Making Waves: Indoor Saltwater Farm Strives For Sustainability, Marsh Restoration
Q & A With Heron Farms Founder Sam Norton
Based in Charleston, SC, indoor saltwater farm Heron Farms has an ambitious mission – “To create a sustainable agricultural system and restore the marsh using the earth’s most abundant resource – saltwater.”
Company founder Sam Norton is up to the task. His company is successfully tackling saltwater agriculture’s scalability challenges; growing and selling sea beans; restoring marshlands around his Charleston home, and even helping farmers in Bangladesh.
Indoor Ag-Con had the chance to catch up with Sam to learn more about his innovative company, environmental efforts, and future plans in this month’s Indoor Ag-Con CEO Q & A.
Among the biggest challenges with outdoor saltwater agriculture is scalability. As the world’s first indoor saltwater farm, how are you confronting this challenge?
My interest in saltwater agriculture was piqued during undergraduate school. I met a member of the Boeing biofuel strategy team who encouraged me to check out the company’s work growing Salicornia (a succulent, halophyte, i.e., salt tolerant, plant) in the Middle East. I learned that the plant Boeing was growing for biofuel was the very one I had seen – and eaten – growing up in Charleston, SC. I ended up writing my capstone on seawater agriculture and Boeing’s efforts. As I continued to watch Boeing and others attempting to grow Salicornia outdoors, it seemed there were three consistent scaling problems:
- Land Constraints – If you want to pump seawater in for crops, you need to be near the coast. If you’re near the coast, chances are you’re going to bump up against humans. And, they’re generally not interested in having this type of project on their land. We saw this happen in Eritrea, the UAE and other areas.
- Sodium Chloride — If you find a place near the coast that is deserted enough to work, you usually run into another problem. If the annual precipitation is less than the annual evaporation, sodium chloride builds up in the soil. This happens to such a degree that even the most salt tolerant plants cannot survive.
- Seasonality – Salicornia flowers in response to photoperiod changes at the end of summer. As that happens, the edibility option disappears.
So if you want to grow these plants for food, you can scale by taking seawater agriculture indoors and growing vertically. This way you can manage salt build-up and control the photoperiod.
Outdoor seawater agriculture, on the other hand, can work well if the main product is outside the food space – focusing instead on producing raw materials for things like biofuels, pharmaceuticals and even fabrics.
Interestingly, we did find an outdoor situation where two of these three issues can be addressed — rice paddies of Bangladesh that have become salinized due to sea level rise. Land use is not an issue as it is already dedicated to rice production. During the non-monsoon season, there is no rain to flush out sodium chloride. The incoming seawater is too saline for rice, resulting in decreasing yields for farmers. I took a trip there last year to join the Bangladeshi Ministry of Agriculture and the Dutch Firm ICCO to look at the idea of growing salt tolerant crops like Salicornia during the non-monsoon season and it seems to work. We are planning an expansion of this project.
Typical indoor farm crops range from leafy greens to mushrooms and a few others that are all very familiar to the consumer. What are some of the marketing challenges in working with a crop like Sea Beans and how are you addressing them?
Most chefs are familiar with Salicornia, which goes by other names like Sea Beans, Sea Pickles, Gatorade Grass, Samphire and Sea Asparagus. To build awareness we have looked to the avocado’s chef marketing model as a guide. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the avocado was not well known in America. The California Growers Association found that if they sold avocados to chefs, the chefs would teach the consumer how to eat an avocado, what to pair it with, how to prepare it and it just took off from there. In fact, I think the avocado was the first fruit to have its own Super Bowl commercial.
As the restaurant business slowed down during the pandemic, we’ve also seen produce delivery services become a very strong distribution channel for us.
Can you share some of the technology you are using at Heron Farms and how/if it differs from more traditional indoor farms growing leafy greens?
We are a hydroponic farm, and our grow room is standard. Heron Farms relies on Boxcar Central’s all-in-one software for monitoring, sales and tracking for hydroponic growing. Our team can log onto a dashboard, see all the parameters and move inventory through the software to cold storage – tracing back if needed — much like most farms.
The seawater manipulation technology is our own. Other crop growers rely on conductivity probes to dose nutrients. The challenge for us is that these probes do not distinguish between sodium chloride salt and nutrient salt. Our technology allows us to distinguish and dose properly when you add seawater to the equation.
Because your farm is indoors AND saltwater, is salt or salt build-up part of the plant’s transpiration process?
The halophytes we grow compartmentalize salt, storing it in their cells. We harvest them at a point where the salt content makes them edible, so there is no leftover salt. If we did not harvest them, the salt would continue to build up in the cell to the point they would become inedible.
A key part of your mission is restoration of the salt marshes. How are you doing that? And, can you also elaborate on Heron Farms’ efforts to partner with other companies to help?
In Charleston, Savannah and other port cities, the Army Corp of Engineers dredges the harbors from time to time to deepen them for container ship passage. The sediment is deposited in confined disposal facilities. When the water evaporates from these areas, the surface of the soil cracks, allowing invasive species to take root. The Army Corp tried restoring the areas with marsh plants using a traditional greenhouse-to-transplant approach, but this can be very costly. We’re focusing our efforts on remediating these spaces using the same halophytes we grow at Heron Farms. We started planting seeds by hand and are now testing out an unmanned drone outfitted to drop the seeds in the right spots.
One of the things we are also working on is demonstrating that a company can raise awareness and funds for a cause without being a non-profit operation. We’ve partnered with a great kombucha beverage company, Dalai Sofia– adding our logo to their packaging. For every can they sell, we replant one square foot of marsh grass. We are also talking to a sunglass company, sea salt company and others on similar partnerships.
The idea? That you can take restoration, latch it onto the back of capitalism, and increase sales. You don’t have to be a non-profit to do this. I really see this concept blowing up this century.
What’s next for Heron Farms?
We have a number of items in the works, including the launch of our next farm site. We are also dabbling with the idea of growing another crop – Yaupon Holly. It’s native to the Southeastern United States. What’s more it doesn’t need a lot of light, and is the only indigenous source of caffeine in North America.
To learn more about Heron Farms, visit www.heronfarms.com