From Growing Oysters to Growing Kelp on Martha's Vineyard

Mar 31, 2016

Dan Martino stood in front of his farm off Eastville Beach in Oak Bluffs. It’s two acres of grey-green cold seawater. Ducks were flying around and waves break on the shore. Everything that he’s growing was invisible from the land. You wouldn’t know this was a farm unless you dove under to see it.

Dan and his brother Greg cultivate oysters out here in the summer and are now testing a new crop that they planted in December: Sugar Kelp.

“We’re kind of piggy-backing on what the Asian communities have been doing for hundreds of years,” Martino said. “We deployed kelp lines out here on the farm to grow as a wintertime crop. So it gets harvested end of March, early April. Which is about the time, end of April, when our oyster seed arrives. So it completes a full year cycle growing for a farmer.”

Boats were coming in and out of the harbor, and there was an on-going construction project happening behind us on Beach Road. This was about as urban as the Vineyard gets. But looking out you could imagine the kelp waving, oblivious to the rest of us, like flags under the sea, being moved by the winds, tides and currents of Vineyard Sound. Farming like this takes early-adopters, innovation and some chutzpah. The Martino brothers will harvest their first crop while the water is still cold.

“We park the boat underneath the grow line,” Martino explained. “We pull the line up over the boat, and then we actually cut, with scissors, the blades of kelp off. They fall down into the boat, right into our cooler. Then we ice them down, bring them to shore, and start processing them.”

Kelp grows naturally in these waters. You can find it washed up on shore and use it in soups or salads if you wanted to. But when you collect it off a beach, you never know how long it’s been out of water and starting to rot.

“We just want to maintain the integrity of the product,” said Martino. “So once we get it back to the processing place, we hose it down with cold water and remove any fouling that might be on it – other types of seaweed or algae, or crabs, or anything you might find. Then we actually steam and boil it for 30 seconds. Then we blanch it in cold water, just like you would green beans, and pop it right into the freezer. It really preserves all the nutrients in it, and it’s a final clean product that chefs can use.”

Martino told me that there are farmers in Maine who’ve ditched growing oysters for kelp and seaweed instead, and are now shipping it all over the states.

“It almost doubles in size weekly,” he said. “It thrives. It starts microscopic and by the end it can be seven feet long.”

Incredible right?

“And it doesn’t require any food,” he went on. “It doesn’t require any fresh water, it doesn’t require any additives into the environment at all. It’s only extracting what some people would call pollutants - nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon. It’s only extracting elements out of the water. It’s pretty neat. It’s definitely the future.”

The brothers are farming kelp under a research project with the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. The project not only includes how to seed, grow, harvest and process the kelp, but also how to market it. And, how to get people to eat it. Dan and Greg plan on connecting with local chefs, to taste-test and cook with the kelp. Dan is enthusiastic.  

“It’s like kale, before people discovered kale,” he said. “It’s kind of like this gem that you know is really healthy and full of vitamins and makes you live longer. It’s like a mystical ingredient that you can add.”

I always add a piece of kelp (also called kombu) to my pot of beans, because it helps make beans more digestible, and I also like the ocean water foggy-salty-subtle flavor it adds.

Americans already eat plenty of seaweed when you consider how ubiquitous sushi is now. Dan Martino would love to grow nori – the dark green seaweed sushi is wrapped in and you can find different seaweeds in stores – as salad or packaged as snacks. They’re often made with seaweed imported from Korea or the Pacific Ocean. Hopefully that can change.

“Grow it here on Martha’s Vineyard,” Martino said. “Instead of bringing it from the mainland. It all makes a lot of sense. Just keep it super local.”