#119, Emily Stengel, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of GreenWave
Emily Stengel is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of GreenWave, a non-profit organization dedicated to training a new generation of regenerative ocean farmers and building the foundation for a new blue-green ocean economy that creates jobs, mitigates climate change and grows healthy food for local communities. She brings to GreenWave a background in sustainable food systems, working for several years at a B-Corp catering company in NYC dedicated to supporting the regional farm and food economy, and more recently, working on a research team focused on workforce development in agricultural communities. Emily has an MS in Community Development and Applied Economics from the University of Vermont.
Bigger Than Us Episode 119
This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.
Host Raj Daniels 02:17
If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?
Emily Stengel 02:24
If we’re talking about personally interesting, I feel like I’m a hugely boring person. But one sort of fun party fact that I always roll out is that I’ve run two marathons, one in New York City and one in Philadelphia.
Host Raj Daniels 02:37
Did you say you run or you run every year?
Emily Stengel 02:40
Well, I’ve I’ve run the two marathons in the past and aiming to run another one in the future. Here’s hoping but I just had a baby a year and a half ago. So still trying to get my running legs under me.
Host Raj Daniels 02:50
So what’s the drive to run marathons?
Emily Stengel 02:53
I think it’s the solitude and sort of the the meditative aspect of it. I find it to be just a really wonderful sort of reflective practice for me.
Host Raj Daniels 03:06
Now, are you one of those that trains the entire 26.2 miles? Or do you do the 18 to 20 mile training and then kind of pushed to the rest?
Emily Stengel 03:13
Oh, I mean, 18 to 20? I do like maybe 15 to 18!
Host Raj Daniels 03:21
Well, good for you. Now, you kind of teased, you said personal or professional? What’s something interesting professional?
Emily Stengel 03:27
I think for me professionally, I’ve made a huge transition in the last five years from working in sort of land based agriculture to shifting and into the oceans actually.
Host Raj Daniels 03:39
Well, that segues beautifully to my next question. Can you give the audience an overview of GreenWave and your role at the organization?
Emily Stengel 03:50
I am a co-founder and co-director here at GreenWave. We launched in 2014 to replicate and scale, a really powerful model of ocean farming, that my co-founder Bren Smith had pioneered, and now Bren is an ex-commercial fisherman who remade himself as an ocean farmer, raising seaweeds and shellfish off the coast of Connecticut. For folks who are unfamiliar with this way of farming, I think it really helps to visualize the farm. So I’d encourage you to imagine an underwater garden. We’ve got hurricane-proof anchors on the corners connected by horizontal floating ropes just below the water surface. And from these lines, we have kelp and other seeds that grow vertically downward next to scallops that are hanging in next we’ve got mussels and mesh socks. Then there are oysters sitting on the seafloor and cages and clams buried in the oceans bottom so it’s nearly invisible from above water safe for a few days. This way of farming has a real laundry list of benefits. First of all, it requires zero inputs. So no fertilizer, no Feed no fresh water and produces really high yields without all of that. It’s also restorative. The kelp that we grow is often called the Sequoia of the sea. Because it sequesters carbon like sequoia trees and oysters that we grow filter nitrogen from 50 gallons of water a day. These crops also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rebuild marine ecosystems. It’s also a model that’s replicable. It’s just an underwater scaffolding of buoys, ropes, and anchors that’s pretty affordable and relatively easy to build. So with a simple design and a low cost, this means that these farms can be replicated quickly. It’s also a bigger picture of community benefits. It has the potential to revitalize coastal economies by utilizing you know, existing infrastructure or latent capacity from fishing communities. It helps to diversify existing shellfish businesses and can provide a stream of supplemental income for lobstermen, for fishermen. A big question that we get was how are these crops used. Seaweed can be used, of course commercially for food, but also for land-based fertilizer for animal feeds, or plastic alternatives. And in addition to farming these crops for commercial purposes, this model can be deployed for reforestation to restore ocean ecosystems to capture blue carbon, to capture nitrogen in the water column. And that scale, it can be really, really powerful. The World Bank came out with a study a couple of years ago, actually, that said, if we farm seaweed in just 5% of US waters, we can absorb the carbon equivalent to offset emissions of 97 million cars a year. It can create 50 million jobs can produce the protein equivalent of 3 trillion cheeseburgers. So these are like hugely powerful numbers. But they really highlight that this work isn’t just about food. It’s not just about climate mitigation. It’s not just jobs. It’s all of those things together. So we think of this is a climate solution with lots of cascading co-benefits.
GreenWave is a nonprofit organization that’s working to replicate this farming model by providing training and support for farmers. So we train these farmers and we also build viable market opportunities, so that we’re ensuring long term success for them. We connect them to buyers and food and agriculture and bioplastics. And we have interest from over 6000 people from around the world, every coastal state in the US plus 100 countries globally. So we’re aiming to train 10,000 farmers in the next 10 years at GreenWave.
Host Raj Daniels 07:45
So for those of you listening, I highly encourage you to go to the website, I’ll put a link in the show notes. But take a look at the videos and take a look at the diagram they have. It’s really amazing. I was very surprised when I saw this. Has this been around for a while? Or was this is a relatively new kind of way to do I guess underwater farming?
Emily Stengel 08:06
So certainly, methods of shellfish farming have been around for quite some time and have been, you know, have been prominent in the northeast where our headquarters is. But incorporating seaweed and shellfish is, well, it’s been around for some time, but has really taken off in the last couple of years. Because I think folks are realizing these incredible benefits that can come from growing seaweeds and shellfish together. There’s been some research out that shows sort of a halo effect of growing shellfish on a farm with seaweed that there’s, you know, benefits that they can both reap from the other.
Host Raj Daniels 08:45
Now, one of the items on this diagram that I’m looking at that I don’t understand, and maybe you can clarify for me, the 20 acres, what’s that for?
Emily Stengel 08:54
Right, so you lease, you lease a farm site, 20 acres of water on which you can grow your crops. So that’s the lease and a permit that you obtain through your state wherever you’re growing. And it’s really a process right, not a property right. So you don’t own the water, but you do own the right to grow whatever species you’ve applied for on that water site.
Host Raj Daniels 09:22
So Am I understanding correctly in that a state will lease coastal water areas?
Emily Stengel 09:28
That’s exactly right. And the really incredible thing about ocean farming is that it’s really cheap to lease from your state or your local town. I mean, we’re looking at some sites that are as cheap as $25 per acre. And if you think of that, compared to land-based agriculture, that’s pretty incredible.
Host Raj Daniels 09:47
That really is amazing. And you mentioned all the inquiries, I can understand why now. So you said kelp, oysters, mussels, clams. Are you experimenting, or looking at other crops too?
Emily Stengel 10:03
We grow mostly sugar kelp in the northeast, it’s a native species. That’s one that we’ve been working to develop the market for some time. But there are so many other species of seaweed 10,000 species of seaweed that could be grown in our waters. So we are certainly looking to diversify the species of seaweeds that are grown on our farm and on other farms.
Host Raj Daniels 10:27
Obviously, you mentioned the food benefits. But I know recently, there’s been a lot of innovation around using seaweed for straws and other containers. But I saw on your site that there’s also an opportunity to create or use the seaweed for cattle feed. Is that correct?
Emily Stengel 10:44
Fascinating. Yeah. So there, there’s some very current research just out that shows that feeding cattle a very small percentage of their diet, using a red seaweed called asparaguses can reduce their methane output by up to 50%. So it has really incredible tangible methane reduction benefits. And I’m really excited to see more research on this topic.
Host Raj Daniels 11:11
I am too, because, again, you know, you added the benefits. You mentioned the benefits regarding the employment opportunities, reducing carbon, but also being able to transition cattle away from corn and perhaps mitigating some of the methane effects from cattle, that that’s obviously another fantastic opportunity.
Emily Stengel 11:28
Absolutely. And there’s a really, you know, in addition to thinking about the methane reduction potential there, it’s really interesting to think about sort of historic habits of land-based farmers who are raising cattle and have been feeding seaweed to their cattle, and sheep and other livestock for a long time to help improve the flavor of the meat. So there’s, I think there’s in addition to reducing the methane output, there’s also this opportunity to create a sort of niche meat product.
Host Raj Daniels 11:59
Now, something else you mentioned earlier about helping farmers build viable market opportunities? Can you walk me through how that looks like? So for example, if I have a listener right now that’s interested in perhaps wants to experiment or wants to adventure out and build one of these forums? How do you help a farmer do that?
Emily Stengel 12:15
Yeah, so we’ve been working for the past several years to build what we think of as a buyer’s network. So we create you know, as a nonprofit organization, we’re really this trusted actor sort of operating in the middle with no financial interest in either the farms that we support or the buyers that we work with. So we do a lot of education on both sides. So working with entrepreneurs who are starting value-added products like kelp jerky, or kelp burgers, or kelp, salsa, or even bioplastics using our seaweed. We work with them to understand, you know, in what form, they’re going to be receiving the kelp and what the seasonality of the product looks like. And then make those direct connections to buyers within our network. So we do a lot of that direct connection making right now and have helped sell thousands of pounds from our farmers over the last several years.
Host Raj Daniels 13:09
Now, I might be asking a chicken and egg question. So let me know if I am but was GreenWave started to support this kind of farming, or was this kind of forming started, and then GreenWave came along?
Emily Stengel 13:21
It’s a great question. So Bren Smith, my co-founder and our resident farmer, really started this way of farming out of necessity. He was a commercial fisherman remade as an oyster farmer on the coast of Connecticut. His crops were ravaged by hurricanes Irene and Sandy in the early 2010s. And he partnered with Dr. Charlie Yarish out of UConn, who is one of the world’s leading seaweed scientists to incorporate seaweed into his farming model to diversify his production methods and to stabilize the farm in the face of storm surges in hurricanes like the one he had seen two years in a row. So he is an individual person farmer who developed this farming model and saw so much interest in the model and from people who wanted to do what he was doing, that he realized he needed to, you know, to start an organization around it. So we joined forces and in 2014, to really launch an NGO that could support the replication of this farming model in a formal way.
Host Raj Daniels 14:29
And going back to the actual farming for a moment, and just because I’m really fascinated and feel free to get as technical as you need to, can you explain to the audience how you perhaps germinate seaweed onshore and then move it offshore?
Emily Stengel 14:42
Yes, and I want to preface this by saying I am not a scientist. So I will explain it in layman’s terms. We produce seaweed seed in a hatchery so essentially in a nursery on land that are in our hub, and the method that we go through to do that involves collecting a few blades of reproductive wild kelp. So we go to the shore and collect onshore we do offshore diving to collect a few wild blades during its reproductive time, which is typically September-October. So we’re in the thick of hatchery season right now. So it’s a very timely question. So we go out and we collect these kelp blades that are reproductive, we bring them into our lab, and we shock them with light and, and temperature change, to really induce like the release of the reproductive spores. Once those reproductive spores are released, we create a solution from them. That is poured into tanks just into you know, 40-gallon fish tanks. And in those tanks, we put in what we call seed spools. So these are PVC pipes wrapped with a special kind of seed string. And we put that into the solution and the little baby spores latch on to the seed string, and, and grow, we let them germinate for about six weeks before we take those spools and outplant them onto our farms.
Host Raj Daniels 16:07
And again, I’ve been cheating because I’ve been watching the videos and just been fascinated by the entire operation. Some of these screens I see can get up to big 15 feet long is that correct?
Emily Stengel 16:17
That’s right, yeah, kelp grows incredibly fast. The growing season is from about, you know, in the northeast about November, until until May or June, and it grows quite a bit in that short change.
Host Raj Daniels 16:31
So, Emily, I’m going to make a hard right turn here and get to the crux of our conversation, which is the why behind what you do. You know, you’ve been with GreenWave for about I think four years of my research is correct. Why GreenWave? What motivates you? What keeps you going?
Emily Stengel 16:47
Yeah, I mean, when I think about why I came to this work, it’s really because of work I was doing with land-based farmers. You know, my roots are pretty firmly on land. My first job was selling produce at a farmers market, the oldest indoor farmers market in the country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish country. And it really set a course for me.
In my early career, I worked in catering doing operations and procurement for a farm to table catering company here in New York, really before farm to table was so buzzy, but it just really illustrated to me the importance of a regional food economy. So I loved that work. But I felt pulled to go deeper into the workings of the food system. So I shifted to agricultural research.
It was academic work that took me around the country interviewing and surveying hundreds of land-based farmers. And I was shocked by what I heard. I mean, these farmers were telling me that they were having trouble making ends meet, they were having trouble affording farmland of their own. They couldn’t pay for health insurance, they couldn’t pay for child care or find child care in their rural environments. They were nervous about climate change, and about the ways, climate change would affect their farm business. So you know, right around this time, I read an op-ed in the New York Times called Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to be Farmers, something very close to that and sort of a tongue in cheek take on how challenging it is to grow food in our country. today. The author turned out to be an ocean farmer, actually, it was bred might now partner co-founder, who I was introduced to through a mutual friend who thought we might get along. And so when I learned about the farming model from him, I was hooked, you know, it felt like this solution to the issues that were being brought up so frequently to me by land-based farmers, you know, this access to affordable farmland linked to the financial viability of the business model, and ecological sustainability of their way of farming. So I do this work because I see climate change as a threat to our food system. But not just from an environmental perspective. There will be no jobs on a dead planet. And the work we’re doing is to ensure that we can all make a living on the living planet.
Host Raj Daniels 19:02
I love the idea of no jobs and dead planet couldn’t be truer. So when you first started with GreenWave, and you started talking to people about farming in the oceans or in the waters, what do they say to you?
Emily Stengel 19:18
I mean, I think I think Bren, he would say he got laughed off the docks, you know, as a commercial fisherman people didn’t think this was sort of a legit way, of working the water. But, you know, from general interests, we hear from people from all walks of life who are interested in farming in this way. And it’s really a beautiful thing to see how driven people are to make some kind of change in this climate crisis. So you know, we hear from, of course, fishermen, who you know, who want to transition, we hear from shellfishermen who want to diversify their businesses. We hear from people who are like, you know, late in life making career changes, and this is they want to commit to doing something thing that can make a difference. So it’s really, it’s really wonderful to see people from all different backgrounds sort of want to commit to this kind of work.
Host Raj Daniels 20:08
Now, after listening to you and you know, visiting your website, the process seems simple enough, but can you share some of the challenges a person might encounter if they were about to invest or perhaps, start their own form?
Emily Stengel 20:23
I think there are two areas. And one is that state to state in the US, they’re incredibly different regulatory environments in each state. And so that makes it challenging for folks to know sort of what they’re up against, we are putting together and have tools and resources for farmers in our network to help streamline that process in any given state. But, you know, for the average person who hasn’t gone through the process before, I think it could seem daunting, especially because there’s no sort of consistent process across the coastal states. But I do think that that is an issue that is certainly able to be overcome, especially through support, you know, with organizations like GreenWave.
I also see a bottleneck in processing. This is something that is an issue for land-based farming as well, that first stage processing of stabilization of a crop once it comes off the farm or off the water is not a sexy part of the supply chain, but it is absolutely critical. We’re working now to develop that that component of the supply chain in partnership with some really amazing companies to make sure that our farmers have a place to sell their seaweed if it needs to be stabilized if it needs to be dried, or frozen, or blanched and sold in that state. So I think that bottleneck is something that we’re working very seriously on.
Host Raj Daniels 22:04
And you mentioned supply chain, how long can the seaweed survive once it’s taken out of the water before it gets to processing?
Emily Stengel 22:11
That’s a really tricky part. Once it’s exposed to oxygen pulled out of the water, it really only has 24 hours, before it starts to degrade. So we do need to get that either sold or stabilized pretty quickly once it’s harvested. A lot of the support we provide to our farmers is figuring out what, you know, what are the best practices around post-harvest handling?
Host Raj Daniels
That is really interesting. And I’m thinking perhaps, you know, you’ve got a few models out there already how they can be replicated easily. And the other question I have is, you mentioned other countries that are interested, can you perhaps shine a light on some of the countries that are perhaps higher up in the priority list as far as starting these processes?
Yeah, we’ve been in pretty serious discussions with some folks in New Zealand over the past two years. They are working very closely with the Maori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand to build a regenerative ocean farming economy. And so we’ve been working to support them as they do a landscape assessment. So understand the feasibility of this farming model in you know, in their, their economy and where it could fit in the current industry in New Zealand, and then helping them to compile a business case to look at exactly what the investment structure could look like, and, and what the markets are there. So, that’s a really critical piece of moving into any new area is to fully understand the landscape, and do some deliberate planning on how the industry could unfold. But New Zealand is a really promising new area, and we’re excited to see what unfolds there. They’re great partners and doing a lot of great work on the ground.
Host Raj Daniels 23:54
That is exciting. So Emily, almost five years on this journey. What are some of the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned about yourself?
Emily Stengel 24:04
Learn about myself, I mean, I’ve learned how to properly shuck an oyster, that’s one skill. But you know, I’ve learned a lot and I, I had a lot to learn, you know, not coming from an aquaculture background, I had a lot to learn about the industry and about who’s part of the industry and, and what this should look like, moving forward. So I think a big thing that I’ve learned is who’s doing this farming really, really matters to this work. And to the long term success of the industry.
Our country’s fishing sector brings in more than $200 billion in economic activity every year. It supports something like 1.6 million jobs. And that industry seeing huge declines in revenue and jobs because of climate change because of declines in fish stocks. We also see coastal indigenous communities as really uniquely vulnerable They’re facing land loss because of rising seas, they’re also seeing the decline of species like herring and salmon that have historically served, as a critical source of income and food security for them and a really big part of their cultural heritage. And despite challenges, I think both of these groups have really widespread fishing and aquaculture experience and skills that position them to successfully leverage this farming model. And so we see real opportunity to address climate change, but also address these core issues of, you know, inequality and injustice along the way, by lifting up these key groups. You know, for instance, in Alaska, we’re already working with the native Conservancy with the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and other community partners to adopt the model to bring back wild kelp beds and herring stocks. So I think that this idea of who farms matters is a big lesson that I’ve learned, and that is central to our work.
Host Raj Daniels 25:59
That is interesting, who farms matters. So it’s 2025, you have a magic wand? What does the future hold for GreenWave?
Emily Stengel 26:08
By 2025, I mean, I’m hoping that we’ve trained thousands and thousands of more farmers. I mean, really, in the next five years, we’re hoping to train 5000 farmers to meet this growing demand that we’re seeing in North America and beyond. We’re in the process of building out a digital resource platform, it will house tools and information to help farmers start farms and really go from seed to sale. So we see thousands of farms dotting our coastlines in the US and beyond, you know, clustered in 25 to 50 farms with necessary land-based infrastructure, with rings of institutional buyers who are supporting the market with just a really robust blue-green economy that supports the revitalization of coastal communities and creates jobs for folks there.
Host Raj Daniels 26:59
You know, you mentioned the cost of leasing the water earlier, because Is there a loan program available for that like, almost like mortgages?
Emily Stengel 27:08
For leasing the water, I’m not aware of farmers that have taken loans out for that component. But I think once farmers go to scale their farm operations, it’s quite affordable to start a very small scale farm and even when compared to land-based farming affordable to start a commercial-scale farm. But I think that is a critical gap right now in our work is, you know, a really climate-appropriate mechanism for funding these regenerative ocean farms as they get off the ground. You know, farmers are hesitant to take private capital. They don’t want to be indebted to anybody. And so I think there’s a real critical need for figuring out the best way to support farmers financially, as they scale their farm businesses.
Host Raj Daniels
I love your vision about 5000 farmers, I’m also I’m almost envisioning, you know, partnerships with colleges and universities where if an individual is interesting and interested in agriculture, it’s not only land-based going forward, it’s also ocean-based or water-based. The last question I have for you, is if you could share some advice, it could be professional or personal words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?
First of all, I feel like I’m still very much in the position of taking advice from other people, still learning every day. But one piece that has really always stuck with me and has been in the back of my mind while doing this work is actually from my grandfather, he was an old school businessman, CEO of a heavy construction equipment distributor, he wrote his own what he called a credo for success. It was a list of five principles that one followed would make one successful. And, you know, one of the tenants is a healthy disregard for the way things have been done. And it’s just always stuck with me. You know, in particular, in the work, we’re doing a green wave, we’re charting a new path, we’re supporting the creation of an entirely new blue-green economy at sea, and learning from the mistakes made on land. So while we need to know about the way things have been done in the past, to learn from them, to truly have impacted me to be willing to think bigger to think differently and to stray with confidence from what’s already been done.
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