The Dish: Meet Rhode Island's First Commercial Kelp Farmers

Jules Opton-Himmel of Walrus and Carpenter Oysters hopes to supplement his shellfish business by growing kelp in the off-season.

Walrus and Carpenter oyster farmers Jules Opton-Himmel, Steven Medgyesy and Finn Kelly cruise along Dutch Harbor in their skiff, killing the motor as they approach the Jamestown Bridge. Floating oyster racks belonging to Jamestown Oyster Company can be seen in the distance, but oysters are not the reason they’re out on the bay today. The group of three farmers kicks up the country music and begins to reel in a section of a 1,000-foot line with white buoys attached. Clinging to the rope are dozens of vertical blades of wavy moss-colored sugar kelp, some reaching thirty to forty inches in length.

Pulling in the kelp line in Jamestown.

This seaweed is the second harvest ever for Walrus and Carpenter’s first off-season crop and Rhode Island’s only commercial sugar kelp farm. It will be cut, washed and processed and some of it will be turned into Opton-Himmel’s Cabbages and Kings kelp salad. Other seaweed will be sold like produce to restaurants. The name Cabbages and Kings comes from the whimsical poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass.

Seaweed salad is usually served at Japanese restaurants alongside sushi. But the product often comes from Korea or China in fifty-gallon drums that may contain artificial ingredients, dyes and chemicals used to extend freshness and provide vivid green coloring. Opton-Himmel’s idea is to cultivate a locally harvested kelp that is blanched and seasoned with soy, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, pickled ginger and sesame seeds. “Our goal is to create a local seaweed salad without any chemicals or dyes that is made fresh with just seaweed,” Opton-Himmel says. “We think there is a market opportunity to produce something that’s local, healthier, and you know where it comes from.”

Kelp blades are about thirty to forty inches long.

The business is just kicking off, but has the potential to grow. Currently, sugar kelp is farmed in Maine and Connecticut, but this is the first Rhode Island operation with culinary potential. Local chefs are purchasing the fresh kelp and using it to accent upscale cuisine. Early adopters include Nick Rabar from Avenue N, 41 North, James Mark of north, Derek Wagner of Nicks on Broadway and others. At a recent presentation at the Eat Drink RI Festival’s Grand Tasting, Wagner explains how he dehydrates the kelp and crumbles it on top of salads and roasted fish as a garnish. “It has great texture and a beautiful flavor,” Wagner says. “We want it to taste like the most perfect summer day with a light cool breeze at high tide.”

Opton-Himmel and crew are harvesting kelp to turn Walrus and Carpenter into a viable year-round business. Currently, the oyster farmer employs three people year-round, and four seasonally. But, since kelp is planted in mid-December and harvested in early spring, he hopes to eventually support more year-round jobs. The kelp crop started with wild kelp that was harvested while scuba diving at Beavertail. He worked with Scott Lindell at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (who is now at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) to spawn it in a lab. “That process is pretty complex, but we did it successfully, and we’re excited,” he says.

The procedure involves drying out the wild kelp in a dark environment and tricking it to release spores, much like a mushroom. Then they collect the spores in sea water and inoculate 200-foot spools of one-millimeter twine. “The spores settle on the twine, and over the course of the next two months, you keep it in a tank and feed it with nutrients and control the amount of light it gets,” says Opton-Himmel. The kelp spores are continuously fed nutrients and filtered sea water is changed every week, while carbon dioxide is bubbled into the tanks to replicate a natural environment. “Once it’s on that seed line, you check it under a microscope,” he says. “And when it gets to a certain size that you can see with the naked eye, we take it out to the farm.”

The twine spools are protected within PVC tubes. Once they motor by boat out to the farm, the PVC tube hooks up to the line. “You untie one end of the spool of twine and back up the boat,” says Opton-Himmel. “As you’re backing up the boat, the spool is moving down the line and the twine unravels. When you’re done, you have 1,000 feet of rope with the seed line twisted around it.”

The seed line sat six feet below the surface of the bay at Dutch Harbor all winter long, and the farmers checked on it every two weeks. Originally, they planned to harvest the kelp in April, but growth was slow. The group wasn’t even clear if the experiment had succeeded, but when they returned in May, it turned out it was a marketable product after all. Now they’re reaching out to chefs and restaurants to promote it as an ingredient in cuisine. “It’s not as easy as selling oysters, because it’s a new thing,” says Opton-Himmel. “You basically have to create the market.”

For the Cabbages and Kings kelp salad product, Walrus and Carpenter enlisted the help of Hope in Main in Warren to obtain necessary licenses from the Department of Health and to plan packaging and labeling. They have a Health Department-certified space in Narragansett where they process both the shellfish and the kelp. Since the fresh product is harvested all at once, they’re also blanching and freezing it for future sales.

For next year, they are hoping to grow kelp in different locations, including Mount Hope Bay and Prudence Island, to test its success in other environments. They’ll try growing it on the surface of the water, three feet below and six feet below to see what method produces the longest blades. “We’re trying to figure out the right conditions for growing sugar kelp in Southern New England,” Opton-Himmel says. One day in the future, he imagines supplementing his oyster farm with an off-season kelp hatchery that could potentially supply seed lines to other growers. It might make oyster harvesting less nerve-wracking.

“Oyster farming puts you in a precarious position. If all the oysters die, what do you do?” he says. “If we start a kelp hatchery and give seed lines to other growers who are interested in it, then we can have a steady supply of product. And if we have a product to create, like Cabbages and Kings kelp salad, then we’ll have more stability in the business.”

Video: Watch the farmers harvest the kelp.



The view from the skiff.
The view from the boat launch at Fort Getty in Jamestown.
Categories: Business, Dish, Environment, Food and Drink
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