As the nascent sugar kelp cultivation industry gets off the ground on the East End, there are many hurdles it is expected to face, from navigating regulatory red tape to learning the best ways to grow at scale to finding markets for the product.
A new non-profit, Lazy Point Farms, backed by the Moore Family Charitable Foundation, is working with 15 different kelp growers, including educational, environmental and government organizations; oyster farmers; nurseries and a garden club, to help pick the industry up by its bootstraps.
“The expertise is already here,” said Wendy Moore, Executive Director of Lazy Point Farms. “There is a growing kelp community that will build this emerging sector. We created Lazy Point Farms to serve as the connective link among the public and private sectors, the research and educational institutions, and the business and environmental organizations that want to see it grow. We create opportunities so that everyone involved can move forward.”
A team of food safety experts and growers are working with Lazy Point Farms to distribute this year’s harvest, collected in June, to help local businesses do research on its potential for food and non-food uses.
“We had spent many years spinning our wheels in the mud while trying to ignite the small business community needed to drive the kelp farming movement forward in New York, and progress had been steady — but slow — for a long time,” said Sean Barrett, cofounder of The Montauk Seaweed Supply Company. “Since partnering with the Moore Foundation last year, our project, and the entire fledgling industry here, have taken off as if we were suddenly strapped to a rocket ship.”
Attorney David Berg is working with Lazy Point Farms on helping growers navigate the regulatory framework.
“In order to cultivate any marine species on Long Island, you need authorization from the bottomland owner,” he said.
Suffolk County controls the bottomland in the Peconic and Gardiners Bays, and until last year, only shellfish growers were allowed to lease this land. Though the county has since amended the law to allow seaweed growers, “this requires Suffolk County to set up a whole new leasing program specifically for seaweed,” said Mr. Berg. “That was an especially onerous requirement, and one that’s going to take probably a couple years, perhaps longer.”
In addition, in state waters in Block Island Sound and the Long Island Sound, “New York is one of the states that has the most complicated aquaculture leasing and licensing programs in the country,” said Mr. Berg. “I believe a bill has passed both houses of the state legislature that adds the word seaweed to what can be permitted in state waters. This is movement to fix these things, which is exciting.”
But a new wrinkle is in the works — the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is now requiring that all kelp growers have full permits, not just research permits, in order to grow kelp. Mr. Berg estimated that this new threat will affect about two dozen growers on Long Island.
The East End Food Institute, which runs a food production incubator at Stony Brook Southampton, is also a part of the effort.
“We are excited to partner with Lazy Point Farms and their growers to explore the potential of kelp as a new food product for our region,” said Kate Fullam, East End Food Institute’s Executive Director. “Kelp is more than just fertilizer or food. It has the potential to make a significant positive impact on our economy and environmental health as well.”
“We’re doing what we can. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg problem” said Mr. Berg of growing the industry. “There’s no large-scale growth of seaweed, because of the issues I talked about, but the market will pay attention when there’s a large-scale amount of seaweed available. At Lazy Point Farms, our thoughts were ‘let’s create the industry, and the market will follow. You’ve gotta have product, and then you can talk to people.”