GreenWave works to restore oceans all over the globe while creating jobs and a market for seaweed. In 2015, they won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and since then, founder Bren Smith and the GreenWave team have been busy training new ocean farmers, developing markets for kelp, and figuring out how to connect with land-based agriculture. Over the last several years, GreenWave has received requests to start restorative ocean farms in every coastal region in North America and 20 countries around the world.
In order to meet this huge demand, GreenWave has developed a “high touch/low touch” approach, combining digital tools and community building with in-person training. GreenWave’s two-year Farmer-In-Training program includes instruction at GreenWave’s floating classroom, free seed, and free gear from Patagonia. GreenWave’s science team assists with farm set up and monitoring, and farmers in training get connected with GreenWave’s extensive buyer network. GreenWave’s trained farmers currently participate in an online sharing community, and for Smith, this is the real key to scaling successfully:
“We need to wire our farms and we need to network our farmers. Because we have to learn in 10 years what took land-based farmers 3,000 years to learn.”
Over the next year, Smith hopes to expand the way farmers connect with each other digitally in order to share information and help each other farm successfully.
Unlike most land-based producers, GreenWave ocean farmers do not own the waters they farm. Instead, they own the right to farm shellfish and seaweed in public waters. Restorative ocean farms are also open for swimming and fishing, unlike industrial aquaculture farms.
GreenWave has successfully permitted hundreds of acres for new ocean farmers in New England and Alaska, and is beginning landscape analysis in the Pacific Northwest. In California, GreenWave is working with a “sea trust” model in which farmers borrow from land trusts and allot different areas for farming, artisanal fishery, and kelp forest reforestation. “This is like a blue carbon zone where we’re breathing life back into ecosystems, we’re creating blue-green jobs, and helping feed folks. The future I think is the sea trust model.”
One of the major challenges to meeting GreenWave’s goal of “500 farms, 10 regions, 5 years” is the cost of land-based processing infrastructure. Stabilizing seaweed and making it available for different markets requires processing on land, which can be expensive. “The beauty of ocean farming is that it’s really cheap to do,” says Smith. “When you hit land, you face all the challenges of land-based agriculture.”
The other challenge lies in the sheer amount of excitement about ocean farming as the food system’s silver bullet. With all of the attention from consumers, the media, and major investors, combined with the prevailing perspective of the ocean as a blank slate, Smith worries that this new industry could make the same mistakes as industrial agriculture.
Smith is a self-proclaimed “huge fan of bundles of solutions.” To a large extent, this means making the connection between land and sea instead of simply viewing the ocean as a new frontier. GreenWave is working on building a kelp-based fertilizer plant in the South Bronx to create jobs for the local community and produce a product for use in New York City parks. Smith and his team have found that the longer kelp stays in the water, the more tiny creatures grow on it, making it unfit for consumption but perfect as a nutrient-dense fertilizer. Using kelp as fertilizer has the potential to eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizer on land, which requires fossil fuels to produce.
The biggest surprise for the GreenWave team? The astonishing number of women interested in all levels of this new industry, from farming to hatchery operation to value-added entrepreneurship. GreenWave is excited about this growing trend and spotlighting emerging women leaders on their “Who Farms Matters” page.
Smith’s book Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Ocean Farmer comes out on May 14, 2019.