Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable Company

Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable Company

On the final day of a five-day harvest, we had the unique opportunity to follow Terry d’Selkie, the dedicated owner of Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable Company. The day was dedicated to harvesting Silky Sea Palm, a seaweed known for its young, supple blades that thrive along the West Coast of North America.

Terry’s harvesting schedule is meticulously timed with the lunar calendar. Every full moon and new moon from the end of March through August, she heads out to collect the seaweed before it becomes too thrashed and overgrown. During the winter the seaweed is able to regrow for the following year. This cyclical process allows for sustainable harvesting practices, crucial for maintaining the viability of the patches she tends to—some of which have been harvested continuously since 1981.

Joining Terry on this particular Monday were Phil, the caretaker of her homestead, and the Koch family (pronounced ‘cook’): parents Ryan and Amanda, and their daughter Addie—the three of which have been assisting Terry with her harvests to learn more about the practice. Armed with melon and grape knives, the group set out to collect the delicate Silky Sea Palm, a process that requires precision and patience. On the previous Saturday, they had harvested over 61 wet pounds of seaweed, a typical yield for this variety.

As they navigate the rocky terrain, Terry points out a robust patch of Kombu, noting its suitability for harvesting despite not being the focus today. Describing the challenge of harvesting Kombu, she likens it to “riding Kombu cowboy,” where harvesters must hold onto the seaweed during waves to avoid being pulled out to sea. Ryan notes, “When you’re holding on [to the Kombu during a swell], you really know why it’s called a holdfast.”

Upon reaching the water’s edge, Terry sings a Mayan blessing song, offering thanks to the four directions and appreciation to the ocean. She finishes with a heartfelt, “Thank you Grandmama Ocean, for keeping us safe, in such abundance, and clean.” Her reverence for the ocean is palpable and sets the tone for the day’s work.

Unlike traditional farming, seaweed harvesting demands a careful approach. Terry’s method ensures that only 70% of the yield is taken from any given area, and smaller patches are often left untouched to promote regrowth. This dedication to sustainability is a hallmark of her practice. She emphasizes the importance of not harvesting in already-harvested spots, a principle that dates back to a “gentleman’s agreement” between the three main seaweed harvesting businesses in Mendocino. “You don’t want to go to a spot that’s already been harvested,” Terry says, highlighting the potential waste of time and the risks involved, with the ocean nipping at your heels.

Terry moved to Mendocino County in 1996, initially working as an elementary school teacher. Feeling burnt out after three years, she turned to seaweed harvesting, packaging and drying seaweed for local pioneers John and Eleanor Llewellyn. Eventually, she acquired Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable Company from Betsy Holiday, the original owner, marking the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey. In recent years, Terry has expanded her reach through a robust online presence, including a website (seaweedmermaid.com) and an online store, and sells her products through Mendo Lake Food Hub. Among the sea vegetables she harvests are Kombu, Ocean Ribbons, and Sweet Kombu, each with its unique characteristics and uses.

The Silky Sea Palm is an annual seaweed, with its “Silky” variety being prized for its tender young blades. “It’s [like] baby greens,” added Ryan. Harvesting mature plants results in tougher blades, sold simply as “Sea Palm.” Unlike some other harvesters who collect lower parts of the plant, killing it in the process, Terry’s method involves shearing off the tips, which helps propagate future growth.

The harvesting process is akin to giving the plants a “haircut,” with Terry’s hands moving swiftly like those of a skilled beautician. She skillfully pulls the blades between her fingers and shears off the tips, leaving the holdfast and stipe intact to ensure regrowth. This method of harvesting, which only takes the blades, allows the plant to continue growing, preserving its role in the ecosystem. This , combined with the limited harvest duration—never more than about two hours per patch due to tidal changes—demonstrates Terry’s deep understanding and respect for the marine ecosystem.

Interestingly, a biologist who initially believed that sea palm harvesting harmed the plant populations changed her view after studying Terry’s methods. She found that Terry’s careful harvesting techniques actually supported the plant’s proliferation.

Terry brandished a full bag of Silky Sea Palm, estimating it at about 12 pounds wet, which dries down to a mere pound. Drying the harvest takes several days on large screened racks to ensure proper air flow. However, achieving organic certification in California proved challenging, as sun drying was deemed non-compliant—a notion that many may find absurd.

The importance of sustainable harvesting is underscored by the cooperation among the three main harvesting companies—Ocean Harvest, Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, and Yemaya Seaweed Company. Together, they prevent overharvesting and ensure the sustainability of the local seaweed populations.

For Terry, harvesting seaweed is more than a job; it’s a way of life. She carefully manages her stock to last through the winter, often trading with other harvesters to balance supplies. Her Kombu was recently featured in Local Bounty Boxes, highlighting Mendo Lake Food Hub’s and the local community’s appreciation for her work.

As the tide begins to rise, signaling the end of our harvest, Terry calls out with a smile, “This is the exciting part. The drying part is more like farming.” Reflecting on the day’s work, it’s clear that Terry’s dedication to sustainable harvesting and her deep connection to the ocean make her an exemplary steward of the sea.

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