He Made Kelp the New Kale, but This Seaweed Farmer Isn’t Done Yet

Bren Smith has big ideas for changing aquaculture and the American diet.
Shellfish growing on ropes underwater. (Photo: Sami Sarkis/Getty Images)
Mar 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When TakePart talked to Bren Smith, the owner of Connecticut’s Thimble Island Oyster Co., more than two years ago, he was at the beginning of a seaweed crusade. In his vertical, multi-trophic aquaculture model, which he calls 3-D farming, the sea vegetable grows alongside mussels and scallops on floating ropes while clams and oysters flourish in cages below. The system not only mimics the bivalves’ natural habitat, but the kelp and other sea vegetables scrub nitrogen pollution out of the water, and they are less susceptible to ocean acidification and other ravages of climate change. Developing a market for kelp and other sea vegetables, one of the world’s most sustainable and nutritious crops, Smith surmised, would provide a way for small-scale fishers to make a living. The problem would be making people want to eat the salty, slick greens that wash up on the sand.

“To get there, I have to make kelp the new kale,” he said at the time.

Two years later—following interviews with Bon Appétit and The New Yorker, an honor from President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, and, in February, a $100,000 prize from the Buckminster Fuller Institute for his ocean farming model—the problem Smith has on his hands is not one of marketing but of supply and demand.

RELATED: Is Kelp the New Kale?

“It’s a kelp tsunami,” he said in a recent interview with TakePart. “I was expecting 10 years to get people to eat this weird, disgusting stuff.”

Embed yourself in Google’s New York cafeteria, though, and others start to sit up and take notice. Smith said he has requests in his in-box from every coastal state and 42 countries to start farms—in addition to interest from 150 restaurants and major wholesalers and retailers.

“We could probably be moving a million pounds of kelp a year based on the orders,” he said. But Smith wants to move slowly, taking into consideration the mistakes in infrastructure we’ve witnessed in traditional aquaculture and Big Ag.

Bren Smith. (Photo: Courtesy Thimble Island Ocean Farm)

“It’s not just to create businesses and jobs and boutique food for people in Brooklyn,” he said. “It’s really about: How do we do food right this time? How do we figure out what species to grow? How to make sure there’s access for beginning farmers? How do we protect our seeds from Monsanto? How do we do small-scale network production rather than massive Iowa pig farms at sea?”

Smith started GreenWave as a way to rebuild a sustainable food system. Ten farmers have graduated from his two-year training program in which trainees receive a small grant, free gear from sponsor Patagonia, and access to seeds. GreenWave then agrees to buy up to 80 percent of what they grow for five years at triple the market rate. At a rate of five new farms a year, GreenWave plans to start 25 farms in the next five years.

“That’s the mix of stuff we think a farmer needs to get up and started, get some financial security, and turn this from a part-time hobby into a real job,” Smith said.

Smith calls the second leg of GreenWave’s work “infrastructure development.” It’s building hatcheries and putting the finishing touches on a micro-seafood hub in Fair Haven, Connecticut. A food truck will be rolling onto New York City streets this summer, and Smith is consulting with the White House on seaweed’s potential as a biofuel.

Then there are more basic problems to solve when putting a new fresh food product on supermarket shelves. “How do we make baby kelp leaves the same as the baby arugula on the shelf?” Smith asked, a question he will no doubt find a way to answer soon.

Value-added culinary innovation—aka the aforementioned “boutique food for people in Brooklyn”—is the element consumers will care about and what will ultimately make kelp cool. Think restaurant chefs like Superiority Burger’s Brooks Headley, who recently coupled Smith’s kelp noodles with roasted carrots, barbecue sauce, bread crumbs, and lemon at the East Village restaurant. The dish sold out by the end of the afternoon.

“Maybe exactly what kelp needs is a little punk rock,” Smith said, “not hippie vegans.” Then there’s frozen kelp noodles, seaweed pet food, seaweed moonshine, seaweed bouillon, and fresh seaweed juices.

This mix of farms, seafood hub, institutional buyers, and culinary entrepreneurs is the GreenWave “wreath” that Smith would like to replicate up and down the coast every 200 miles. “That would be the hope of a really sustainable Napa Valley meroir on our coast,” he said.

At this point, he sees an embrace of sea vegetables as a matter of how and when, not if. As climate change continues to affect food security and prices rise, Smith sees zero-input seaweed—which requires no land, feed, fertilizer, or fresh water—as a no-brainer.

“I always get this question from folks: ‘Why are people gonna eat this weird stuff that washes up on the beach?’ My answer now is, we’re going to be eating it no matter what. The job of the chefs and all of us is to make sure it’s beautiful and delicious versus, you know, cod liver oil.”