Is seaweed the new kale? This Oregon company hopes so

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On an unusually sunny January day, Garibaldi Harbor was teeming with catches of Dungeness crab and fish.

But there was another seafood, more unusual in these regions, swirling around in 1,500-gallon tanks near the shore of Tillamook Bay. A few curious fishermen peered over the rows of 20 bubbling open pits.

“What’s in the tanks?” a woman asked.

Each tank held about 500 pounds of dulse, a cold-water red algae native to coastal Oregon. It is a protein-rich, 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, vice president of sales and marketing for Oregon Seaweed. “It’s really good for you and really good for the environment in so many ways.”

This is the second land-based seaweed farm for Oregon Seaweed. The first opened in Bandon in 2018 with 10 tanks. The Garibaldi farm, which has doubled in size, started up last year. The company considers itself the largest producer of land-based algae in the United States, and while superlatives are usually hard to prove, they seem correct.

Almost all of the world’s seaweed harvest comes from Asia, with China, Indonesia and the Philippines being the biggest producers. Seaweed sales are a $15 billion global business, but it’s still a relatively small market in the United States

Oregon Seaweed is one of only two growers in the state currently growing duls 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 saw all this research that was coming out of Oregon State,” he said, “and I thought it wouldn’t be cool to take something that’s actively being worked on there. ‘OSU and apply it as I teach marketing to students.

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

This is where Chris Langdon, fishing teacher, introduced him to dulse.

In the 1990s, Langdon began experimenting with using dulse in a co-culture system with abalone, a type of edible marine snail. When kept together in a tank, the abalones eat the dulse, and the dulse absorbs 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 variety of dulse. Offhand, he mentioned to Toombs that he had seen a similar seaweed selling at a local grocery store for nearly $60 a pound.

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

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

“Funny enough, it wasn’t until Chuck came and knocked on my door that he kind of woke up that potential in me,” Langdon said. “I had seen dulse at the local health food store in Newport, but I hadn’t really put two and two together. I always look through a biologist lens, but Chuck was looking through a business lens.

Oregon Seaweed pumps water directly from the ocean at high tide into their port side tanks. The water is aerated with a bubbler to swirl the algae around, allowing every plant at the top of the tank to soak up the sun. Algae are free-floating in the tanks, so harvesting is as simple as scooping them out with a net.

“We basically 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 get bigger and bigger and will eventually separate, and those two clumps will keep growing.”

With plenty of sun, dulse can grow at a rate of about 200 grams per square meter per day. This makes it a fast-growing, low-cost source of protein.

But the big question is: how does it taste?

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

Cooking doesn’t just turn the red seaweed green, it releases a smoky, umami flavor.

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

Langdon and Toombs had a viral moment in 2015 after working with OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland. The center’s test kitchens tried different ways to cook with dulse in hopes of finding an American market for it. They found that frying produced a crispy, salty treat that tasted like bacon.

Headlines about “bacon-tasting seaweed” have made international headlines.

Dulse can be eaten like kale or spinach, added to a fresh salad, or cooked in a stir-fry or pasta. Wheeler’s Salmonberry Restaurant used dried, ground dulse to add flavor to noodles and specialty butters. Local grocery stores, including Wild in Manzanita and Astoria Co-op, retail packs of fresh dulse from Oregon Seaweed. The current price is $13 to $15 per pound.

The company also sees the potential of dulse as a source of protein to feed livestock or be used in food processing.

“Seaweed isn’t necessarily something people grew up eating in our culture,” Kieffer said. “Getting people to take it home, try it in their kitchen, put it in different foods, is really key to getting people to enjoy it.”

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

This too could be a marketing ploy, allowing for various “seaweed mixes” and flavor pairings.

Toombs is only half joking when he says, “We are the pinot noir of seaweed.

For more information on how to order fresh dulse seaweed, visit oregonseaweed.com.

— Samantha Swindler, [email protected], @editorswindler

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