Farming the Virtuous Vegetable"In my travels I saw what a huge part of the diet it comprised in so many other countries."
Tollef Olson grew up in Maine, then followed the traditional route of generations of Mainers before him: He took to the sea. He's worked in shipping and marine salvage, and generally has become familiar with the tang of salty air. "I've probably been around the world a dozen times," he says.
And like Mainers before him, he returned home. He moved back in 1993, but didn't stray far from the sea. He took up aquaculture, becoming a mussel farmer. He acquired the know-how, equipment and leases for ocean beds, raising mussels on floating farms in the state's numerous harbors and bays.
While raising mussels, another notion took seed. In a word: kelp. "I could see the writing on the wall," he says. "In my travels I saw what a huge part of the diet it comprised in so many other countries." He realized how sensible it was to raise a quick-growing, nutritious and economical sea product. He calls it the "virtuous vegetable."
"When I thought the time was right, I sold the mussels and moved into kelp," he says.
His first step? Reinvent kelp as a fresh product in America. In much of the world, it's sold dried in sheets. As such, it takes an extra step to prepare it, and what results has a pungent, powerful taste. But kelp has a cell structure that allows it to freeze quite well. And when cooked fresh, it has a mild, almost comfort-food taste of the sea. "One of my favorite analogies is the difference between a dried pea and a frozen pea," he says. "And for color, taste, texture and ease of use, it's better frozen."
To grow kelp, Olson starts with saltwater tanks on land, in which kelp produces microscopic spores. These are captured, germinated and fed for about a month. When the young kelp is viable, the seaweed is taken out to sea, where it grows on lines submerged about seven feet beneath the ocean's surface — away from the waves, but close enough for light and photosynthesis. "It does need some sunshine," Olson notes.
He now oversees four kelp farms — three in Casco Bay, just off the coast of Portland, and one farther northeast near Blue Hill. And he has about 10 employees, many seasonal. About 70 or 80 percent of the seaweed he sells today is still harvested by divers in the wild, done sustainably to ensure the kelp beds remain productive. But he believes that within a few years all of his kelp will be farm grown.
Olson's frozen kelp is sold in natural food stores and served in local restaurants. (It can also be ordered online.) To date, it's carried by only one grocery chain — but that's Whole Foods, in its Southwest and Northeast stores. ("That's a pretty big 'only,'" Olson admits.)
The short-term challenge is to convince consumers to give it a try. "We're looking at lots of new ways to serve it — we're moving away from traditional," Olson says. "A lot of our focus is on new dishes — it's just a mild green vegetable, and it can be used in so many applications that it surprises people." And once they try it, they often become converts.
Long term, he's convinced the bigger challenge will be to meet swelling demand as a growing population clamors to be fed. To his credit, it's a challenge he's convinced he'll be ready to meet.
Check out Tollef's Portland, ME.