Ocean Farming and the new Blue-Green Economy: An Interview with Bren Smith of Greenwave

Tell us about Greenwave. What do you do?

3D Ocean Farming is a polyculture vertical farming system grows a mix of seaweeds and shellfish that require zero inputs - making it the most sustainable form of food production on the planet - while sequestering carbon and rebuilding reef ecosystems. Since our farms sit below the surface and leverage the entire water column, they produce high yields with a small footprint. Our crops are used as food, fertilizer, animal feed and more.


In 2014, GreenWave was founded to replicate this 3D ocean farming model, and scale the ecological and economic benefits of restorative agriculture. Our Farm Replication Program trains and supports new farmers, develops necessary policy to encourage sustainable and equitable industry growth, and researches and deploys appropriate technology on farms to maximize yields. While increasing the supply of restorative ocean crops through Farm Replication, GreenWave’s Market Innovation Program scales demand for crops by incubating early-stage product development, mobilizing investment and opening new market opportunities for farmers. The GreenWave Reef model is our way of replicating in new areas. Each Reef has 25 to 50 small-scale ocean farms, a land-based hatchery and processing hub, and a ring of large-scale institutional buyers and entrepreneurs developing value-added products. These Reefs are then replicated up and down coastlines. Our goal is to support the launch of 10 Reefs in 5 years. To date, GreenWave has trained and supported over 50 farmers and entrepreneurs throughout New England, California, New York, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.

GreenWave recognizes the opportunity to weave equity and inclusion into the DNA of the emerging restorative ocean farming industry. Restorative ocean farmers are emerging from all walks of life: from landlubbers and experienced fishermen to veterans and young land-based farmers struggling to find farmland. Notably, women are leading every level of this new blue-green economy as farmers, scientists, hatchery technicians, policy experts, and entrepreneurs. GreenWave believes Who Farms Matters and works to ensure these marginalized communities continue to shape the new ocean economy.

As ocean farmers, we can simultaneously create jobs, feed the planet, and fight climate change.


What do you see as the central challenge facing ocean farmers/fisherfolk and in New England right now? How are you and other ocean farmers/fisherfolk meeting that challenge?

The central challenge of ocean farming is that our “soil” turns over a thousand times a day, and we can’t see what we grow. This means we need embedded sensors in our farms and have to deploy autonomous underwater “fish” to keep an eye on our crops. We need technology to track underwater weather. We need real-time data uploaded to online dashboards so we can know precisely when to plant, where in the water column the nutrients are the densest year to year, and how to keep pollutants from showing up in our crops. We need mechanical fish alerting us to early biofouling to optimize harvest times. These cutting-edge tools of predictive farming will help us increase yields, monitor cli- mate change, and speed up the learning loops as our industry scales up. In the process, this technology will allow us to harvest more than crops—we can harvest data, to be sold to scientists monitoring acidification, companies selling carbon and nitrogen credit, and wholesale buyers needing to predict supply yields. Data harvesting will translate into an entirely new income stream for farmers.

GreenWave has brought together a team of scientists, industry leaders and environmental NGOs to launch a Blue Carbon project designed to develop a kelp carbon credit protocol for certification by international carbon credit agencies. At the same time, we are embedding cutting-edge sensor technology into GreenWave supported farms to measure ecosystem services, increase yields and establish infrastructure for farmers to “harvest” data and carbon credits.

What lessons have you learned along the way?

Early on, I thought I had to control every aspect of GreenWave and how the industry was evolving. Now I think differently, maybe the opposite. I say: let’s build a movement, let’s trust and support other farmers to carry forward their piece, let’s steward standards and values together. This is the fastest way to get to a new norm, and it’s also sturdier because it’s owned by many.

Does your community have any stake in the Farm Bill or other federal and state policies?
If so, what are the issues that you’re concerned about or want to see action on? 

The Green New Deal resolution spans energy, transportation, farming, health care, and employment. But there’s a key piece that’s been overlooked: the ocean. The ocean is one of our nation’s greatest resources — not just for recreation and seafood, but also for mitigating climate change.

Alongside marine biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and conservation leader Dr. Chad Nelsen, we’ve identified a big blue gap in the Green New Deal. We all believe that the ocean can go from unsung solution to policy cornerstone. To make that happen, the United States will have to do four things: 1. restore and protect coastal ecosystems; 2. invest in renewable offshore energy; 3. bolster the “blue economy;” and 4. vastly expand regenerative ocean farming.

Bren Smith, executive director of GreenWave and owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm, pioneered the development of restorative 3D Ocean Farming. A lifelong commercial fisherman, he was named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “25 People Shaping the Future” and featured in TIME magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”. He is the winner of the Buckminster Fuller Prize and been profiled by CNN, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and elsewhere. He is an Ashoka and Echoing Green Climate Fellow and author of Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer. For more information, visit www.greenwave.org