Recently a group of student interns and staff from the Yale Sustainable Food Project (YSFP) spent the day with Bren Smith, a commercial fisherman, environmental activitist, and creator of a sustainable shellfish and seaweed farm, aboard his boats in the Thimble Islands off Stony Creek in Branford, Connecticut.
Standing waist-deep in calm waters off the coast of Stony Creek — a small fishing village 12 miles east of New Haven — Yale undergraduates Austin Bryniarski ’16, Tim Nguyen Le ’14, and Maya Midzik ’16 jammed their toes into the silt below the surface hoping to bump into quahogs buried in the sand. When they managed to locate the large indigenous clams with their feet, the students dipped below the waterline in the hopes of securing their catch. On nearly every attempt they resurfaced with treasure in hand and smiles on their faces.
Within a short time, two large containers were filled to the brim with the tasty bi-valves. The students planned to use their catch, along with the fresh produce that they help grow as interns on the Yale Farm, as key ingredients in homemade pizza they would prepare in the farm’s outdoor brick oven.
Teaching students how to cultivate and prepare food is one aim of the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Lazarus Summer Internship program, made possible by the George and Shelly Lazarus Fund for Sustainable Food and Agriculture at Yale. The competition for a slot in the program is fierce, and those who earn one hope to enrich their studies while realizing their career aspirations in sustainable food.
Through the program, student interns enhance their understanding of agriculture by visiting several Connecticut land-based farms and one unique “ocean farm,” located on 20 acres underwater near Branford’s Thimble Islands. Their day on the water is among the summer program’s highlights, the interns say.
“Going on these field trips really helps to round out the internship in sustainable food and agriculture. Even though we grow and do so much of our work on the Yale Farm, this ocean field trip is so valuable because we get to see a whole other world of agriculture that we know nothing about,” said Laurel Cohen ’16, one of six Lazarus interns this summer.
Local ocean farmer Bren Smith, owner of Thimble Island Oyster Company and the guide for the water-based tour, gives the Lazarus interns a hands-on experience in ocean farming. On tour day, Smith, along with Stony Creek fishermen Chris Hauge and Nate Johnson, run three boats so that the students can gain exposure to various aspects of aquaculture: harvesting clams, oysters, Asian shore crabs, and even seaweeds. For some of the students, it was their first time on a boat, and for most, it was their first glimpse of farming the ocean in an environmentally friendly manner.
The tour participants agreed that the hands-on learning was highly beneficial. “What Bren is doing is so laudable and interesting, unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced before,” says Cohen. “I didn’t know what it was like to grow kelp in the ocean, maintain oyster cages, or harvest seafood in that way — and Bren’s so passionate about what he does. It was such a treat to be able to spend the day with him and to participate in a hands-on activity like that.”
3-D ocean view
During the aquaculture tour, the Lazarus interns got a close-up look at Smith’s “3-D” ocean farm. “3-D” is Smith’s term for describing his innovative method for growing shellfish and seaweeds on submerged vertical structures, eschewing the tradition of seeding shellfish on the ocean floor.
“I started with the traditional shellfishing approach, but then the storms started coming. At that point, I realized that I had to diversify and find new things to grow, so that’s when I moved off the bottom and went 3-D,” says Smith. “That way, I wasn’t subject to the storm surges that bring the mud. This approach also uses water space more effectively.”
Smith aims to encourage solutions that nature has already provided to contend with natural and human-induced issues in his trade. While coaching the interns on how to haul up oyster traps for harvesting, he explained some of those issues to the interns. “Oysters filter 30-50 gallons of water a day. They pull nitrogen out of the water column, which is the cause of the dead zones that are spreading all over the world,” he remarked. “The gear that I use — the cages — function as storm-surge protectors in their own small way.”
In addition to growing oysters on the 3-D frames, Smith also cultivates scallops, mussels, and seaweeds. One of those seaweeds — kelp — is proving to be Smith’s most promising commodity. “Seaweeds will survive even when shellfish cannot because they are a post-hurricane season crop,” he says, adding, “In a 300-by-300-foot area, I can grow 24 tons of kelp in five months. It’s stunning because it takes no inputs: no fresh water, fertilizer, air, or land — so it becomes the most sustainable form of food production on the planet. In fact, if you were to take an area the size of the state of Washington, you could technically feed the world.”
Smith’s idea for sustainable fishing captured the attention of Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, who is eager to expose Lazarus interns to current food-system issues and connect them with those who are actively working on solutions.
“Here on the coast of New England, the marine ecosystems are particularly relevant to the future of food. Bren's been one of our more active partners with a pretty irresistible vision,” explains Bomford. “As a teacher and a guide, Bren answered our students' questions, but, more importantly, he has shown them sustainable food innovation in action. Once they see the potential of what he is doing, Yale students have been eager to help out in sharing the story — through journalism and video. It's a win-win where our students gain practical experience, Bren gains media exposure and help on the research and development side, and everybody benefits.”
With the engagement of several New York City chefs and Yale’s interest, Smith has been carving out a niche for sea vegetables. He notes that kelp is not only nutritious, but also makes a gluten-free noodle that chefs have heartily embraced as new food source. Students on the Yale Farm have added it as a flavoring for butter and even ice cream.
In addition, Smith is working with the Yale Sustainable Food Project to incorporate kelp-based organic fertilizers into the University’s organic farm in order to reduce the impact of land-based farming. “The idea is to build a bridge between ocean and land farms whereby seaweed captures nitrogen run-off from farms and is then returned to soil as fertilizer,” Smith explains.
But kelp may have its greatest potential as a bio-fuel, says the fisherman.
“In a one-acre area, I can grow 2,000 gallons of bio-fuel in a five-month growing season. The kelp soaks up five times more carbon than land-based plants and it absorbs heavy metals. In fact, you can also grow kelp, oysters, and mussels in really polluted areas, not to eat, but for bio-remediation.”
Sharing in discussions with Smith about such visions for the future of aquaculture is a highlight for the Yale student interns, they say.
“One of the most meaningful parts of the tour was learning about Bren’s philosophy — what’s important to him, how he views the health of the ocean, and what he thinks about the consumer’s and the fisherman’s personal responsibilities,” says Rachel Ett ’14.
“At the Yale Farm and at Yale’s partner farms, the aim is to explore and exemplify multi-functional agriculture and aquaculture,” comments Bomford. “In a small space, Bren's farm produces food, fertilizer, and fuel, creates habitat, cleans the water, creates employment, invests in education, and builds social capital. It's got that critical diversity that, to me, is the essence of sustainability,” remarks Bomford.
Bomford contends that all of this matters to the health of the Earth’s still-growing population that will reach nine billion inhabitants within most Yale students’ lifetimes.
“Seafood will necessarily be on the menu, and we'll have to keep the oceans healthy to do that,” he says. “If we have a system like Bren's that shows a lot of potential to not just produce healthy food but also to restore marine ecosystems, we want to make sure that this system has a chance to scale up, improve, and flourish. The Yale Farm is a great example of a land-based farm that embodies these principles, but demonstrating them in the ocean helps students to look at the system with fresh eyes. In some cases, they have worked to help Bren's system develop, and in other cases, students have started their own projects. We have a couple of ‘aquaponics systems’ (land-based farmed fish and hydroponic vegetables) starting up in the Greeley Greenhouse on Yale's main campus.”
The fisherman also operates a Community Supported Fishery, the only one of its kind in the state of Connecticut. Based on the model of a Community Supported Agriculture program, share participants pay Smith at the beginning of the season to receive a regular “share” of his catches. The program is popular with Yale faculty, staff, and students, who can pick up their monthly seafood shares in Branford or at the Yale Farm.
A recent national finalist for Oceana’s 2013 Ocean Hero award, Smith has recently received widespread media attention for his work. He credits his Yale connection with propelling his ideas and augmenting his capabilities. “I’ve been out here farming in the Thimbles for about 10 years experimenting on my own trying to find new ways to farm sustainably. But Yale took my work seriously. With the gravitas and interest that Yale brings, I’ve been able to see my ideas as they fit into this larger frame of sustainability. It’s incredible that all of these people who are deeply imbedded in the food movement — serious intellectuals and scientists — find my ideas of value.”