The Pond becomes a garden

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 5:00pm

It is the first week in February, and the surface of the Great Salt Pond is blue and still. The reflections of the buildings and the landscape on the water are as still as their real-life counterparts. The air is warm, perhaps 50 degrees, and its only 9 o’clock in the morning.

We’re on Catherine Puckett’s boat, heading out to the kelp farm she started last September. She’s got two young helpers, daughters Luna and Pearl, and an eager dog, Gracie, who wags her tail as she perches herself on the bow of the boat. We’re motoring along at a slow pace, and then the buoys of the kelp farm come into view.

“I’ve been wanting to grow seaweed for a long time,” she said, and after a lengthy permitting process that included the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Army Corps of Engineers — two of the agencies that have jurisdiction over the pond — Puckett was granted her license after nine months of pursuing it. Puckett said the lease on the Pond is for 15 years, and that she keeps it active by paying an annual fee to both the CRMC and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management — another agency with jurisdiction on the Pond.

She said that Harbormaster Steve Land was instrumental in getting the project started.

“The Harbormaster's support was essential in the preparation and approval of this project. He helped me pick the site and size the gear, he prepared me to address all the potential concerns about it by discussing them with me at length. Then he asked all those questions of me at meetings, thereby making me speak publicly about them. I came out of that process much more confident in my ability to do so,” Puckett said in an email to The Times. “Steve's support has been instrumental in the growth of my aquaculture business overall. Anytime I need guidance or have a question about something I want to do on my farm, I feel I can talk to Steve about it and come away with the best answer. I can't say enough how thankful I am to get to start my business under his watch.”

“I am really excited that it’s working well for her,” said Land. “She’s done all the work. It really wasn’t me, it’s all her. I drove by it today and it looks fantastic. Hopefully, this is a new field that Block Island can benefit from. She’s done a great job.”

Puckett is developing the kelp farm — it’s the first one on Block Island — with support from a group called GreenWave. GreenWave’s website describes itself as devoted to creating the next generation of ocean farmers.

She’s enrolled in GreenWave's Farmer-In-Training Program. “They supplied me with technical diagrams for my application, a training workshop on their farm in the Thimble Islands, free seedstring from their hatchery for two years, and they came out to help seed my farm, plus they do monthly site visits to collect data on the growth and do water testing,” Puckett said. “They also are available to discuss how things are going and generally assist with the learning curve. In return, I agree to abide by state regulations (of course!), and share what I've learned with other prospective farmers. It's a pretty sweet deal!”

Out on the Pond, two 500-foot lines are submerged three feet below the surface of the water, floated by buoys. The kelp grows from November to April, when all of the gear will come out of the water.

When Puckett lifted one of the lines out of the water, it was covered in shiny blades of kelp, a little more than a foot long. She said the blades would grow another eight feet before they’re harvested.

“Take a piece,” she said, and the kelp was salty, crunchy, and fresh.

Sven Risom, President of the Committee of the Great Salt Pond, said the kelp farm was a welcome addition to the Pond’s activities. He wrote from a business show he was attending in Stockholm:

“The GSP is very supportive of agriculture and the balance between commercial, recreational, and environmental needs. Our goal is to support the Pond in a healthy and balanced way. In fact, the Committee for the Great Salt Pond wrote a letter in support of her application. What is the best about the kelp operation is that it only occurs during the winter months when the pond is not being used or crowded. Kelp will not grow in the summer, and the farm will be put to bed. It is a perfect use of the pond, given the island’s seasonality and the Committee hopes all goes well.”

Puckett said she hopes to sell her product to wholesalers.