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.