“He looks like Spiderman!” That’s what Midori Kushi (right) giggled last week when I stripped off my banquet clothes to reveal a wetsuit, and then I pulled on a hood and brandished a harvest knife at the awards ceremony of the summer macrobiotic conference in Basking Ridge NJ.
After Michio Kushi gave me the Aveline Kushi award for 40 years of service, providing highest quality seaweed, I sang a few songs that had sprung from the years of work, and I told a few stories. In the end, the audience realized that theseaweedman.com is a working example of applied spiritual practices that refine the path of right livelihood in this world.
I started out as Maine Seaweed Company, and later on I added theseaweedman.com to set myself apart from Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. People couldn’t tell us apart. I’m happy to say that Shep Erhart (left), founder of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables also received the Aveline Kushi Award for his enterprise which buys, sells, packages, and educates people about the benefits of seaweed. Christian Elwell (center) also received the Aveline Kushi award for his decades of work as the founder of South River Miso.
Here are the differences between theseaweedman.com and Maine Coast Sea Vegetables: Early in my career I realized that my work entailed a respectful relationship with water, and that the plants were most approachable through felt gratitude. That became the basis of the work.
The two cycle outboard motor presented a problem because it mixed oil with fuel and burned the oil through “total loss lubrication”. In other words, every time the operator premixes the fuel with oil (just like a lawnmower), it is done with the sure knowing that this oil will end up polluting the water around the boat with an oily sheen, and there will also be unburned fuel coming out of the exhaust because two cycle outboards aren’t efficient and complete fuel burners. Part of the solution was to switch to the more expensive four cycle outboard engines which burn fuel efficiently and don’t require oil to be mixed with the fuel. They work like your car engine, in other words. But guess what? Maine Coast Sea Vegetables adheres to an organic standard that they have designed that doesn’t specify that the harvester must operate with a four cycle outboard motor. When I’ve asked Shep Erhart to rewrite the standard, he has refused. The reasons have ranged from “Ron (the harvester) says a four cycle is hard to start on a cold day, and they’re heavier and more expensive” to “Yeah, we need to address that…..” But after decades, it hasn’t been addressed.
I think we can do better than that, but perhaps not. And why not? Shep talks about the multiplier effect. If he pays Ron more money for his harvest, that cost is multiplied through the distributor/wholesaler/retailer markup system to such an extent that his packages will not be competitively priced in stores. And even though Ron has been a loyal supplier for decades, Shep doesn’t feel that he can easily redirect funds to improve Ron’s operation which certainly has a lot of merit without also giving the same price to other smaller harvesters. The corporate model is not so flexible. There are too many middlemen in the mix.
Early in my career I realized that the best way to insure separation between gas-powered towboat and seaweed was to use the towboat for hauling crew and use separate container boats for hauling seaweed. I built all of my own wooden boats, and I coated them with vegetable quality oil. They turned black with age, like old salad bowls. Some of the container boats could haul 2000 pounds of seaweed, and some of the smaller rowboats were used for shuttling from the ledges to the container boat. A typical day involved a string of four boats that required an hour to get out to the islands, anchoring the tow boat and separating the container boat and two small rowboats for two hours of harvest, then joining the string together again for an hour’s ride home. All of this implies starting out from safe harbor, and teamwork with apprentices who live with me. That has always been one of my goals: to train apprentices in the art of a sustainable harvest within a three mile radius of my home. We are not roving pirates of the sea. We are stewards of a resource. Our stability as cooperative people doing good work together depends upon preserving a collective memory of place.
Ron, on the other hand, ranges more widely by using a trailerable boat. The towboat and the container boat are one and the same. Keeping fuel separate from the harvest is always more difficult, especially if the outboard is a two cycle engine. All I can say is that when apprentices start to dream about having their own business, I encourage them to think about safe harbors for a string of boats and a modest work radius of home. I want us all to grow to be our best, and that often involves more sharing, cooperation and teamwork.
There are other points of difference between theseaweedman.com and Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. I avoid selling powders because powders are often second quality plants. I’ve come across mislabeled offerings from herb companies. This can be detrimental to a customer’s health. I want my customers to truly understand wholeness.
In the maritime provinces, dulse is still dried on old herring weir nets, and the Maine Coast Sea Vegetables organic standards still do not specify that white untreated nylon nets are the best proper material for drying dulse, not old herring weir nets. After all, these nets were once treated with algicides and/or tar, and there is no such thing as a safe “weathered” net, even though the organic standards claim that such is the case. Painted dories are traditional for harvesting dulse in the Maritimes, but marine paint is a toxic mix, and few of these dories have adequate separating bulkheads between outboard motor and cargo. At best, the gas tank sits in a plastic tub that catches some of the fuel drippings, but not all.
When an organic certifier from the midwest approached me, I talked to him about these problems, and he offered to write a standard that would describe my best practices. It wouldn’t have affected anyone else, it simply would have described my way of working. When we started the conversation, he wasn’t aware of any of the above-mentioned problems. At the end of the conversation, I asked, “Well, how much would it cost to become certified?” He replied, “3% of your gross sales plus my travel expenses from the midwest.” That came in at around 5% of my gross sales, all totaled. I replied, “No thanks. I’ve educated you, and now you’ve picked my pocket and want to sell my pocket watch back to me. This is simply New Age Mafia. I would have to pass those costs on to my customers. And for what purpose? I already write them newsletters, letting them know that my standards are higher than organic standards, letting them know that I operate my business like a CSA (community supported agriculture) and that they are welcome to come for a visit so that they can discover the source and spirit of this food. There’s no charge for an overnight or a weekend stay. If I had to pay 5% of my gross sales to you, perhaps I couldn’t afford to feed and educate so many customers in this direct way.” The certifier didn’t take offense. After all, I was talking sense. We agreed that when it comes to setting organic standards, water quality is the main issue, and that the consciousness of the harvester is most important resource when it comes to preserving good water quality.
Perhaps the essential difference between this business and a corporate business is that at the outset, I asked the question, “How much is enough?” I answered that question in very practical terms one day by going out for an all day row. I rowed a figure eight course out through the islands at the mouth of my Gouldsboro Bay and over into adjoining Dyer Bay, following the far easterly shore all the way out to Petit Manan Island. When I returned home late in the afternoon, I had covered 15 miles. I thought, “Well, if I ever break down within this range, I can always row home.” I made my peace with that territory, and I made my peace, little by little, with physical work. I WANTED physical work, to keep me in shape. I had had enough of higher education which tends to disembody the mind.
A corporation, on the other hand, is always trying to find people to do the physical work for the least amount of money. Do the CEOs ever speak about what’s “enough”? In all my years of attending meetings of Maine Seaweed Council, I have yet to hear a CEO grapple with that question. When I reach “enough”, I train an apprentice to work next door to me and cooperate with me. Since that apprentice is taught the path of the heart when it comes to working with the plants and the path of gratitude toward the water, there’s no conflict. We simply form a social club, like a group of farmers who hold a collective memory of place and all love what we do on our respective CSA’s. Our work is direct, and our relationships with our customers are direct, too.
Summertime, and the living is easy……
Most of you know that I’ve been recovering from a head bonk that resulted in a subdural hematoma. Soon I’ll be done with the head CAT scans at a weekly rate of $1100 a pop plus the fee to my neurologist who reads the scan and tries to put me on the latest wonder drugs.
Zippy the Cat has been napping with me on a swinging bed that’s hung from chains. What could be finer than sloshing my brain back and forth, surrounded by my favorite books, with the finest Maine coon cat there ever was?
…..and while I’ve had all this time on my hands to brush the cat just how she likes it, I’ve come up with a Summer Blend of soup mix and a recipe to go with it. This blend omits the fall-harvested digitata kelp and focuses on the brown seaweeds that appear in early spring and summer: it’s a blend that’s three parts kelp and five parts alaria. You can order it HERE, and I’ll supply a three pound order broken down into one pound bags so that you can order it with friends or give it as presents.
Here is a recipe:
½ tsp light sesame oil
pinch of thyme
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 onion, cut lengthwise into thin slices
1 carrot, cut into half rounds
1 small rutabaga cut into wedges
1 small daikon, cut into half rounds
¼ cup summer blend seaweed soup mix (kelp & alaria)
1 stalk celery, ¼” slices
1 chopped scallion
¼ cup chopped parsley
dash of shoyu
4-5 cups water
Soak seaweed soup mix until tender. Rehydrate and dice mushrooms. Save and use the soak waters! Heat oil in soup pot over med-low heat. Add onion and cook till translucent, about 5 minutes,with pinch of thyme. Add root vegetables and cook, stirring occasionally, until coated with oil. Add mushrooms and seaweed soup mix and cook 2-3 minutes. Gently add 4-5 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes. Season very lightly with shoyu and simmer 10 minutes more. Serve garnished with parsley and scallions. Enjoy!
Add cut corn and sweet red pepper. Add a light sweet summer chickpea miso at the end.