Sea Fare

Sea Fare

You’re probably familiar with CSAs bringing fresh vegetables to farm supporters, but how about a CSA for fresh seafood?

A decade ago, Branford’s Thimble Island Ocean Farm launched what it called “the first shellfish and seaweed CSA program in the country.” That community-supported fishery, or CSF, took a pause for seven years while TIOF owner and farmer Bren Smith turned his attention to a nonprofit project to help other ocean farmers. Now that COVID has triggered “a need to dig in here at home,” as Smith puts it, the CSF is back. On the first Saturday of every month from May to October, members old and new will pick up shares of oysters, clams and fresh kelp, all farmed just off the Branford coastline, as well as a variety of specialty kelp products.

The word “farm” may seem strange when attached to seafood, but that’s exactly what Smith, a former Newfoundland fisherman and Gloucester lobsterman, is operating in Stony Creek. One bright, warm March day with seas so calm I could practically see my reflection in the water, Smith and farm manager Jill Pegnataro invited me to hop on board their converted lobster trawler, and we motored out past rocky Rogers Island to a field of black and white buoys floating in the Sound. This is Smith’s regenerative ocean farm, 20 acres of water where he’s been raising oysters, mussels and kelp since 2005. “Regenerative” refers to the fact that the farm is “literally breathing life back in the ocean,” Smith says. “Our kelp soaks up carbon, nitrogen. The oysters filter out nitrogen.” And ocean farming is “zero-input”: “We don’t have to water, we don’t have to fertilize, we don’t need land, we don’t need to feed it,” he explains.

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That makes ocean farming a potential game-changer for the future of food. “We don’t know how fast it’s going to happen,” Smith says. “We just need to lay the groundwork for enough permits, enough farms, enough hatcheries, enough infrastructure.” That includes processing plants and cold storage for these perishable foodstuffs. Kelp, for example, has to be processed—blanched, powdered or frozen—within eight hours of harvest.

Regenerative ocean farming has a 5,000-year history in North America, Smith says, beginning with indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, who built clam walls in the ocean. Today, Thimble Island Ocean Farm serves in part as a training area for GreenWave, Smith’s nonprofit venture to get more ocean farms up and working. GreenWave has so far trained and supported more than 500 farmers and hatchery technicians nationwide. It’s also working to create a network of buyers interested in using kelp both as food and in manufacturing products such as fertilizer and bioplastics packaging.

Smith motored up next to one black buoy, and Pegnataro leaned over with a hook to catch the rope attached to it. Together, they hauled from the water a curtain of shiny, golden-green kelp. Seeded back in November, each twisting strand of baby kelp was now up to two feet long and about as wide as a ruler. Smith invited me to tear off a piece and try it, my first-ever taste of kelp pulled straight from the ocean. It was a little bit crunchy with a mild, slightly salty flavor—tastier than I’d expected.

The CSF’s shellfish share ($250 for a six-month season) will include one dozen oysters from Thimble Island Ocean Farm and two dozen Branford-grown clams from C.W. Shellfish in each monthly box. For $60, members can order a Seaweed Add-On share, serving up baby and whole leaf sugar kelp as well as pickled kelp, marinated kelp pet treats and kelp bagels and schmear from New Haven’s Olmo. Sponsored shares can also be purchased and donated to New Haveners who can’t afford their own. Pick-up will be at GreenWave’s facility on the Quinnipiac River.

Most people know what to do with shellfish—though learning to shuck an oyster may take some persistence—but kelp? “What they need to do is taste it,” Smith says. The most common reaction he gets is, “Oh, this doesn’t taste like seaweed!” Then, people need to get a little bit creative in the kitchen. “Kelp is the New Kale” is the title of one chapter in Smith’s book Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures Farming the Ocean to Fight Climate Change (2019), which includes 10 pages of recipes. Online, you can find recipes that fold kelp into everything from coleslaw to chocolate chip cookies.

Jacqueline Munno, a programs manager at the Yale Sustainable Food Program, which uses Smith’s kelp as fertilizer, was a member of Thimble Island Ocean Farm’s first CSF, and she’s back this season for more. “I really like the anticipation of receiving something special,” she says, noting that she browses recipes and looks forward to the meals she’ll make with each box. “These shellfish are not just foodstuffs,” Munno says. “They’re also organisms that are providing ecosystem services for the Sound, and as residents of New Haven County… everything that we do has an effect on the ocean… It’s a fun way to close the loop and to connect with the ocean in a way that you might not normally.”

Smith issues a reminder that, like a CSA, the CSF is an investment—one crucial to local farmers, providing them cash up front and shared risk. “It is hard to grow food and risky to grow food,” he says. “There are storms and all sorts of issues, and you want that shared risk. It shouldn’t just be all on the farmer… We’re really all in the same boat in this, and that’s why we just love CSF members. It’s like community insurance in that way, but you also get food.”

While the three of us—Smith and Pegnataro and I—along with Juniper, Smith’s big black Newfoundland, were enjoying being out on the water for this promising, not-quite-spring afternoon, Pegnataro admitted it’s not always fun. The farm has to be checked a couple of times a week, and in the middle of the winter it can be very cold and choppy out there. Pegnataro stood on deck holding her long hook like a trident. “I’ve gotten tougher,” said the Sound School graduate, who started out as a technician in GreenWave’s hatchery. Then again, “It might be hard to break ice, but it sure is hard sitting in a cubicle,” Smith pointed out.

Growing food, Pegnataro says, is “kind of sacred… It’s this thing that we spend so much time and energy on and hope to feed people… It just is a really good feeling.” She recalled one day when they lost some kelp from a line. “It hurt my heart a little bit ’cause you think about all the time and energy you put into it, and then it’s just gone.”

“That’s when I started calling her a farmer,” Smith said proudly. Pegnataro laughed and dipped the heavy line of kelp back into Long Island Sound, where it will continue to grow until, in a couple of months, some of it will be ready for the dinner plate.

Thimble Island Ocean Farm CSF
GreenWave – 315 Front St, New Haven (map)

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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