A Winter Garden

Forest_Wolf | Pixabay
By Susan Hand Shetterly

Some time ago, in Prospect Harbor, my neighbors taught me that to live a good life at this exacting, generous shore, a person had to learn to love hard work and independence. That was back in the boom time, before the busted fisheries.

But I believe those lessons still hold.

With this in mind, I’ve come to see Sarah Redmond’s new venture. She is young and skilled, but what I like best is her vision of what she and a patch of inshore water can do together to make something fine. On an overcast day, she dresses in layers of wool and brings aboard her oilskins before maneuvering her boat out into Frenchman Bay to tend her organic seaweed garden, framed by mooring buoys bobbing in water that never gets much warmer than 29 degrees this time of year. Here, to the north of Stave Island, her skinny kelps, sugar kelps, dulse, nori, and Alaria grow, bending gracefully through changes of tide and weather.

Sarah has farmed seaweed for eight years. However, this enterprise, Springtide Seaweed, is her first try at running a complete business. In a licensed 35 acres of mud-bottomed bay, she and her partner puzzle out the best ways to raise their crops, which need cold clean water to thrive. Their seaweeds cling to ropes, horizontal long lines that hang 6 feet down. Each species requires specific light intensities. The trick is to have some of them throw a flickering shade onto others, but not too much, and to allow them all to absorb the amount of light they need, but not enough for the winter sun to scorch them.

What Sarah has is an eagerness to take on the work. She’s buoyed by big dreams.

Onshore at Bunker’s Harbor, a modest working waterfront on the coast of South Gouldsboro, in Hancock County, this brand-new business begins with an old sardine canning factory, its outbuildings, and grounds. These Sarah plans to transform into a state-of-the-art nursery to raise the tiny seaweed sporophytes, a processing room, a room with a giant grinding mill that turns the crops to flour, and three greenhouses to dry the harvest. Plus, she says a bit wistfully, she’d like a room where she can teach classes on growing organic seaweeds that people around the country want to eat. So far, she’s got a beginning nursery, the buildings, and two boats — a whaler and a harvest barge — but what she also has is an eagerness to take on the work. She’s buoyed by big dreams.

For people who grow seaweeds in aquaculture sites in the Gulf of Maine, the season begins mid-September and can last as late as early June. When it closes, they haul in their ropes. The harvesters who cut wild edible seaweeds within the mainland bays and out around the islands pull on wetsuits and begin their season in April, sometimes in snow. These specialized harvests of sea vegetables, minimally processed, and sold to companies and stores or directly to individuals as food, are something Maine is beginning to be known for. Not as celebrated as blueberries or lobsters — at least not yet.

Mostly, they are small business ventures in small coastal communities, many of them owned by the harvesters themselves. In Down East villages stricken by the loss of traditional fisheries, these bright entrepreneurial lights shine. Most of them have learned from our past mistakes to tend the wild very carefully. And I, for one, am impressed and hopeful. No large industrial overreach has put them out of business. No corporate money from away has snuffed their homegrown independence — at least not yet.