What began as a College of Charleston graduate research project researching and cultivating an edible and salty succulent that thrives in salt water has grown into a growing start-up that distributes nationally “Sea beans”.
“So the last time we spoke was in a lab at the College of Charleston… and at the time it was just me. “
In 2019, I met Sam Norton in a lab on the college campus downtown. It was really nothing more than a converted closet, bathed in purple neon lights from the grow lights of several dozen plants growing in a vertical rack, absorbing salt water.
Salicornia. salicornia. Sea asparagus. Or as Charleston-based Norton’s company Heron Farms calls them: sea beans.
Almost two years later, these salty stems have exploded in popularity, found in local dishes, drinks and delivered to homes. What was once a solo operation is now a team effort – the handful of plants … now a few hundred thousand in the world’s first indoor saltwater farm.
“And that’s not necessarily a good thing,” Norton says. “The saying ‘If you’re the first in the auditorium, are you the first to arrive or are you in the wrong room?'”
It’s hard to argue for the second option in a city plagued by coastal flooding, which will only get worse. Norton sees Heron Farms as the first step in a larger campaign for saltwater farming – using this incoming seawater as a resource to create food, jobs and fresh water.
In the meantime, this hydroponic farm, a technological feat of sustainability, will continue to produce those green shoots, grown under LED lights and absorbing salt water collected right here in the Lowcountry, giving the plant its signature brackish bite.
Chefs, both home and professional, can’t get enough as they use this cousin of beets and spinach as a healthier, brighter substitute for salt to finish their dish with a taste of the sea. For every pound of sea beans sold, Heron Farms is restoring the swamps by sowing other halophytes such as samphire by drone that will suck salt from the soil of dredged swamps in Charleston and across the world. As saltwater tolerant plants lower salinity, they give way to the return of less salt tolerant plants, renewing land previously cut by the dredging process.
This is exciting, as Heron Farms joins other farmers and scientists who are actively developing new, smarter ways to use the issues affecting agriculture and our planet: urbanization, sea level rise, climate change. .
For more information on Heron Farms and Sea Beans, including where to find them and try them out for yourself, go to their website.
Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson