off Ram Island in Fishers Island Sound. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Buoys and floats mark the area of the Thimble Islands Sea Greens kelp bed off Branford on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Bren Smith has applied for permits to start a similar kelp farming operation off Ram Island in Fishers Island Sound. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Buoys and floats mark the area of the Thimble Islands Sea Greens kelp bed off Branford on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Bren Smith has applied for permits to start a similar kelp farming operation off Ram Island in Fishers Island Sound. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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