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Article Published January 30, 2019
Down on the Farm in Fishers Island Sound
Kathy Connolly

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

Consider 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 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.

The idea behind restorative 3-D ocean farming is a simple scaffolding system that includes hurricane-proof anchors, horizontal rope, and kelp growing vertically on lines next to scallops and mussels, with oysters in cages hanging off of that, and clams in the mud.

To spread the idea, Smith co-founded Greenwave, an organization that helps would-be ocean farmers to get up and running. Some of the 50 candidates it’s 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, owners of the Stonington Kelp Co.

Krizl Soriano, a Greenwave spokeswoman, says the Stonington Kelp Co. is one of four trainees in Connecticut that have permitted farms, and the only one so far that has launched its operation. She says there are also a few other farms in the works in Connecticut not directly working with Greenwave.

She says Greenwave’s goal is to help feed local communities while also protecting the planet. Uses for the kelp include food and fertilizer.

“Food is most obvious as you can use kelp whole,” she says.

After it is grown, properly harvested, and cleaned, it can be turned into a variety of products.

Some local restaurateurs—including ROÌA Restaurant and 116 Crown, both in New Haven—have used kelp in a range of dishes including kelp pesto, kelp noodles, kelp dashi, kelp salad, and kelp butter.

“It also can be turned into other products like seasonings, candies, and nori sheets,” Soriano says. “We have partners developing a bullion cube. Ocean farm scraps, the parts of the plant that can’t be used for food, can be turned into fertilizer for farms and gardens. Kelp soaks up carbon and nitrogen in the water, which are nutrients needed for growing plants.”

Other possible uses include turning it into bioplastics.

“Some companies are already working on this. There’s a lot of research happening with animal feed and biofuels, however, there’s still a ways to go innovation-wise,” Soriano says.

Greenwave works with New Haven-based Sea Greens Farm, which then processes it and distributes it. The folks at Sea Greens Farm say kelp just could be the new kale.

A Fishing Expedition

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 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’s 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.

Flores says site selection is critical.

“If you don’t select well, you won’t know you have a problem for a year,” she says. “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 per week from December to April to check on equipment and progress. The farm work can take from 30 minutes to three hours.

She says the kelp has to be sorted rapidly once harvested.

Only some of it is culinary quality and other parts are better suited to fertilizer and animal feed. It has to be flash frozen shortly after harvest. If the timing is off, the harvester misses out on that day’s harvest.

Note to beachcombers: Kelp that washes up on land should never be consumed.

‘Peaceful, Green, Calming’

Beginning in April 2019, Flores and Douglas 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’s 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, says Flores, “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,” says Flores, 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 says. “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 says. “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 adds. “With good ocean farming practices, we’ll create more goodness for our rivers and the Sound.”

Farms, Self-Directed Lives

Smith says that is indeed the goal.

He said in a video made for the 2016 Disruptive Innovation Festival that when he started he was “laughed off the water by fellow fisherman...And now we have folks just flooding towards us. We have requests to start farms in every coastal state in North America, and 40 countries around the world.”

He admitted it was a little embarrassing, initially, to consider growing kelp for a living, since he was a fisherman.

“I chase and kill things for a living,” he says—but then he realized that traditional fishing practices can be harmful when they lead to overfishing and the destruction of ecosystems.

Part of what he loves about this restorative 3-D ocean farming initiative is that “we can have farms. We can have self-directed lives. And we can make our livelihoods on the water.”

He says if it works out the way he envisions it, that 3-D farming could result in thousands of jobs, help clean up the oceans, and help with problems like food insecurity.

“It’s a big dream,” he says in the video. “I think we can pull it off.”

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

Pem McNerney contributed to this article.