Winter Produce From the Ocean

2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Sharon Kitchens Maine Correspondent

Kelp Season Is in Full Swing in Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — The 2005 and 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, produced by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, recommended Americans eat more fruits and vegetables regardless of type — canned, frozen, fresh or dried.

For consumers in Maine, who want the convenience of frozen produce in winter but also want to know where it comes from, Portland-based Ocean Approved and their “sustainably harvested” kelp offers a good option.

Kelp is a good source of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, iodine and fiber. Mild in flavor, kelp is a versatile ingredient that can be substituted into a number of recipes from pasta to soups and even salads. It is primarily available to restaurants — all of the Flatbreads in New England use it — food service organizations, including those that supply Bowdoin College and Mercy Hospital, and select food stores.

Ocean Approved includes a total of eight acres on four separate farm sites in Maine, two of which have been planted out this season. The business is owned by Tollef Olson and Paul Dobbins.

The company’s farms are capable of producing up to 30,000 pounds of kelp per acre. The company grows horsetail, sugar kelp and winged kelp.

Both Dobbins and Olson grew up on the water. Dobbins’ father fished out of Chatham, Mass., and his mother’s extended family fishes along the Maine coast.

For Olson, his fascination with the ocean arrived at age 10 with Jules Verne’s science fiction novel, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” Born in Maine, Olson began his fishing career on Florida’s west coast. By the time he started Bangs Island Mussels in 1998, he had 37 years of experience on the water as a commercial fisherman, marine consultant and marine salvage expert. According to Olson, mussels were always a gateway to kelp. After running the aquaculture farm for nearly 10 years, including three years with Dobbins, Bangs Island Mussels was sold and Ocean Approved was founded. Prior to selling Bangs Island Mussels, Olson ran both businesses until he was confident kelp would take off.

Olson took the technology he had adapted from European aquaculture farms for cultivating rope-grown mussels and utilized it to develop a system for growing kelp.

“This is about as clean green as you can grow,” Olson said. “There is no fresh water, no arable or tillable land, no fertilizers and no pesticides. Another thing that’s beautiful about the kelp is its countercyclical. I grow my kelp in the wintertime. I bring most of the gear up in the summertime. All that is left are the mooring systems and all the rest of this area is all open.”

Kelp is a winter crop — the growing season runs October to May — as it grows best when the water is cold and sunlight is low. Dobbins is amazed at how resilient kelp is to Maine’s environment.

“We left some surplus 1-millimeter-long kelp sporelings lying in the snow on a dock during a seeding day,” Dobbins said. “At the end of the day, we threw them in the back of an open pickup, drove about an hour back to our nursery, and just to see what would happen, put them back in a tank. They thrived and were out planted in the open ocean about a week later. Nature is determined that this species is going to survive.”

The farm season starts in late September when the company harvests spores developed from small kelp plants in their nursery, a process the company has been researching since 2009. In October, the company begins seeding several thousand feet of lines that are suspended 7 feet below the surface. Seeding is completed by the end of December.

According to Dobbins, the kelp grow from microscopic spores to full-blown 9- to 12-foot-long plants in about 130 days during midwinter, growing five inches per day in March and April, when harvesting begins. By the end of May, harvesting is finished and the farms are prepped for the dormant summer season.

According to Olson, China has been growing kelp commercially since the 1950s and grows 97 percent of kelp that is on the market right now.

“This is such a huge industry worldwide that it has huge potential for the state of Maine,” Olson said. “This could create jobs up and down the coast. It already is.” On a seasonal basis, Ocean Approved employs between two and 24 people depending on the harvest/processing schedule, which is very weather dependent.

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