"Could I flesh it out on the board? I know that's kind of cliche."
Sam Norton evokes the image of a pioneering scientist working toward a breakthrough. Working inside a small lab advised by Dan McGlinn at the College of Charleston, Norton spends his days analyzing Salicornia europaea, an edible salt water-tolerant plant.
Norton begins sketching elaborate diagrams and graphs. "A halophyte is a salt-tolerant plant, that's what I'm growing in here," he says, motioning to stacks of Salicornia growing in plastic troughs with tubes of gurgling water and softly humming lights. "That plant is the most salt-tolerant terrestrial plant on the planet."
Norton's Johns Island based company Heron Farms was born out of this salty, vividly green plant.
As an undergrad at CofC, Norton met Elizabeth Wood, the director of biofuel strategy at Boeing. Wood told him about a Boeing program in the United Arab Emirates that was creating biofuel with the seeds of Salicornia, a plant that Norton had never heard of before then.
Intrigued, Norton interviewed for the program. "They told me, 'You're not going to get a job with us unless you know more about this plant, this project, salt-water agriculture, and where it comes from.'" Norton finally looked up an image of this enigmatic plant, and something clicked. "I realized, 'Oh my god, this is the plant that I had eaten many times growing up in Charleston.'"
As a child, Norton and his peers attended outdoor camps in the summer, kayaking through marshy creeks. "The guides would say, 'Here you go kids, here's a marsh plant you can eat, it's called a sea pickle,'" recalls Norton. Inspired by his findings, Norton steered his undergrad studies to focus on Salicornia and used his capstone to research the feasibility of farming the plant in South Carolina.
Norton would go on to win a Dept. of Agriculture start-up competition, which gave him $25,000 to start his own company. With some system design help from Vertical Roots co-founder Matt Daniels, Norton got up and running.
- Ruta Smith
On our lab visit, he launches into the various kinds of tests he has conducted there: creating and testing artificial sunlight, mapping and photoanalyzing seeds, testing deepwater hydroponic methods, documenting photometric analysis, plotting light saturation curves.
All of this hard work produces a highly sought after product — chefs in the region are vying for a chance to get a piece of each harvest. Norton's sea beans have appeared on the menu at Chubby Fish on tuna crudo; at Minero in ceviche; at Husk delicately perched atop raw cuts of flounder, tuna, and beeliner; and garnishing the seafood chowder at Delaney Oyster House.
"James [London of Chubby Fish] was one of the first people to reach out to me on Instagram a few months ago and was one of the key people telling me to change the name to sea beans. I'm just listening to chefs at this point, they just tell me what to do and I follow their direction," Norton says.
Chefs are paying high prices for Salicornia to be harvested in Portland, Ore. during a limited 60-day wild harvest period. The wild version of Salicornia has a thick stalk that must be removed. But Norton's product, which he harvests and sells for $27 per pound from his Johns Island farm, does not include the same undesirable stalk. His first out-of-town sale was to chef Christopher Hatchcock at Husk Savannah who reached out to Heron Farms via Instagram. "He said, 'Let me skip the list and pay more.'"
Beyond thinking of Salicornia as a culinary delicacy, Norton sees much larger potential for his plant and Heron Farms. "If you live in this town now, you realize that saltwater is literally coming up through the streets during high tide," he says, urging, "We don't have time to be acting like it's political football. Is there a machine that turns carbon dioxide and saltwater into something useful? Turns out, there is: It's a plant that has been growing next to us the whole time."
Norton is also interested in working with Combined Disposal Facilities (CDFs), large plots of land in marshes where dredge materials from the harbor are left to "dewater," a process that takes years.
"Salicornia can do this process faster and create more potential land for housing since there is so much sediment area in Charleston. Toler's Cove [in Mt. Pleasant] is on a former dredge site," he explains.
Norton is developing an elaborate plan to drop Salicornia seeds onto CDFs via drone. He has his sights set on two identical decommissioned dredge sites in Mt. Pleasant.
For the immediate future, Norton is working to expand the growing side of business at Heron Farms. Earlier this month, Norton pitched his business at the Harbor Accelerator start-up competition — and won. The $15,000 check will help Norton to increase output and keep up with demand.
"Turning sea level rise into food," is how Heron Farms describes themselves on Instagram. Norton says he just wants to be productive in an effort to take some sort of action toward confronting the issue.
"We're going to wake up tomorrow and there will be 360,000 new mouths to feed, there's going to be less fresh water and there's going to be more salt water. My version of picketing in the streets is to be in the lab all night trying to grow plants with salt water. Could we eat our way out of climate change? Because people love salty food. We have too much salt water, let's do something with it."