Scoring a first with commercial kelp farm


Sue Wicks tackled 40-mile-an-hour winds straight out of the east with a cold, sleety rain while harvesting kelp on Moriches Bay, the day of her interview.

Her kelp and oyster farm, 3 acres, is right off Terrell River County Park in East Moriches.  “My dad, Bill Wicks, was a bayman and he always said, ‘Yeah, everyone wants to work on the water in August. But you have to go to work every day. If people can’t count on you, you’re off the list.’ This is a job that’s not a hobby. It’s having your head down and nurturing something.”

Wicks is the founder of Violet Cove Oyster Company, utilizing floating cages for her shellfish charges, but has also embraced raising kelp. “I have the first kelp permit in New York State and am the first commercially doing it,” she said.

She has been working with and encouraged by Wendy Moore of Lazy Farms Inc., but Brookhaven Town and Suffolk County officials as well as others have enthusiastically jumped on board with the kelp concept.

“Kelp is a winter crop,” she explained. “We planted at the end of November on long ropes,” she explained. “We have 50 of those lines this year, so from November to May around now, with more sunlight and warmer temperatures, they start to explode. It’s like baby lettuce right now, so we harvest some of it for food. The rest, I’ll wait until the end of the season for organic farmers.”

Early Girl Farm at Isabella Rossellini’s Mama Farm, in Brookhaven Hamlet, uses Wicks’s kelp.

“I took it to Micari Vineyards in Mattituck,” she said. “Joe is a cheerleader and has become a friend. He’s told me ‘I know it’s beneficial.’”

For the drying process, “we take the entire 100-foot line, bring it in and take it to a drying rack. It loses about 70 percent of the weight, and then we bring it to a dehydrator and grind it to flakes and put into vacuum-sealed bags.”

Then there are the oysters that she tends to, pulling up the cages after a year, with a lot of nurturing in between. “We’re oyster farmers and I’m on the boat, harvesting my oysters, too. Now I’m delivering them,” she said, driving to the next customer.

“I have a temporary lease with Brookhaven for three years,” she said. “They’re helping me with a space in Mastic Beach.”

“Sue is a licensee for the town for our aquacultural operation for oysters and kelp,” said Brookhaven Town supervisor Dan Panico. “That kelp will be dried in Mastic Beach at the former Violet Cove area, and we’ve identified a spot at the end of our town highway yard for the containers to be used for the final drying stage to create a new kelp industry.

“Kelp, as it grows, sucks up so much nitrogen, and when you take it out of the water, people eat it; it’s used in the production of cosmetics and fertilizer.”

Panico said he had spoken to the agricultural advisory board and made those farmers aware of the potential. “They all seem interested. I’m hoping to bring them to a Brookhaven farmers’ gathering to talk about the possibility,” he said.

Tim Rothang, chief of staff to Legis. Jim Mazzarella (R, C, Moriches), explained Suffolk County’s involvement.

“We’re looking at the former Violet Cove property in Mastic Beach,” he said. (The Violet Cove site had a restaurant that closed in 2008. Superstorm Sandy destroyed the property in 2012 and Suffolk County demolished the building in 2022. The cove is intact.) “We would enter into an agreement for her use. It’s a county-owned property, and we have a goal to eventually develop it for community use, for passive recreation. But in the meantime, she has to have an area to dehydrate it, and needs a structure and dehydrator. We’re working with the town to find an alternative location for the dehydration process. Kelp has a lot of benefits, and Sue has committed to us that she’d be willing to donate her time and help for community education and benefits.”

It’s been a long haul, several years’ worth, getting agencies on board who didn’t have knowledge or experience with kelp farming. “I called the Army Corps of Engineers because it was taking two years for permits being issued,” she said. Her contact there admitted, “we don’t even know how to do this,” and it took another six months with an outside agency to help, she said.

“Now other farmers are calling me to help with the process.”

“You have to keep the faith. I’ve had people wanting it to happen like Wendy Moore, Dan Panico, Jim Mazzarella and Ed Romaine all saying, ‘We’re going to make it happen.’”

Wicks played at Rutgers University in the mid-1980s and became an All- American and Player of the Year. She signed with the WNBA in its inaugural year and is a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and former sports ambassador for the U.S. State Department.

Did her athleticism help with the hard work?

“There are some parallels,” she admitted. “I love physical work. The WNBA is exploding now, and we were the pioneers. I wasn’t making money then and I’m not now. My dream then as a basketball player was to bring attention to the game and the women playing, and my dream now is that growing kelp makes me happy and will help the planet.”

She cited her hope.

“I’m not alone,” she said. “With my aquaculture lease, it’s Dan Panico. We need the town to pass a resolution for an aquaculture program. The production from Moriches Bay is greater than any other bay from Long Island.”


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