Is seaweed the new kale? This Oregon company hopes so

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On an unseasonably sunny January day, Garibaldi Harbor was bustling with incoming catches of Dungeness crab and fish.

But there were other seafood more uncommon in these areas, swirling in 1,500-gallon tanks near the shore of Tillamook Bay. A few curious fishermen peered over the rows of 20 bubbling open-air tubs.

“What’s in the tanks?” asked a woman.

Each tank held about 500 pounds of dulse, a cold-water, red algae native to the Oregon coast. It is a high-protein, carbon-absorbing vegetable that can be grown without fresh water.

The Oregon Seaweed Company hopes you’ll want to eat it.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Alanna Kieffer, Oregon Seaweed’s vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s really good for you and really good for the environment in so many different ways.”

This is the second onshore seaweed farm for Oregon Seaweed. The first was opened in Bandon in 2018 with 10 tanks. Twice the size of the Garibaldi farm started operations last year. The company bills itself as the largest land-based seaweed farmer in the US, and while superlatives are generally hard to prove, they seem right.

Almost all of the world’s algae harvest comes from Asia, with China, Indonesia and the Philippines being the largest producers. Selling seaweed is a $15 billion global business, but it’s still a relatively small market in the US

Oregon Seaweed is one of only two producers in the state currently growing dulse for human consumption.

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The company was founded by Chuck Toombs, who spent a career in sales and marketing for manufacturing companies before becoming an instructor at Oregon State University’s College of Business.

“I’ve seen all this research from the state of Oregon,” he said, “and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to take something that’s actively being worked on at OSU and apply it while I’m teaching students marketing?” .”

Six years ago, Toombs visited OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center looking for potential product ideas for its business courses.

It was there that Chris Langdon, a professor of fisheries, introduced him to Dulse.

In the 1990s, Langdon began experimenting with dulse in a coculture system with abalone, a type of edible sea slug. When the abalones were kept together in a tank, they would eat the dulse, and the dulse would absorb the ammonia and carbon dioxide excreted by the abalone. The seaweed was also effective in removing ammonia from salmon tanks.

Langdon’s team had patented a particularly fast-growing Dulse variety. He casually mentioned to Toombs that he had seen a similar seaweed being sold at a local grocery store for nearly $60 a pound.

“And (Toombs) was very excited about that,” Langdon said. “It’s more expensive than filet mignon.”

Toombs saw a business opportunity that went beyond a mere classroom assignment. In 2015, Toombs licensed use of the fast-growing dulse strain that OSU had developed and started his own company dedicated to growing dulse for food.

“Funnily enough, that potential didn’t wake me up until Chuck walked by and knocked on my door,” Langdon said. “I had seen Dulse at the local health food store in Newport, but I didn’t really put two and two together. I always look through a biologist’s lens, but Chuck was looking through a business lens.”

Oregon Seaweed pumps water straight from the ocean into their port tanks at high tide. The water is aerated with an aerator, so the algae rotate and every plant at the top of the tank has time to bathe in the sun. The seaweed is free-floating in the tanks, making harvesting as easy as scooping with a net.

“We essentially start with a clump of algae that clones itself over time,” Kieffer said. “It gets all of its nutrients from the seawater that we pump in. The clumps will keep getting bigger and eventually break apart, and those two clumps will keep growing.”

With plenty of sunlight, the dulse can grow at a rate of around 200 grams per square meter per day. That makes it a fast-growing, inexpensive source of protein.

But the big question is: how does it taste?

“When you eat it fresh, it has a crunch, it tastes like a salty carrot to me,” Kieffer said.

Cooking not only turns the red algae green, but also develops a smoky umami taste.

“It’s very different from what you’d expect,” Langdon said. “It actually has a savory flavor.”

Langdon and Toombs had a viral moment in 2015 after collaborating with OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland. The center’s test kitchens tried different ways of cooking with dulse in hopes of finding a US market for it. They found that deep frying yielded a crunchy, salty treat that tasted like bacon.

The headlines “Bacon-Flavoured Algae” made international headlines.

Dulse can be eaten like kale or spinach, added to a fresh salad, or cooked in stir-fries or pasta. The Salmonberry restaurant in Wheeler has used dried, ground dulse to add flavor to pasta and butter specialties. Local grocery stores, including Wild in Manzanita and Astoria Co-op, sell retail packs of fresh Oregon Seaweed Dulse. The current price is $13 to $15 per pound.

The company also sees potential for dulse as a protein source for livestock feed or use in food processing.

“Algae isn’t necessarily something that people were raised in our culture,” Kieffer said. “Getting people to take it home, try it in their kitchen, put it in different foods is really the key to getting people to enjoy it.”

It also turns out that there are subtle flavor differences between the Dulse grown in Bandon and the Dulse grown in Garibaldi, even though they are all clones of the same strain. Toombs compares it to wine grapes, which take on different flavor profiles depending on climate and soil.

This could also be a marketing point, allowing for different “seaweed mixes” and flavor combinations.

Toombs half-jokingly says, “We are the pinot noir of seaweed.”

To order fresh Dulse seaweed, visit oregonseaweed.com.

— Samantha Swindler, [email protected], @editorswindler

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