It’s late April. Most farmers in North America have just finished planting their crops. Bren Smith is harvesting his near Thimble Island in Long Island Sound.
If that sounds unusual to you, it’s because Smith’s farm is unusual. Instead of harvesting crops with a tractor, Smith uses a boat. And instead of growing corn, or wheat, or beans, Smith grows…seaweed!
Welcome to the world of ocean farming.
Bren Smith checks how well the seaweed on his farm is growing.
A Hidden Farm
Out here on the water, it’s easy to miss Bren Smith’s farm. You could row right over it and never even know it. But there are clues.
You might notice a series of white floating balls called buoys bobbing up and down across the wide, wavy surface. Follow those buoys with your eyes and connect them with imaginary lines, like a giant connect-the-dots puzzle. You’ll see that they form the edges of a huge area the size of 30 football fields. That’s the border of the farm.
Look closer. Black buoys dot the water inside the border. They may seem scattered at first, spaced more than a couple bus lengths apart. The black buoys form long rows. Those buoys mark rows of crops.
But don’t expect to see plants poking above the water. The whole idea of an ocean farm is that everything is under the sea, like an underwater garden. It’s an idea that Bren Smith has turned into a lifelong passion.
These black and white buoys mark part of the parameters of Bren Smith's ocean farm.
A New Kind of Farming
Smith always knew he wanted to earn his living on the ocean. And from the time he was a teenager, that’s exactly what he did. He became a commercial fisher. Whether catching cod in the North Atlantic or seeking salmon off the coast of Alaska, Smith loved life on the sea. He loved the freedom of being his own boss. Mostly he loved the idea of providing food for people.
But Smith was troubled. He noticed that the fishing boats were chugging farther and farther out to sea to find fish. That’s because fish were being taken from the ocean faster than they could be replaced. The fishers were overfishing. When one part of the ocean ran out of fish, the boats moved on.
Meet Bren Smith.
Bren Smith hauls in a basket from his ocean farm.
Not only were fish populations getting smaller and smaller, their homes were being destroyed, too. Fishers often caught fish by dragging a net behind the boat along the seafloor. The nets tore up reefs and other ecosystems where fish and many kinds of sea animals live.
Smith saw all this. He was part of it. And he didn’t like it. He thought there must be a better way to harvest food from the sea. We should be able to use ocean resources in a sustainable way. That means using something without using it up and without harming the environment.
Smith sought the advice of a scientist who happened to be an expert on seaweed. Smith knew a little bit about seaweed. He knew it was the slimy stuff that washes up on rocks, clogs fishing nets, and gets twisted around boat propellers. He knew it sort of looks like a plant but isn’t a plant—it’s a type of algae. But he also knew that it is edible. Many kinds of seaweed are common foods in Asia and were becoming more popular around the world, including North America.