To Market, To Market

Once seaweed has been harvested and dried properly, is it necessary to stuff it into little bags and then go through the process of markups at distributor and retail level, finally resulting in a product that costs three times as much as if the harvester had simply sold it directly to the consumer? I don’t think so. That just involves more wasted packaging and fuel. Most retail packaging of seaweeds results in compromised quality: 1) Light penetrates the package and degrades the pigments (notice the lighter colors); 2) The seaweeds are packed “soft” (higher moisture content) so they can be coiled into small bags, and the result is that they end up weeping sharp-tasting salts to the surface, or even worse, growing molds.

Sometimes I will say to an apprentice, “Imagine what would happen if today you had rowed across a kelp bed toward the shoreline, harvesting just one swath, as wide as your oars. When you reached the shore, you hung it up to dry. What would you have? Perhaps ten bushels in your little punt. At the rate of three dry pounds per bushel, you would have 30 dry pounds. We know that a person who eats three pounds of kelp per year will have adequate dietary iodine to protect his/her thyroid, plus s/he will have all the essential trace elements. In effect, you have provided for the needs of ten people for a year. Now what you really need to do is educate ten people and make them lifelong friends. Invite them to dinner and serve them a hearty vegetable soup made with kelp. Be a generous and open-hearted educator. In return, what will you receive? Well, at today’s prices, 30 dry pounds of kelp x $25/lb. is $750. That’s a good ratio between time, effort, income, and friendship. These ten people will become repeat customers, year after year. They will invite their friends to dinner and talk about you. You’ve participated in days when we have come in with a ton of kelp and by the next afternoon, we have 200 dry pounds x $25/lb. = $5,000. The rest of the work is packaging and education. Talk to people! Become a storyteller! People don’t just buy a product, they want to hear a story! Write recipes and cookbooks! Beyond that, the post office can handle the shipping and distribution more efficiently than any store system, and you won’t have to pay all those middlemen who just take their cut and pass the package on down the line, adding no more real value or information. One of the best markets waiting to be tapped is the CSA, the Community Supported Agriculture group that has a winter share program. THOSE are the people who come to pot lucks and want to hear a story! Find them! Invite them to come and see what you do! Make some friends! Remember: In healthy communities, it all turns on affection.”

That’s a phrase from poet/farmer Wendell Berry who also wrote that “good work is always modestly scaled.” That is what I’m describing here. I have no grand vision of building an empire based upon seaweed. What I do envision is a world where people pay more attention to authentic relationships at the local level. Berry also wrote that “we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another.” In authentic relationships, the commons is Gaia, and we are all related through Her.