#81: The Seaweed Commons, Soy-free Pigs and Regenerative Viticulture

#81: The Seaweed Commons, Soy-free Pigs and Regenerative Viticulture 150 150 Farmerama Radio

This month Severine von Tscharner Fleming tells us all about the work she’s been doing as part of the Seaweed Commons, an international learning and advocacy network for conservation minded seaweed farmers, wild harvesters, marine biologists and researchers. Take a look at their collectively authored Seaweed Commons Position Paper to learn more. 

We also have the third and final installment of our series on animal feed made in collaboration with Wicked Leeks. This episode, Wicked Leeks editor Nina Pullman speaks with Amy Chapple – daughter of Mark Chapple who you’ll remember from last week’s episode –  about her soy-free pigs. Wicked Leeks are exploring this topic in a documentary entitled ‘What’s the Problem with Animal Feed?’ which meets some of the farmers trying to reverse agriculture’s soy addiction. If you are interested in more stories on sustainable food and ethical business, you can sign up online to receive the weekly edition of the Wicked Leeks magazine. Finally, we hear from Sérgio Nicolau in Portugal about his transition from conventional to organic, and then regenerative winemaking. He shares with us how he uses a combination of sap analysis, brix readings and hole digging to understand what is working on his vineyard.

This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barratt and Abby Rose. Additional recordings by Nina Pullman, editor at Wicked Leeks.

A big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Dora Taylor, Olivia Oldham, Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt.

Thank you to everyone on our Patreon. Your support helps us in bringing you the stories of regenerative farming around the world, each month. We appreciate it. If you’d like to join, please visit patreon.com/farmerama where you can choose your level of support.


Episode Transcript

Abby: Hello and welcome to Farmerama.

This month we reconnect with a friend of the show who tells us all about the work she’s been doing as part of the Seaweed Commons, Wicked Leeks continue their investigation into animal feed and we meet a farmer in Portugal who shares his learnings moving from conventional to organic, and then regenerative winemaking.

Jo: Thank you to everyone on our Patreon. Your support helps us in bringing you the stories of regenerative farming around the world, each month. We really appreciate it. If you’d like to join, please visit patreon.com/farmerama where you can choose your level of support.

Abby: Severine Von Tscharner Fleming farms at Smithereen farm on Cobscook Bay on the very northeasternmost point of the United States. There, she grows and processes a wide range of fruit, herbs, vegetables, fungus and… algae. It is through her experience of harvesting algae on a small scale that she became involved in the Seaweed Commons, a group that came together during Covid to discuss increasing concerns around the industrialisation of Seaweed farming.

Severine: There’s a lot of demand for algae in the world markets. As a community we have a lot that we learn from each other, and to encourage each other to participate in the rule making has become a big driving force. So why does the seaweed commons continue to exist? Well, it’s to help facilitate greater stakeholder involvement in the administration of the public trust. Because in all of our contexts, whether it’s Hawaii or Scotland, or Norway, or Maine or British Columbia, the state agencies, the Departments of Marine Resources, act as the stewards of a commons – legally it’s a commons, not just ecologically – that supports all of marine life and buffers our coastal shore lands and provides habitat for the entire marine food web and is our common ancestor, inventor of photosynthesis, producer of up to 80% of the world’s oxygen. So seaweed is not just a common ancestor that is benefiting all of the stability of the ocean, which of course buffers us from climate change, it’s also legally a public trust. Therefore, as beneficiaries and lovers of algae, we have some responsibility to ensure its thoughtful stewardship.

We put out a first position paper because we wanted to clarify the principles of a precautionary approach to this seaweed aquaculture and intensification. And so, as venture capital comes along and says, we can feed seaweed to cows and save the world, and we can feed seaweed to aquaponics and save the world, and we can grow algae for fuel, and we can make GMO and sterile and climate adapted algae arrays of thousands of acres between windmills tended by robots, we say, wow, okay, that’s a lot of hype. That’s a lot of millions and billions. However, as a major climate regulator, as a major ecosystem engineer, as a very ancient and biodiverse underwater forest, this algae deserves protections that we have got now to articulate quickly. And so, in the face of all this technological, geo-engineering, carbon sequestering and financialized carbon markets conversation, our little voice is raised and we say, seaweed is already saving the world. So in our position paper, we lay out some of these principles and have called on signatories from across the world, which we now have, and we are of course looking for more signatories on this position paper. And of course the next one that’s coming out that’s specifically aimed at investors and ESG standards in the seaweed space. So in the seaweed commons community calls, we have little working groups. One of the areas is obviously more presentations and videos to farmers and foodies and ecologists and the different spaces of adjoinment where seaweed issues in fact relate very much to agroecology, relate very much to justice for small, marginal communities, relate very much to indigenous needs for access, to traditional practices and the nutritional reality. And, and then there’s a great little group that’s focused on bioremediation using seaweed and impacted waterways. So instead of harvesting from wild forests, to harvest from nitrogen and phosphorus laden waterways and mouths where fertilizer runs off. And then another little group of people are really focused on seaweed as fertilizer for plant nutrition and especially plant nutrition in degraded and contaminated land. So again, the solution to pollution is life. And the truth about seaweed is it brings extraordinary life energy with its mineral bodies from the land to the sea. 

There’s a lot of animal health and soil health implications of bringing the algal fertility onto land and bringing the terrestrial and aquatic cycles together. Doing that in an ecological, agroecological, circular economy way is the goal. Now we are gonna work with Luma in Arles on a seaweed commons manifesto in an arts design practitioner context. We are working on an exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Portland, Maine with a seaweed assembly with Future Farmers. And we’ve been in conversation with Slow Fish about the kind of algae 101 exhibit for Terra Madre and for the chefs. So it seems like a big part of the focus is getting more people, not just to think algae’s great, I know about that said the hipster, but actually to really understand the role of the algae in our larger earth healing project together and get more practitioners and small businesses really actively involved. Consumer literacy is a big part of that because then there’ll be a demand for having good standards of practice for the way that we wild harvest, the way that we farm, the way that we process seaweed, helping us to grow a responsible seaweed sector in community.

It really draws on  a big tradition, like with terrestrial agroecology. We look to all of the indigenous farming methodologies around the world: the Milpa systems, the forest gardens, the managed pasturing. We look at all of this extraordinarily clever human interaction with ecosystems, and of course it exists as well in the sea. And there are mariculture, artisan mariculture traditions across the world using bamboo, using balsa, using coconuts for flotation. As people took appropriate materials and used them to grow oysters, and grow algae, and grow fish, and grow cycles of fish, and even a lot of the rice patty systems are much more complex with, algae and ducks and water buffalo and snakes and snails and rice. This is a multi-species project. This isn’t just a one monoculture of GMO kelp growing on a robot line to make biofuels. So as we have these conversations as a society, and ask can we engineer our way out of a carbon crisis by domesticating the oceans or engineering the oceans to try and offset our degradation of ecosystems on land, these are some of the considerations we need to bring to that. 

Now for the final edition of our series with Wicked Leeks, investigating animal feed. Last time Nina Pullman met Mark Chapple and his soya-free and pasture reared Chickens. His daughter Amy also works on the farm, but her interest is in pigs. 

Nina: Hi Amy.

Amy: Hi.

Nina: So we’re here in your pig field and they’re eating an amazing soy-free diet. So you saw your dad doing it with the chickens? 

Amy: Yes. 

Nina: What happened then? What did you see and how have you put it in place?

Amy: I thought, well, if he’s doing it with chickens, why can’t I do it with pigs? But the main reasoning was that I wanted to have a local, more sustainably produced diet for them rather than importing things. 


Nina: So your dad was doing it already, and what kind of things did you have to change to make that work for the pigs? I’m guessing they don’t eat the same as chickens.

Amy: No. So chickens eat a lot more wheat, which is not really ideal for pigs. They have a lot more barley. So it is a similar diet to the chickens, actually. Just a few things kind of tweaked to fit the animal. I calculated what was needed and went from there. You can see how the pigs respond to it and how it works for them.

Nina: So talk us through what’s in the mix then for these guys. 

Amy: So they’ve got barley, wheat, and the protein is mostly made up of rapeseed meal with some peas and beans. It can vary on the age, but I just feed everyone the same thing and then they can get whatever they need elsewhere from the pasture. 

They obviously eat a lot of diversity, they have a varied diet, which means that the meat will be much better in flavour. It also gives them a load of vitamins and minerals and things that they need so you don’t have to then outsource them and obviously they can get it from right where they are.

Nina: And they’re outside as well, so I guess that’s got kind of the welfare side to it as well, hasn’t it? 

Amy: Exactly. And I move them all the time so they’re always on fresh ground and then what they were on gets time to recover and then by the time they come back to it, then there’s lots more grown ready for them to eat. 

So I think they probably would grow a little bit more slowly on the feed rather than a normal pigs diet. But it’s mostly because I feed them less, that they grow slower and also the type of breed. I have a slower growing breed which has more flavour. 

Nina: What breeds have you got here then?  

Amy: I’ve got Gloucester Old Spots, Large Blacks, Saddlebacks, and I’m just starting to try a few Duroc. Everyone likes to know that you are using rare breed pigs, but it kind of works actually. You don’t really want commercial pigs because they don’t really work in your setting. They’re just made for inside. That’s what they’re bred for. 

Nina: Whereas are those rare breeds, do they do better on a more diverse diet? 

Amy: Yeah. So they can get more from the pasture itself. And then obviously I want to keep ones, so there’s bigger pigs that I decide are doing better on this diet. And then you can keep them and breed from them and hopefully their piglets will do the same. 

I’m told the meat has a very clean taste. It’s very different to commercial meat. You can see it in the color as well when you’ve cooked it instead of a white meat. It’s more of a brown kind of meat, if you see what I mean. 

The theory is that they are supposed to be composting the dunk of the cattle. But, we haven’t quite figured that one out yet. I think it’s because the cattle dung doesn’t have enough carbon in it, so they’re not being able to compost it as much. But the theory is that where the cattle have been over winter, then some pigs go in there and dig it up and then that aerates it which helps with the composting process rather than having to use machinery to do the same thing. 

Nina: So they work as sort of natural plows?

Amy: Exactly.

Nina: So they’ve got a big role in the farm really, they’re kind of part of the system, aren’t they? Everything sort of links together.

Amy: Yes. I might put some laying hens in behind the pigs somewhere. So currently they follow cattle around, but they could follow pigs around just as easily. Dad first came across it and we were like, oh, let’s have a look at all this. And then, there were a lot of examples of it and you think, well, how can we do it on our farm? 

Nina: And what do you think the benefits are for the farm?

Amy: There are a lot less costs for one. Because obviously the higher your input costs are, the higher your output costs have to be. And I mean, it’s different on a smaller scale because your input costs are always gonna be higher. But if you scaled it up, then you could obviously be much more competitive with prices.

Nina: And there’s the storytelling side of it as well, we touched on it at the beginning of the film about how people really care about deforestation and soy is a really big benchmark for that. Do you think people are interested in soy-free meat? Have you seen that? 

Amy: Yes, definitely. They really are. So I do a market and there are a lot of people who walk by and they say, oh, you’ve got soy-free meat. I didn’t know that was a thing. And then they say wow, I’m really impressed that you’re doing that. 

Nina: I think it’s going to be maybe the next big thing. People would like to be able to find it more easily. Do you know of any other farmers that are doing it? 

Amy: Well, I know of several pig farms that are soy-free, but they don’t brand themselves as such. I saw how successful the soy-free chicken was, so I thought, let’s try and see what impact it makes on the pork sales.

Nina: So do you think you are going to get more pigs then, or are you happy with the size of the herd that you’ve got? 

Amy: I’m sure dad’s not listening. Yes. I want lots more pigs!

Nina: We’ll come back in a year’s time and they’ll be a much bigger factor I’m sure.

Abby: Sérgio Nicolau has a vineyard near Lisbon in Portugal. In the 1960s his father and grandfather started to implement management with insecticides, fertilisers and a fully conventional approach in line with the demands of the new local cooperative. Sérgio trained as an agronomist and worked as a farm manager with a conventional approach for quite a few years before he started to feel something wasn’t quite right. Now Sérgio’s vineyard is buzzing with life, interrows have multi-species cover crops, hens are clucking around, he makes his own fish hydrolysate and fungal compost and his vines are flourishing. Sergio told us how he uses sap analysis, brix readings and digging holes to help him understand what is working.

Sérgio: I started to see some things changing in my own vineyards and the vineyards I was working on, like the loss of biodiversity, the erosion and the water was running out and the soils were getting drier and drier. There was erosion, biodiversity was getting less and less, birds were, well, we used to see lots of birds, lots of species and now, nothing.

At the beginning, it seemed normal, but I started to ask myself, why is this happening? And I started to realize that this was a consequence of our agriculture practices. And I started to change the mindset about that and the loss of our organic matter.

 In 2017, my father wanted to retire and he asked me if I wanted to take over the vineyard. I accepted it, but I imposed on him a condition that we had to go organic, fully organic on all the vineyards.

He looked at me like are you sure? And yes, I was sure about it. 

Of course we had yield loss in the first year in 2018, which was normal because the vineyards had to wean off the chemicals. It’s normal and I was expecting it but I started to realize that there must be a better way. So I started to read stuff and listen to podcasts and make some trips to other countries, and it was then that I discovered regenerative agriculture and I started to listen to people like John Kempf and all these guys. It was mind blowing for me and I immediately started to make changes to my agriculture practices. What I started to do was to look at the nutrition of the plants in other ways. In the compost techniques, and to start building up the soil. I started to plant multi species cover crops. The first one I pointed was different species from five different families. Have plants. In the second year, there were 18 different species from five families again. And we started integrating some animals like sheep and chickens. And we started to see some changes in the soil in the first year, it was amazing.

We also started applying some biology that we had to buy. But then I realized that we could do our own biology, that that’s the one that works with the bioreactors and started doing some fermentation with KNF, the Korean Natural Farming techniques like fish hydrolysates, and we also did some point extracts. And all of that was building up the immunity of the plants, the immune system was improving day by day. I had a problem with an insect attack on one of the cops. I had the first aha moment when I changed the nutritional profile of the plant. I had to remove the nitrates because insects cannot cannot digest protein. So when I realized we could change the nitrates to more complex amino acids and to protein and the insect wouldn’t look at plants as food when the plants have enough protein on the leaf and no nitrates. So what I did was an application of molybdenum and boron and the next day, it was amazing because the insects were already not on the plants and they were only on the weeds around the vineyards.

My father came to me and asked me if I applied some insecticide and I said no, I didn’t. So that made him also realize that we can do other things. Not only were the insects not a problem for me anymore, but they were helping me with weeds. So it was amazing to see. Yeah, that was one of the things that started me thinking that this, this really works.

Abby: I find this all quite mind-boggling and intriguing. As Sergio explained, molybdenum is the co-factor of the enzyme that transforms nitrates into amino acids and proteins. Nitrates are the most inefficient form for the plant to store nitrogen as the plant has to use the most energy to store nitrogen in that way, so when he applied molybdenum suddenly the plant was able to more efficiently process nitrogen and the nitrate levels in the plant went down, as it was all converted to amino acids and proteins and so the insects no longer wanted to feed on the leaves. Sergio now routinely monitors the nutrient profile of the leaves throughout the growing season using sap analysis, he is always looking at the nitrate levels in the sap amongst many other things.

Sergio: What we started doing was sap analysis. We started in 2020 and we make SAP analysis in all cycle of the vineyards. We make seven of them throughout the cycle. And I make leaf samples and then I send it to the Netherlands. I send them on Monday and then Thursday we have the results. So it’s amazing. And we have a report of 24 different parameters. It’s not only the nutritional profile, we also have sugars. We have three different forms of nitrogen. We also measure electric conductivity and PH, it’s very, very complex and very complete. And then I can also see the interaction between those nutrients. It’s very important because then we know that we applied the nitrogen like the NPK fertilizers and nobody looked at the micronutrients, they are very important. They are the co-factors of many enzymes that are very important for the health of the plants. They make the, the plants work. We can also apply some micronutrients, they’re very important for the photosynthesis. And we can enhance also photosynthesis. And we can boost photosynthesis by applying magnesium, and also forms of nitrogen they’re very effective, and zinc and sulfur. And so by enhancing photosynthesis we can make more sugars that will go for the shoots, for the new growth, also for the fruit and the excess will go for the woods as carbon to feed biology. And that’s the most stable organic matter we can have. So we can have a healthy soil with healthy, healthy, healthy plants.

So the last soil analysis we had, we have around 0.5 organic matter in the soil. And the last ones that we did last year were around two, 2 – 2.5, so things are efficient. One of my favorite tools is the shovel. It’s very important to dig, to make holes. And then we start to see how live soil is changing. And now I’m very pleased to know that the worms that were absent for many years now are appearing, there are many, many, many now. It’s very, very cool to know. Very cool to see.

What I try to do is integrate everything. So I look at the sap analysis to know what’s lacking, but even more important, what is in excess. So, I didn’t know before I started doing the sap analysis that I always had excess potassium, for example. And the potassium was blocking other nutrients like magnesium and calcium, for example. So what is good to know is due to all these interactions between the nutrients, often the excesses are worse than the deficiencies.

So of course, it’s important to apply when something is deficient, but what we have to do is stop applying what is in excess. The best way to tell is sap analysis. It is very important that the vineyards start to be more balanced. One good way of knowing is brix readings.

The brix readings are very simple because the more efficient the plant is photosynthesising, the more sugars will be in the leaves. And we measure this with brix readings, with a refractometre. When we started to do that in 2019 and 2020, the brix readings were very low because the photosynthesis was going very well because the plant was not so balanced.

And we started with brix readings of 5, 4, 3. And as I worked on the nutrition of the plants it was amazing to see that the readings were always increasing. Well, not always. Sometimes it backs a bit, but there was a consistent shift. And we started to see the bricks readings go up to 8, 9, 10, 12. And in the last year we had 18 and 20. It’s very good to see. The magic number is 12. When we reach the level of 12 the plant is almost immune to every disease and insect.

Usually when the season starts, the brix readings are lower. So we start around eight. Year by year we see changes. But the idea is to start each year with a bigger brix reading. What I also do is after harvest I take another sample and I see how the nutrition is. I apply some nutrients before they go to dormancy so that they have all the nutrients balance when the season starts. So what I’m doing now is I’m managing the nutrition so that when the plant starts the cycle, the brix readings will be a bit higher every year. So I’m very curious to know what the brix readings will be this season, if we will start on a higher plateau.

It’ll be exciting to know. That’s one of the things that comes with regenerative agriculture. This is so exciting to see the changes on the vineyards, on the plants, on the cover crops, on the soil. It’s very, very, very good.

So what we are seeing now is also with the balanced  nutrition in the plants and the healthy soil, the grapes are expressing it themselves better in the terroir that comes along with it, and the quality of the wine is increasing also. So it’s very, very, very exciting to see this. 

So what we do now also is we sell the grapes for almost, not almost, it’s more than double the price of the price we used to sell it for the cooperative. For private companies that want to have regenerative grapes or organic. And we also are doing our wine and we are selling it for a very good price also. So this must be profitable. If it’s not profitable, it will not work. We have to provide for our families, we have to provide for our community and it’s a very good fact that people around me are producers and for my friends farmers to see that things can be profitable, not only by the yield and production, but also for quality. 

So like Gabe Brown says, I used to go to bed and to wake up in the morning, thinking about what I was going to kill next, the next disease or the next insect. And now, what I’m always thinking about is what I’m going to do to enhance the biodiversity and the health of the ecosystem. 

Jo: This episode of Farmerama was made by me, Jo Barratt and Abby Rose. A big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Dora Taylor, Olivia Oldham, Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt.