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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    Help for kelp

    As the first of the summer vegetables ripen for picking in local fields, a unique new crop had its maiden harvest from an underwater farm in Groton.

    It won’t be showing up at farm stands and farmers’ markets just yet, though. These long, curvy-edged, greenish-brown ribbons gathered by the boatload are, for now, awaiting consumer pioneers to fuel demand for locally grown edible seaweed, specifically kelp native to Long Island Sound.

    “This year, we were trying to get the growing down, and figure out what volume to grow,” said J.P. Vellotti, who planted and harvested the kelp on 12 submerged lines cordoned off by buoys at the Groton site. “We’re looking at markets with cosmetics companies, fertilizer companies, animal feed, kelp powder – it’s all over the map. But mainly, we want to market it as a food source, even get it into schools. Southern New England kelp is very light-tasting.”

    Building on what he learned growing kelp for the past two years in the western Sound, Vellotti last February seeded the 18-acre site off Pine Island – near Bluff Point and Avery Point, home to a University of Connecticut campus – for his submerged farm. A crop that thrives in cold water, it was ready for harvest in 3½ months, before the peak of boating season. His Groton site is now the largest of the 13 kelp growing sites, leased from the state in Connecticut waters of the Sound from Stonington to Greenwich. It’s 60 percent larger than the next biggest one. It’s probably also the most productive, considering that not all of the 13 leased areas actually ended up being planted this year, according to Shannon Kelly, environmental analyst at the state Bureau of Aquaculture.

    Now, the main challenge for Vellotti and other kelp farmers will be getting people to buy it and try it. And those who do – whether they’re chefs or home cooks using it for soups, smoothies, kelp chips, salads and other dishes – will not only be partaking of a nutritious sea vegetable, loaded with vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. They’ll also be contributing to the state’s maritime economy and to improving the health of Long Island Sound.

    Kelp absorbs excess nutrients that degrade water quality, and grows without the fertilizer or water input of traditional crops. The success of getting those three messages out about kelp – about its nutritional, economic and environmental benefits – along with teaching people what to do with it in the kitchen, will determine whether this crop has a future in Connecticut.

    “Without figuring out the market side of things, it doesn’t matter that we know we can grow it,” said Anoushka Concepcion, aquaculture extension specialist at Connecticut Sea Grant, which has been supporting research and developing guidelines for kelp aquaculture for three decades. “Now it comes down to developing markets and whether folks are going to buy it. That will determine the types of processing that’s used.”

    This year, the kelp harvested at Vellotti’s site went to two labs to identify its specific nutritional content, and to Norwalk Community College. There, culinary arts students are learning how to blanch and freeze it for market – a necessity because of its short shelf life – and then cook with it. A small amount also went to Chef James Wayman at the Mystic Oyster Club, who used it in kelp-infused butter on lobster rolls, Vellotti said. Other chefs are also developing recipes.

    Now, as Vellotti and other kelp growers look to move from experimental to production kelp farming, consumers can do their part by expanding their palates to include seaweed, already a common ingredient at sushi restaurants. Most of the seaweed now available in natural food stores comes dehydrated from Maine or Asia, but by getting accustomed to using it and increasing demand, consumers will be helping to establish a market for Connecticut kelp once it’s widely available.

    “In two more years, we’re hoping to have a return on our investment,” Vellotti said.

    More information about kelp, including recipes, can be found in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of Wrack Lines, Connecticut Sea Grant’s biannual magazine. It can be found at: https://seagrant.uconn.edu/2018/05/18/sea-to-table-fish-shellfish-sea-vegetables-from-local-waters/

    Judy Benson is the communications coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant, based at UConn Avery Point. She is the former health and environment reporter at The Day.

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