Tuesday January 07, 2014 | 04:20 PM

Young kelp, two to three weeks old in the Gulf of Maine.

In Maine when the weather turns cold (or frigid might be a better description), indoor farmers’ markets, year-round CSAs, and a pantry full of preserved foods only offers so many options for fruits and vegetables. This is when consumers turn to the supermarket freezer aisle, where ample amounts of healthy frozen fruits and vegetables are always available. According to the results of a Nielsen Homescan survey released last June, some 90% of people say they bought frozen vegetables at least once in the past year. That is not surprising considering how convenient frozen produce is, but most of those fruits and vegetables traveled a long way to get to your local grocery. One of the few exceptions, Maine grown wild blueberries, which are frozen fresh at harvest, thus maintaining their flavor and antioxidant goodness at their peak.

More people want to know where there food came from and are looking for healthy sources of fruits and vegetables year-round. This is where Tollef Olson and Paul Dobbins of Portland-based Ocean Approved and their sustainably harvested fresh frozen Maine seaweed products come into the picture. 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 salads. Though primarily only available to restaurants (all the Flatbreads in New England use it) and food service organizations (including those that supply Bowdoin College and Mercy Hospital); Whole Foods Market, Harbor Fish Market and Browne’s Trading Company carry their products, and they can be purchased online

Ocean Approved has eight acres over four farm sites in Maine, two of which have been planted out this season. To date they have not planted out all four together in one season. The company’s farms are capable of producing up to 30,000 pounds of kelp per acre for a total of over 100,000 pounds annually. They grow Horsetail (Laminaria digitata), Sugar Kelp (Saccharina latissima), and Winged Kelp (Alaria esculenta).

Both Dobbins and Olson grew up on the water. Dobbins father fished out of Chatham, MA. and his mother’s extended family fishes along the Maine coast. For Olson his fascination with the ocean arrived at age ten 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 aquafarm for nearly ten years (three of those with Dobbins), Bangs Island Mussels was sold and Ocean Approved founded. Prior to selling, Olson and Dobbins concurrently ran both businesses till they were confident kelp would take off. Olson took the technology he had adapted from European aqua farms cultivating rope-grown mussels and utilized it to develop a system for growing kelp.

 

Tollef Olson holding two month old kelp from an Ocean Approved farm in the Gulf of Maine.

“This is about as clean green as you can grow,” said Olson. “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, it grows best when the water is cold and sunlight is low. Dobbins commented on how resilient and adapted to the Maine environment the kelp is. “We left some surplus 1mm long kelp sporelings lying in the snow on a dock during a seeding day,” he 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 seven feet below the surface. By the end of December they have finished seeding.

According to Dobbins, the kelp grows from microscopic spore to a full blown 9-12 foot long plant in about 130 days during mid-winter and about 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% 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,” said Olson. “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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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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