Green and Growing: Kelp farming keeps Fishers Island Sound alive in winter

It is winter, and all the plants are dormant. Maybe.

Consider last year’s “60 Minutes” segment that featured a story about a Branford ocean farmer whose sea vegetables — long fronds of sugar kelp — need cold sea water to thrive. Some plants, it turns out, don’t go dormant in the cold.

The featured farmer is former commercial fisherman Bren Smith, who earned national attention for his work with sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and the development of a system called restorative 3-D ocean farming. He practices the techniques at a 40-acre leased plot called the Thimble Islands Ocean Farm, where he also raises oysters, mussels and scallops.

To spread the idea, Smith co-founded Greenwave, an organization that helps would-be ocean farmers get up and running. Some of the 50 candidates they’ve helped since 2013 come from as far away as Alaska. Others are as close as Stonington, such as Suzie Flores and her husband Jay Douglas.

Suzie Flores had no professional farming or maritime experience before 2016. Then her husband, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, purchased the Mechanic Street Marina on the Pawcatuck River in Pawcatuck. He’d been around boats all his life, but was not a farmer. After the couple moved into the marina with their young children, Flores began her own “fishing expedition” for water-dependent business ideas.

She found Greenwave.org online and sent an email with this inquiry: Would Fishers Island Sound support kelp farming?

Thus began a two-year mentoring relationship with the Greenwave staff.

Flores’ and Douglas’ business, the Stonington Kelp Company, is now in its second season. They have weathered the successive nor’easters of spring 2018, in addition to the demanding processes of site selection, permitting, outfitting, seeding and tending. Their ocean farm site, which they lease from the State of Connecticut, is a 40-minute boat ride from the Mechanic Street Marina. (see mechanicstreetmarina.com/the-kelp-farm)

Flores said site selection is critical.

“If you don’t select well, you won’t know you have a problem for a year,” she said. “This practice is so new to Long Island Sound, there’s little long term information on the sea bed characteristics that would make site selection more predictable.”

With great relief, they made their first harvest in spring 2018.

Flores and Douglas visit the farm about once a week from December to April to check on equipment and progress. The “farm work” can take from 30 minutes to three hours.

Beginning in April, they hope to sell part of the second year’s harvest in the form of kelp edibles and fertilizer “tea bags” at the Stonington Farmer’s Market in the Velvet Mill.

Flores’ farm grows sugar kelp, but not shellfish. She sees good prospects for kelp, which is not only nutritious for people, but an excellent fertilizer for conventional farming, an animal feed, and a source of multiple pharmaceutical ingredients.

Above all that, Flores said, “Kelp helps clean up some of the nitrogen pumped into our rivers and oceans from human activity.”

Indeed, kelp captures and holds unwanted substances that lead to hypoxia and algal blooms, harming aquatic life. Compared to land crops, kelp requires no watering, no fertilizer and no plowing.

“It also provides a nice habitat for little fish,” Flores said, referring to the habitat restoration provided by the plant.

As for the working conditions, Flores has come a long way on her transition to ocean farmer.

“I wasn’t even a winter sports person,” she said. “I grew up in New Jersey close to New York City. But now I am completely taken with the solitude of the Sound in winter. The ride is beautiful, peaceful, green, and calming.”

She enjoys imagining what the Sound might have been like in earlier centuries.

“As for the work itself, the physical labor is challenging. You’re moving fast in a very tight space. And some of it is monotonous,” she said. “But we see so much wildlife, such as seals and so many types of birds.

“I like to talk about it because the more people who know about it and use kelp, the more people will farm it,” Flores said. “With good ocean farming practices, we’ll create more goodness for our rivers and the Sound.”

Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker on land care, horticulture, and landscape design. Reach her through her website, SpeakingofLandscapes.com.

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