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Seaweed is Good for You and Can Be Tasty, Too (Video) 109

Posted by timothy
from the how-is-it-with-sauerkraut? dept.
When you think of garage-based tech start-ups, hardware makers like Apple or data-manipulators like Google probably spring to mind before biotech, and way before farming. Lewis Weil, though, has for the last several years been perfecting the art of growing seaweed in central Texas, and his Austin Sea Veggies have garnered interest from gourmets and restaurants across the U.S. In large part, that's because seaweed is so useful for industrial purposes, it's getting harder to find eating seaweed these days. Lewis says there's nothing stopping anyone with an interest in aquaculture in emulating his success as an inland ocean farmer, but has some cautions, too -- when small things go wrong, or a record heatwave overcomes humans' puny air conditioning systems, your seaweed harvest can fail just like any other crop. Update: 09/19 16:40 GMT by T : Now with transcript! If video's too slow and linear, click below to read what Lewis had to say.

[musical introduction] Timothy Lord: This week, I talked with Lewis Weil. His day job is in a stem cell lab, but he's got an interesting garage-based sideline, considering that he lives in the middle of Texas, where there hasn't been much ocean for thousands of years. Lewis grows edible seaweed, as "Austin Sea Veggies," in tanks like you might use to grow tropical fish, but now inhabited only by the variety of seaweed known as ogo.

What started out as a dare with his wife, led Lewis to a local farmer's market. And now, to expand from his garage to a greenhouse in Austin's Agua Dulce Organic Farm. From there, he'll supply several restaurants nearby and around the state with ogo.

I asked him about his methods and motivations. We talked about coastlines, carbon footprint, and eating local.

Lewis Weil: We are standing in Agua Dulce Aquaponics Farm, where they are being nice enough to let me piggy back on their farm and grow my crop, which is seaweed. They have a tilapia aquaculture farm. So, they have these beautiful greenhouses and they were nice enough to let me come in and set up some of my tanks.

I've set up a demo tank to show you today what we're doing. This is exactly what we're doing except this would be inside the greenhouse. What I'm doing is farming sea veggies in salt water tanks in Austin, Texas away from the ocean. The only thing that Austin needed to be the perfect town, besides public transportation, was an ocean, which we didn't have, so I had to build one. It's the Austin Sea.

I call them sea veggies because I think it's almost unfair to call it seaweed. Seaweed is something you don't want. Sea veggies, I think, are a more accurate name for them. So, what I have is called ogo. It's a Hawaiian variety originally. Now, it's an Austin variety. Originally, it came from Hawaii where they just eat it like potato chips. You can go into a gas station in Hawaii and you'll find dishes made with this seaweed.

I told you, it's called ogo, O-G-O, and I call it sea sprouts for people here, because it's a little more descriptive. It kind of tells you a little bit more about what you're getting.

A lot of people are really surprised that it's fresh and has a really crunchy texture. Normally, what people are used to with seaweed is something that's dried out, probably baked. It kind of almost has a leathery texture to it. It's really dry and tough. This is completely crunchy. It's a fresh vegetable. All I do is pull it out of the water and put it in the box and take it to the restaurant or the grocery store.

It has a texture like a sprout, so I call them sea sprouts because it's a little more descriptive. But, if you were in the islands, you would know about it. It's called ogo. It's also really popular in some parts of Asia. You might find it in Korean restaurants in seaweed salad.

It's really cool. It's just, the entire thing is the crop. It has no roots. It has no fruit. That's one of the things I love about it. When I decided I wanted to start a seaweed farm, first I started Googling around thinking, surely someone's had a seaweed farm before. I'll just find out how to do it and I'll look it up and I'll start it. It turned out, not so much.

I had to start from scratch, which included finding out what to grow. So, I had to find something that was small and tropical. Most seaweeds that we eat are from coldwater climates. Kelp, Wacame, basically, almost everything that you can think of that is common in a Western diet with seaweed is a coldwater seaweed. So, I had to find tropical seaweeds because, well, Austin's quite warm. It's not tropical, but it's definitely not cold.

So, I found this guy. The scientific name is Gracilaria, the common name, like I said, is ogo. A lot of people come asking for kelp because that's what they're used to seeing in documentaries on TV or, if they're from California, you know, washed up on the beach.

Kelp is a coldwater seaweed, which, if you've ever tried to go swimming in the Pacific, you know. And it's 100 feet long and has these giant holdfasts that look like roots. Mine doesn't have roots. I needed something to not just use the bottom of the tanks. I needed to use the whole thing.

This is perfect because it just forms these little balls and grows out and out and out. I can pull off what I need, put the rest back and it will keep growing. So, I call that the mother plant. And then I can sell, what is basically, the interest, the dividend off of what I've been growing. I've calculated how quickly it grows and under what temperatures.

I know if this restaurant needs a pound of seaweed a month, I know exactly how much to start with, so that I can grow it without hurting my mother. So, it's great in that way, because you never have to rip it out. You never have to destroy the farm to get your crops.

If you have corn, you have to go through and tear out all the corn when you're ready. And you have to grow a corn plant. And you have to grow roots. I always tell people, if you want apples, you have to grow an apple tree. But seaweed is awesome because the entire thing is the crop. And it just keeps making more of itself. I can't think of a land plant that does that.

Energy wise it's one of the most efficient crops in the world because the whole thing is food. Each branch is a new plant. I don't know how well you can see it, but it just keeps growing from each little branch. Even the tiniest little branch on that is going to be a new plant. So, technically, I could break this off and I could start a new batch just from that. It would take a long time, but I could do it. In fact, I could get it down to this big and have that start a whole new farm if I needed to.

So, if anything ever goes wrong, as long as I have that much left, I'm fine. So, those little tiny things will keep growing and keep producing more branches and eventually you'll have that. I use filtered city water and add natural sea salt. And that's it. I do some simple tests to find out how much salt I need to add and it's sea water. It is the same thing that you would find in the ocean, except with mine you know everything about it.

If you go out into the ocean, you don't know what's happened. You don't know if you're in some down current from a farm, if there's been an oil leak nearby. You don't know what's happened. Mine, there are no oil leaks and there is no fertilizer run-off going into my ocean. I know exactly what goes in. I know exactly what comes out. So, I can, with complete confidence, give it to people to eat.

Really, this could be done anywhere. I'm still kind of inventing this. I've been at it for two years and you know, things go wrong. Sometimes something unpredicted happens and I have to deal with it. Once I learn all the things that can go wrong, I'll be able to start teaching people. There's nothing to say that you can't start one of these in every city.

I started out testing a bunch of seaweeds. There are 3000 different types of seaweed in the world and I had the challenge and luxury of picking the one that I wanted to grow. So, like I said, you couldn't grow kelp in a tank like this, technically possible, but not a good idea for a lot of reasons.

When I first started doing this for food and commercially and selling it to people, I experimented with it. I said, I've been in business for two years, but I've been working on this for a lot more than that. I first had the idea, probably, eight years ago. I worked and worked, trying every kind of seaweed I could get my hands on and found ones that grew well. That was the first thing, it had to be able to grow in the conditions I was able to provide it.

And I found one. It was wonderful. It was beautiful. It was tasty. I went to market. People loved it. And then I got a customer who wanted to sell it in their deli cases and so I packed it up and I put it in their deli cases and it died [laughs]. I'd never tried refrigerating it and so it was back to the drawing board. So, I found this one, which is a relative of the one I was using. It was another type of Gracilaria. This one can go in the fridge for a month.

I have not formally audited the carbon footprint, yet. My rough estimate, was when I first started doing it and my electric bill didn't go up. And electric bills in Texas can be pretty ridiculous. So, I knew that if it wasn't making a bump in my electric bill, that I wasn't using that much power.

Really, it's a pump or two of the air around and some lights. I was just using some basic fluorescent lights. And I'm going to be getting rid of the lights. I'm going to be in a greenhouse, so it's just going to be this one little pump that has to run. So, it's using up very little energy that's going to be producing carbon, especially when you take into the transport of it. If I was growing it anywhere else and then having to truck it, you know you're making tons of carbon. And eventually the farm is going to get solar panels, you could even be carbon negative if you do it right.

If you think you're going to want to call me in two years and start your own seaweed farm, start learning about aquatics, about pumps and water chemistry if you want to do this. That's what I always tell people when they come to me asking if they can start their own seaweed farm, since I don't have the time to teach them.

I did this because this is what I knew. I had the prior knowledge to get started. If I was going to teach someone how to do this, I would not only have to teach them the nuances, I would have to teach them the basics. You know, you don't take off your tie and go down to the farm and ask, 'Hey, teach me how to raise cattle.'

I tell people I never intended on becoming a seaweed farmer. It happened. I love it. I'm glad that it did, but I didn't grow up in my house in the mountains in El Paso thinking one day I'm going to be Austin's premier seaweed farmer. People are more open than you think.

Take what you know and there's going to be someone interested in it. If you have some unique idea. If you have some crazy idea. If you have the idea, it's not that crazy. You had to think of it. And try it. You'll be surprised how receptive people are. I am constantly surprised how receptive people are to this seaweed that I'm growing in tanks in Austin that I just scoop out of the salty water and put on their plate.

If people are open to that, you know, they might be open to your nut farm or your doll factory. You don't have to start a seaweed farm. Think about what you already know. Think about what you wish you were doing and you'll be surprised.

[musical finale]

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Seaweed is Good for You and Can Be Tasty, Too (Video)

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  • Love eating seaweed (Score:4, Interesting)

    by kraln (1477093) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @10:49AM (#41387033)
    I make a point to grab a box of "Laver", which is roasted seaweed in salt and oil, every time I go to the local Asian grocer. It's delicious, and way better than corn chips, while still taking care of my need for crunch.
    • by vlm (69642) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @11:03AM (#41387209)

      I make a point to grab a box of "Laver", which is roasted seaweed in salt and oil, every time I go to the local Asian grocer. It's delicious, and way better than corn chips, while still taking care of my need for crunch.

      This makes the point that aquaculture "seaweed" is Big Business in Asia, so your best strategy to learn how to grow it is to start by learning to read Japanese and/or Korean and import some of their books / visit their websites.

      Despite the article vibe, what they're doing is conceptually a heck of a lot more like farmers starting to grow Ginko plants in Wisconsin, than its like the HP guys inventing their first oscillator in their garage.

      Another rather important point is there is no "seaweed plant". There are a zillion plants grown in seawater that are then processed as much as plants grown in dirt. So much as some "dirt plants" get turned into caesar salad, others into egg rolls, and others into chocolate chip cookies, "seaweed" can be a heck of a lot more than sushi roll wrappers and fried chips.

      A final weird situation is you'll hear or read people who don't know anything claim that most freshwater algae is toxic in comparison to seaweed. Not so. My freshwater tropical fish tank is hardly a toxic waste dump. Yes I would not eat the algae from the industrial waste dump of a river that passes thru my home town, but that is because anything touching that water is tainted... I wouldn't eat a fish from that river, that does not mean all fish are toxic. For a example of a toxic seaweed try some "red tide". Simply plucking green things out of the ocean and eating them is probably not a recipe for success, anymore than eating random dirt plants is a good idea. "Here, try some green organic vegan fair trade hippy approved recyclable biodegradable freshly brewed hemlock tea"

      • by Andy Dodd (701)

        "Simply plucking green things out of the ocean and eating them is probably not a recipe for success, anymore than eating random dirt plants is a good idea."

        What, you mean poison ivy isn't tasty?

      • People are growing ginko in Wisconsin? Is it for export or are they selling to the local immigrant communities in the Midwest?
    • Not sure if this is the same thing, but those paper-thin layers of seaweed in the flat plastic bags with spices are pretty tasty too... any idea what they're called?

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        Oh god. Once I start on those I can't stop until I'm sick or there are no more to be found in the house.

      • by JanneM (7445)

        You mean nori? It's actually an algae that's been dried flat, not a seaweed as most people would understand it.

    • Actually, laver is algae, and it's popular in Welsh cooking (well, common; traditional foods are seldom "popular"). Seriously. It's common in traditional dishes around the Irish sea. It's related to nori and several other similar algae foods.

    • It's delicious

      Yes it is. When I lived in Shanghai, I would buy packets of "haitai" in the corner shop and use it to reward my daughter for doing a good job on her homework. She loved the stuff.

      The Japanese seaweed is too bland for my taste, except for the wasabi flavored seaweed. Lots of flavors are available in China, and all are good. But I think the Koreans make the best. I buy some every time I have a layover in Seoul. My daughter is in high school now, and when I return from an overseas trip, the first thing s

    • by BeanThere (28381)

      Hmm, on holiday in Malaysia once I tried seaweed snacks - delicious, I often wish I could find them locally. They sell them there just like you'd see Lays or Pringles on the shelf.

    • Seaweed itself does not taste that good and some are even bland. What most people eat are products that have been added flavour (seasoning). However, it has been known for a long time (at least in Asia) that seaweed is good and could be treated as a vegetable...
    • by mattack2 (1165421)

      It's delicious, and way better than corn chips

      Better in what way? Do you mean more healthful? Though obviously I don't have examples of every single kind, every time I've seen one of these supposedly "healthier junk foods", they have at LEAST as many calories as the 'regular' junk food, and are way way more expensive. E.g. Pop Chips, various veggie based chips, etc.

      I'd love for one of these "healthier junk foods" to become at least as good as diet sodas have -- at least some of the flavored ones finally

  • by david.emery (127135) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @10:51AM (#41387049)

    This be an appropriate story for Talk Like a Pirate Day, matey! http://www.talklikeapirate.com/ [talklikeapirate.com]

  • Often imported from Japan. Kind of salty like chips.
    • by gl4ss (559668)

      friend and salted I guess.. but the video is about a species you can eat fresh like salad.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...seaweed!

  • by dorpus (636554) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @11:06AM (#41387247)

    - Japanese think everything tastes better with seaweed on it.
    - Chinese think everything tastes better with green onions on it.
    - Indians think everything tastes better with white onions on it.
    - Koreans think everything tastes better with garlic and red chilis on it.
    - Malaysians think everything tastes better with coconut flakes on it.
    - Vietnamese think everything tastes better with spearmint on it.
    - Hawaiians think everything tastes better with pineapple on it.
    - Thais think everything tastes better with crushed peanuts on it.
    - Iranians think everything tastes better with apricots on it.
    - Turks think everything tastes better with sumac on it.
    - Texans think everything tastes better with jalapenos on it.
    - Californians think everything tastes better with avocados on it.
    - Wisconsinites think everything tastes better with cheese on it.
    - New Englanders think everything tastes better with cream cheese on it.
    - English think everything tastes better with malt vinegar on it.
    - Canadians think everything tastes better with white vinegar on it.
    - Italians think everything tastes better with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on it.
    - Russians think everything tastes better with red beets on it.
    - Mexicans think everything tastes better with mole on it.
    - Calvinists think everything tastes better with nothing on it.
    - Southern Baptists think everything tastes better with bbq sauce on it.
    - Catholics think everything tastes better with sour cream on it.
    - Egyptians think everything tastes better on top of bread.
    - Ethiopians think everything tastes better on top of injera.
    - Hungarians think everything tastes better with ajvar on it.
    - Costa Ricans think everything tastes better with Linzano on it.
    - Cameroonians think everything tastes better with Maggie sauce on it.
    - Bulgarians think everything tastes better with sunflower oil on it.
    - Peruvians think everything tastes better with chili paste on it.

    • As a quebecer that puts vinegar on his poutine, I'm inclined to agree.
    • by HungWeiLo (250320)

      Some updates needed:

      Vietnamese - fish sauce.
      Thais - more pungent fish sauce.
      Hawaiians - Spam.

      Filipinos also love Maggi sauce.

    • - Americans (and Scots) think everything tastes better deep-fried into submission.
    • I think they're all mostly right too.

      Disclosure: I hate white vinegar.

    • Garlic, onions and horseradish make virtually everything better.

      Lemon or lime juice makes most of the things the above won't improve better.

      Anything left after that will probably be improved by cayanne pepper or ground coffee, and if not, nothing can be done for the dish.

      Then again, I have an incredibly weird sense of taste, since I can't abide most sweet things and would rather have something incredibly savory or salty for a dessert.

      On the topic - seaweed is an awesome addition to many dishes. I'm starting

    • I'd guess Canadian Mennonites are the big consumers of white vinegar (for pickling--and they have the bowel disease to prove it), with homesick Brits as the big consumers of cider vinegar. Otherwise, outside of fish and chip shops, you rarely see the stuff around.

      Among older English Canadians, you'd be closer to the mark with inferior/unidentifiable bubbly orange melted cheese (curds are the superior Quebecois surrogate), or for pancakes and pastries, maple syrup.

      For pasta, we make an exception to the bubb

    • by xaxa (988988)

      - English think everything tastes better with malt vinegar on it.

      Speaking as an Englishman, that's really only chips (and possibly battered fish). I propose instead:
      - English think everything tastes better with nothing added to it.
      (Herbs and spices? What're they?)

    • by dargaud (518470)
      Well, from that list I gather that the french are the only ones who like varied tastes on their food...
  • by na1led (1030470) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @11:07AM (#41387275)
    Grown here in Maine, and tastes great. I make a habit to purchase a bag every month. Seaweed is very nutritious, so may call it a super food.
  • by Sponge Bath (413667) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @11:11AM (#41387345)

    Limited water supply is a problem in central Texas with restrictions and rationing becoming more frequent. Fortunately this seaweed farm is small. There have been other water intensive operations that have been shutdown, like a catfish farm outside of San Antonio that wastefully used tens of millions of gallons each year from the aquifer. It was only shutdown because they were discharging water into the rivers without a permit. The Rice farmers on the coast have been getting large releases every year from the lakes though the Colorado river, but not this year due to drought.

    Some places are not suitable for water intensive uses.

    • by Whorhay (1319089) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @11:35AM (#41387639)

      I can see how a catfish farm wouldn't necessarily be using water efficiently, simply because those ponds are great for evaporation. And you said they were draining them and just dumping the water? That is pretty wasteful.

      I have been reading up on aquaponics as a means of both gardening and raising fish. Basically you have a tank where you raise fish, they turn their food into fertilizer and deposit it in the water. The water is then pumped through a series of filters and grow beds where bacteria and plants breakdown and filter out the fishes waste. The cleaned water is then drained back into the fish tank to start the process over. It is apparently a very efficient use of water so far as farming goes because the only water leaving the system is actually in plant matter, which will be eaten or composted, and some evaporation. I wouldn't be suprised if you could grow seaweed in a similiar way and actually conserve water in comparison to more traditional farming methods.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquaponics [wikipedia.org]

    • by ISoldat53 (977164)
      On the plus side, if it escapes the farm it probably won't reproduce in the fresh water.
    • by Andy Dodd (701)

      I believe proper aquaculture is designed to be as closed-loop as possible.

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Sea water is much more plentiful than fresh water...

  • Gathering seaweed has been common here since, hell, since the Narragansetts, Wampanoags, and Pequots discovered they could eat it. The right to access the shoreline in the Rhode Island Constitution calls out the gathering of seaweed.

    You can even make desserts with it. In fact, it's in many ice creams. That "carrageenan"? It's irish moss, chucked in a blender cooked in a double boiler and turned into a gel.

    Block Island Blancmange: http://www.quahog.org/factsfolklore/index.php?id=154 [quahog.org]

    Irish Moss can even be

    • by slim (1652)

      Gathering seaweed has been common here since, hell, since ...

      The news is that someone's successfully farming seaweed inland. The headline is poor.

      That said, with the quality of transport today, it seems much saner to just ship sea-grown seaweed from the coast. There's a lot of lobster restaurants in Las Vegas. They don't raise the lobsters in Nevada.

  • hasn't anybody noticed that the company is currently not selling any seaweed?!
    • by ajlitt (19055)

      FTMFWS:

      "Austin Sea Veggies are back! You can get them every day at Wheatsville Coop in the refrigerated produce section.

      For wholesale information please send us an email."

      I've also seen them at the local farmer's market in the past.

      • by timothy (36799) Works for Slashdot

        Not all the footage shot made the final video, but Lewis said that though he started out at the farmer's market, the demand from restaurants become so great that basically he's outgrown it now. (Between realizing that the seaweed he was already growing was edible and standing in front of a banner at the farmer's market, he says was only about 2 weeks.)

        But being at Wheatsville, that's close enough to a farmer's market, eh? ;)

        • by ajlitt (19055)

          A reply from Timothy and a front page mention (pokey9000) in one day, I'm honored!

          Small scale, high tech agriculture is becoming a big thing in the area. There's a company not far from Austin that recently had a successful Kickstarter for a mostly automated modular greenhouse system (search for Horto Domi).

          • by timothy (36799) Works for Slashdot

            That sounds like a cool video subject -- thanks for the tip ;)

            When I was at the organic farm where Lewis Weil is moving in his stuff, we talked about the conception I'd gotten from books about the nearish future (but mostly written in the early or mid '70s) that sometime soon we'd all be eating a lot of engineered algae ... it's a slow future to arrive, but it was great to eat some of this ogo as a sample.

  • by Theovon (109752) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @12:18PM (#41388409)

    The Japanese eat a heck of a lot of seaweed, which puts an unusually high amount of iodine in their diet, which has some health benefits. The problem for this farmed seaweed is that I can't find any indication that this grower is adding any form of iodine to the under-water soil, let alone a form that is easy to absorb.

    I saw a video from one of these "prepper" people who pointed out that you don't need to take multivitamins as long as you eat a balanced diet of vegetables grown in virgin soil. We have to supplement because most farmland is depleated of trace nutrients, and the organics are only marginally better. So maybe his seaweed tastes good, but I doubt it's a good source of iodine.

    Don't be fooled by imitations.

    • by nido (102070)

      This is the most important comment in this story. If I had points I'd give you a +1. :)

  • by ThatsNotPudding (1045640) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @01:31PM (#41389641)
    This reminds me of Oprah and her ilk with the near-weekly bits about how to eat healthy with organics, garden-fresh veggies, and exotic whatevers over nasty and dangerous store-bought, processed or fast foods.

    Somehow, they always gloss over the part that it only works if you're indpendently wealthy and can easily afford both the time and monetary expenditures required. Hell, they can't even do it themselves, but have to rely on a guest with multiple assistants and a Deus Ex Machina uber kitchen that would cost more than an average US home.

    For a male context, just think of Norm on New Yankee Workshop in his six-figure setup saying: "All you need is..."
    • by xaxa (988988)

      There's a big difference between "store bought" and "processed"/"fast" foods.

      I buy almost all my food at the nearest supermarket, but they have more kinds of fruits and vegetables than I can name, and it's hardly bad. It's not as nice as the luxury supermarket, or the health food / organic supermarket, which is reflected in the price, but it's fresh and healthy enough. However, about the most processed thing I buy is pre-cooked ham.

      Admittedly, the supermarket doesn't have fresh seaweed (though they probab

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I believe if you sautee it in butter, smother it with cheese and top it with bacon crumbles, seaweed can be part of a delightful treat!

  • He mentions that an aquaculture farm is letting him use their greenhouses. The name contains "Dulce" which made me think of "Dulse" a seaweed that people in Ireland eat. It is not only the Japanese and Koreans (and aparently the Hawaiins) who eat seaweed. I would guess Dulse is a cold water seaweed and unsuitable for a greenhouse in Austin Texas

    • by timothy (36799) Works for Slashdot

      Hi there!

      Actually, the name of the farm is a coincidence -- Weil just happens to be moving his tanks there, because he needs more room than his garage now, and because being in a greenhouse lets him use natural light instead of artificial.

      (Agua Dulce is Spanish for "Sweet Water," and this in-city farm is named -- with localization ;) -- after another one called "Sweet Water.")

  • by Anonymous Coward

    When I had an aquarium with seaweed in it. It grew like HECK and was tasty! So, he has reproduced what I did in my flat without really trying 25years ago? (BTW. The fish died but the seaweed was still edible and growing... I did not try the fish)

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