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An Inspiring Entrepreneur

I get very excited about the success of innovative entrepreneurs. I recently heard about one and want to share his story with you. Bren Smith was a fisherman on the east coast of the United States. After cod stocks crashed, he found making a living from fishing increasingly in peril so he looked for a different way to work with the sea. He tried cultivating oysters on Long Island Sound, but hurricanes devastated his beds two years in a row. “He was on the verge of bankruptcy.” stated Charlie Yarish, a professor of marine biology at the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Yarish recommended to Bren that he plant beds of sugar kelp, a local seaweed that was planted after hurricane season was past, had a mild flavor, and was often used for animal feed and fertilizer. While several thousand varieties of seaweed exist, not all are edible. “Only twenty globally are actually farmed. Some are quite toxic,” noted Dr. Yarish.

That gave Bren an epiphany. “We can create jobs here from this. We can protect and improve the environment. We don’t have to choose between the two.”

He now operates one of the largest seaweed hatcheries in the United States. He has tanks full of developing kelp spores and a harvesting room heavily used in the spring when his team brings in the seaweed and processes it to sell. After blanching the seaweed in 170 degree water, the kelp turns a vivid green. Bren sells it fresh and frozen, sometimes in the form of noodles. His customers include Google cafeteria, Yale University, restaurants, and wholesalers. He has sold out his crop the last four years.

Bren didn’t stop there.

He has added additional crops to what he calls his “3D ocean farm.” “We call it that because we’re using the entire water column,” he explains. “If you can stack crops on top of each other it’s just really efficient. You don’t use large plots of ocean. But you get so much food.”

Underneath the seaweed, he loaded baby mussels into netting. “Off those same lines we have scallops and below the whole system we have cages with oysters in them,” he adds.

Bren has turned from a fisherman to a farmer. He’s encouraging other fishermen to follow his lead. “We have to make a transition, that heartbreaking move, from being a hunter to a farmer,” he states, “but you get to own your boat, succeed or fail on your terms, and have the pride of feeding our country.”

He has extended the reach of his passion by starting a non-profit organization named Greenwave which helps others get into ocean farming. Those getting into the business learn on Bren’s farm, are helped in getting the permit for a plot of ocean to farm, and receive Bren’s personal supervision in the planting of their initial crop. Greenwave provides the seed and guarantees to purchase 80% of their harvests for the first two years. With an initial investment of ten to twenty thousand dollars and a boat, these new farmers can receive a small profit the first year and make up to one hundred thousand dollars annually later, according to Bren‘s projections.

One of Bren’s challenges is having the public eat more seaweed. A big hurdle in that effort is the negative connotation of the word “seaweed.” Chef and author Barton Seaver, who has released an entire book on seaweed recipes, recommends throwing out the name seaweed and calling the food sea greens. That equates the food with something healthy that consumers know and like. Seavor has incorporated sea greens into well-cooked recipes and promotes it as tasty and rich in calcium, iron, fiber, and anti-oxidants.

The potential for ocean farming to change the lives of fisherman and consumers has motivated Bren. “The oceans are a blank slate. For my generation, this is an exciting moment. I can farm and grow food, but I can also soak up carbon and nitrogen with the seaweed while creating jobs and giving people the opportunity to start small businesses.”

He can do all this while living his dream of working on the water.

Bren is an inspiring entrepreneur.

This week’s marketing trivia challenge is What inspiring entrepreneur story have you heard lately?  

E-mail me your answer.

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