Move over, kale. There’s a new (sea) vegetable in town and it wants to join you on the plate as a healthy food.
Kale, just to fill you in if you haven’t visited a restaurant lately, is showing up in fast-casual places like sweetgreen, and in high-end venues. It’s not just for healthy types or hippies, but is well on the road to its own culinary legitimacy. How much fame can a vegetable handle? Apparently, a lot.
Kelp might be next. Sea vegetables are certainly having their moment. As with kale, chefs are driving the train, experimenting with seaweed as more than a garnish. They making cocktails with it, eye-popping salads, and adventurous main dishes, moving it from mere condiment to the center of the dinner plate.
You may have first encountered seaweed in a store like Erewhon Natural Foods, where it was part of a macrobiotic diet. Now, you very nearly can’t avoid it in Whole Foods, where it appears whole, dried, and raw.
I interviewed seaweed farmers from Maine to California for this episode, number 10 in the series. Seraphina Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables told me about the challenges of harvesting in the wild. (She also spoke with me about the history of seaweed in the US, a longer conversation that I am including in the book I’m writing about food.)
Todd Jagoutz shared some of his knowledge about farming seaweed.
Bren Smith speaks about what motivated him to pursue ocean farming as a sustainable practice. He has become a leader in the movement to make kelp the new kale, and bring seaweed to the center of the dinn er plate.
Dr. Michael Graham discusses what goes into farming seaweed near, but not in, the ocean, why chefs love it, and how marrying his wife, a chef, helped him see the value of seaweed farming as a business use case, education tool, and avocation.
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Lee Schneider: It’s the Future of Food. I’m Lee Schneider. This is what it’s like to farm seaweed in the ocean.
[Sound effects: ocean sounds]
Todd Jagoutz: You take these little kelp seeds that are growing on the line, and you’re attaching it. You’re bringing them out into the ocean. It’s cold. It’s windy. It’s rough. You’re attaching them to this long line. And all of the sudden you get this feeling you’re somehow connected to these little seeds of kelp, and you want them to grow, and you want them to survive. And you actually care about them. And you go back, and you check on them once a week. I’m not going to say they’re like kids, but there’s a connection there.
NARRATION: Todd Jagoutz is the General Manager of Sea Greens Farms, a company that is teaching people who love the sea how to start their own kelp farms. There’s a market for kelp. The reason is is that, going back to the 1960s, organic grocery stores like Erewhon were importing nori and other seaweeds from Japan. Seaweed is a good source of iodine, iron, and vitamins. And the Erewhon crowd knew it as part of a macrobiotic diet. In 1971, Seraphina Erhart’s parents started a seaweed harvesting and processing company called Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. It became a major supplier to Erewhon and later Whole Foods. I spoke with Seraphina on the phone about the challenges of harvesting seaweed off the Atlantic Coast.
All of the sudden you get this feeling you’re somehow connected to these little seeds of kelp, and you want them to grow, and you want them to survive.
// Todd Jagoutz
Seraphina: If anybody has ever watched the Most Dangerous Jobs television show, the harvesters, kind of, live some of those lives. They go into some pretty treacherous areas, and it’s totally dependent on the weather and the tides cooperating in a very short period of the year. And part of why it’s challenging for us to expand on the wild harvest is we can only access so many areas with knowledgeable people who know what they’re doing in hard-to-get-to locations.
Lee: Bren Smith also farms seaweed and oysters. His connection with the ocean started when he dropped out of high school to fish the world. He encountered the worst of industrialized fishing and fish farming.
Bren Smith: When you’re out in the ocean, you’re seeing, you’re hauling up trawls, and you just see a sea of dead fish around you. And you’re only able to, you know, keep a couple types. In your soul you know this isn’t … as someone who loves fish, and loves the ocean, and the ecosystem, you know it’s destructive. And then when you’re out in the salmon farms, you just … all these fish, teeming fish that are ravenous, that what to swim away. I think a lot of people go see these farms. It just doesn’t seem natural.
NARRATION: It was a wake up call for a man who wanted to make his living on the sea. He realized that industrial fishing wasn’t the way. And he wanted to push shellfish and seaweed to the center of the dinner plate, because they are zero-input foods, requiring no fresh water, fertilizer, or land to grow. Farming the ocean sustainably became his mission. Bren started a company called GreenWave, and also started a two-year training program to school a new generation of ocean farmers. He has a floating classroom in Long Island Sound and has grown a national network of seaweed farmers who are sharing what they know about ocean farming. Todd Jagoutz, whom you heard from a moment ago, is also sharing his knowledge. He oversees daily operations for Sea Greens Farms and has his own ocean farm. Here’s my interview with him. Hey, Todd, welcome to the Podcast.
Todd: Thanks for having me.
Lee: You mentioned before we were setting up this interview that we’re coming into a busy season. So describe what a typical day is like for you?
Todd: So, our harvest season is really April through the month of May. And by harvest season, I mean kelp is harvest one time per year. And remember, our kelp is growing on long lines suspended beneath the ocean’s surface. It grows all winter long from about October, November until April or May.
Lee: You described long lines underwater. What do you mean by that?
Todd: So, long lines is just a term used to describe a line or a rope anchored on either side by two buoys. So if you took two anchors, spread them about a thousand feet apart, and drop them into the ocean with a little float on the top, right, so you can tie something to it. And then took a rope and stretched it 1,000 feet long and tied it to the other end of the buoy or the mooring, that’s a long line.
Lee: And that is set up in, kind of, a grid. If we were under water, what would we be seeing?
Todd: If you’re under water, it’s going to, yeah, it’s gonna look like a grid. Theoretically, they’re going to be all equal-length and spaced equidistant apart. So, just to give you some perspective, on a four-acre ocean farm that’s growing kelp, you could have 20 one-thousand-foot long lines that the kelp would grow up.
You’re taking an unused spot in the ocean that doesn’t support much animal life, and you are creating a habitat for animals to thrive and for life to come back
// Todd Jagoutz
NARRATION A seaweed farm in the ocean is simple by design, an underwater rope scaffolding, as Todd described, that moves with the waves. The kelp seeds come from aquariums and are attached to the rope underwater. You can harvest about 100,000 pounds of kelp from a 4-acre farm. The impact on the environment, positive.
Todd: In my layman’s terms, you’re taking an unused spot in the ocean that doesn’t support much animal life, and you are creating a habitat for animals to thrive and for life to come back. You’re also assimilating nitrogen, and you’re absorbing carbon. So impactful environmentally, but also impactful socially. You have this marine economy, and this seafood economy, that there’s ground fishermen that are looking for work. There’s lobster men, especially in Southern New England that have worked their whole life on the water that now can’t catch enough lobsters and need to diversify a little bit. And this is giving them that opportunity to stay on the water, use the skills they’ve built up over a lifetime, and probably, you know, they’re the second or third generation of fishermen, use those skills to grow a different crop.
NARRATION: An important player in the seaweed scenario is the chef. Every seaweed farmer I spoke with acknowledged their contribution.
Todd: It’s the trickle-down effect from those leading chefs that we’re really looking to capitalize on and to maximize, right. So you have these chefs, these leading chefs, that are playing with kelp that are passionate about kelp and other sea greens. They’re introducing it to their patrons, and they’re in love with it, really.
NARRATION: Dr. Michael Graham, a seaweed scientist and seaweed farmer, also says that chefs are helping push kelp to the center of the dinner plate.
Dr. Michael Graham: Chefs are very critical to the development of the seaweed industry in the United States, mostly because they are the ones that are utilizing — they’re finding new ways to use it. At our farm, you know, we make seaweed, but we don’t make it the way the rest of us tend to eat it. We don’t make the little seaweed chips or the seaweed salad. When you deal with a raw product, the chefs are the ones that have to turn it into something else.
We have got chefs that are making it into cocktails. They’re making it into deserts. They’re making fresh salads. You need their creativity and their excitement with the product to turn it into something. And it’s very analogous to the kale industry. I ate kale prior to the kale boom. I never thought of the types of recipes that they come up with. And it really starts with chefs getting excited about it, and that is absolutely true with the seaweed industry in the state of California and in the U.S. in general.
Chefs are very critical to the development of the seaweed industry in the United States. When you deal with a raw product, the chefs are the ones that have to turn it into something else.
You need their creativity and their excitement with the product to turn it into something.
// Dr. Michael Graham
NARRATION: I drove up the California coast to visit Mike at his business, Monterey Bay Seaweeds, where he grows seaweed in large tanks filled with seawater near the ocean, but not in it.
Mike: So we here at Monterey Bay Seaweeds, we farm on land. What we do is we use some tanks that are integrated with a bubbling system, a very simple system in which it creates air bubbles, and that moves the seaweed around the tank. And, you know, I always joke it’s, kind of, like a giant mojito. And you could just see the seaweed being distributed in three dimensions in the tank. And we get our seawater…we’re in a partnership here at the Moss Landing Marine Labs. We get our seawater from the Monterey Bay Canyon. And so it’s about as clean of seawater as you can possibly get. And so, basically, we have seawater, bubbles moving the seaweed around, and natural sunlight, and that’s how we do it.
Lee: You make it sound really easy, but it’s probably not that easy.
Mike: The concept is simple. The details are very difficult. The reality is is that not everything likes to be moved around in a tank with bubbles. Most of these seaweeds are used to being attached to rock naturally, so this is a very different environment for them. So we have spent many years trying to figure out which species work well with this, and which ones don’t, and how much water to turn on, and, you know, how deep the tanks should be. And so there is a lot of fine details to tune it to the type of species you wanna grow. So we have about 5,000 gallons of flowing seawater going through a variety of tanks of different sizes. We generally try to grow about 100 pounds of seaweed.
The concept is simple. The details are very difficult. The reality is is that not everything likes to be moved around in a tank with bubbles. Most of these seaweeds are used to being attached to rock naturally, so this is a very different environment for them.
// Dr. Michael Graham
NARRATION: As we sat down in his office near a marine lab and overlooking the Pacific, I asked him about what kinds of seaweed he sold.
Mike: So, we tend to farm species that can’t be foraged, which means collected wild, or isn’t farmed in the larger scale farms that you see in Asia or on the East Coast of the United States. So, we have five species we do here at Monterey Bay Seaweeds. One is dulse. It’s the same one that’s harvested on the East Coast. And they joke that when you fry it, it tastes like bacon. It’s a great flavor. It’s definitely my favorite seaweed. We do that one fresh and raw. We also have sea lettuce, which is bright green like lettuce. We have ogo, which is a crispy, briny seaweed that tends to be used with things like pokes and raw fish dishes like ceviche. We also have a nori, but it’s leaf nori. It’s not the paper nori. It’s fresh and raw and in its original form. And then, finally, we have a very special product called sea grapes. It’s a red seaweed that forms these little vesicles that looks just like grapes but are filled with briny seawater, and it goes great with things like oysters.
Lee: People talk about sustainable agriculture. And talk about sustainable aquaculture. But there’s a restorative aspect that seaweed has in the oceans, right. I mean, there’s a bigger picture here which I would like you to paint me a picture of.
Mike: Yes. This is probably one of the happiest environmental stories you can ever imagine. So, what seaweed does is it takes carbon and nitrogen out of its living environment, and it processes it into sugars and proteins which we eat. So it’s talking carbon and nitrogen and making food. Most farming that’s similar to in terms of vegetables, but we have to add those nutrients to the system in terms of fertilizers. Carbon dioxide obviously comes out of the air. In the ocean, the fertilizers and the carbon dioxide come naturally in the ocean.
Lee: This is obviously something that — you’re the leading expert on the West Coast in seaweed, I can say that. You might say that too, but I can certainly say that. Why has this become such a passion, knowledge base, and avocation of yours?
Mike: Yes, I am a seaweed biologist here. I teach graduate students, a very large suite of them about seaweed biology on the coast and natural systems. And I do, at a global scale, lots of work with kelp forests. I like to eat marine protein, so I very much got into, early, the aquaculture industry. And, obviously, my expertise was seaweed. But it really happened when I married my wife, and she was a chef who just had a hankering for playing with this kind of stuff. And together we just got this crazy idea that with my seaweed expertise, and her knowledge of what chefs want and how to work through a kitchen, that we might have the opportunity to put together a pretty cool product.
And we really wanted to demonstrate that you can do this. There’s mom and pop vineyards, and there’s mom and pop horticulture programs that are going into farmer’s markets. And there’s none for aquaculture. And we’ve demonstrated that with us, and our kids, and the help of the university, that we can put together a quality product that the top chefs of the United States like. And we get excited about it, and it’s fun. And it was just a really great nexus of our two individual expertises and to yield this very interesting system we got.
Todd: You’re not putting chemicals into the water. You’re not using fresh water. You’re not using land.
Lee: That’s Todd Jagoutz again, confirming that the future of kelp looks pretty good.
Todd: It’s just positive from start to finish. There aren’t many things that you can do in life and you can grow that you can say that about.
Lee: As kelp farmers like to say, “Kelp is the new kale.” Thanks to Serafina, Todd, Bren, and Mike for being part of the podcast. Go to futurefood.fm to get show notes and transcripts. You can also subscribe at futurefood.fm and never miss a Podcast. If you’re an iTunes person, subscribe there. Don’t forget to rate us on iTunes. It helps me keep the podcast going and growing. I’m Lee Schneider. Thanks for listening.