Editor’s Note: This is a combination of two smaller excerpts from the 1977 book, Food Power from the Sea, which was published by Acres U.S.A. and is still one of our best sellers.
By Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons
Since Romans, Bretons, Scots, Vikings, and Spaniards used seaweed for fertilizer ever since the time of Christ, it is not surprising that Portuguese settlers near Cape Cod used this resource in growing vegetables for Boston markets. Old timers of that area remember stories of the seaweed harvests by market gardeners after every storm, when they piled their carts high with the briny stuff to use in growing potatoes, corn, turnips, carrots, cabbages, and other kinds of produce. Their crops claimed highest prices because of the fine flavor and quality attributed to the seaweed.
Nor is it surprising that tobacco growers of Connecticut learned to use seaweed to fertilize tobacco well over 100 years ago. Seaweed is high in potash (about 3 percent) and potassium is a favored nutrient for growing fine tobacco.
The demand for seaweed must have been strong, since Luther Maddocks of Boothbay, Maine, a skilled fisherman, quit fishing in 1869 and went into production of seaweed fertilizer for sale to Connecticut tobacco farmers.
He says, in his autobiography, “That was 1869 . . . I sold out my fishing gear to the Suffolk Oil Company and decided to locate at Boothbay Harbor, where I have lived ever since. My first undertaking at Boothbay Harbor was to build the Algea Fertilizer Company plant. I was making the fertilizer from dried and ground seaweed. I had a United States patent on it and a contract with the Quanipaac Company of New Haven (Connecticut) for $30 per ton for all I could dry and deliver in three years. This looked better to me than the fish business, and in the fall of ’69 I built and equipped the factory which I have since used for many purposes and which is now a canning factory.”
Luther Maddocks then goes on to describe the difficulties of drying and grinding seaweed which, he says, “Becomes tough like leather and impossible to grind.” However, he learned to cool the seaweed suddenly, then grind it into a suitable texture for use as fertilizer.
Living from 1845 to 1932, Luther Maddocks was America’s first entrepreneur to harvest seaweed and process it for use in farming, for tobacco farmers of the New Haven and Hartford areas.
Oscar Wood’s Giant Beanstalk in 1975
Living in West Seattle near Alki Point, Oscar Wood has walked along Puget Sound beaches for fifty years. He is known to his neighbors and friends as an old semipro baseball player who played several seasons for the Seattle Indians; and who worked for Ma Bell’s telephone company in the Seattle area for thirty-seven years.
Recently, Oscar Wood has been seeing how high he could grow a bean plant, using the Scarlet Runner variety. He does this, he says, “Mostly for fun and for seed to give away, and to see how high it will go.”
In 1974, Oscar Wood’s bean plant reached a height of 19 feet and its picture was shown in the West Seattle Herald. However, in 1975, Oscar fed his beans seaweed, and they attained a height of 24 feet.
Says Oscar Wood, “I plant two circles of seed, but of course it is one particular vine that reaches to the top. As to the seaweed, it is the green ribbonlike and ruffied variety, and sometimes the tide has left our beach covered with it. Our son-in-law raked up and loaded about six wheelbarrows full onto his trailer and put it in his compost, and he really raises a garden. One hill had forty-four large potatoes in it, besides about twenty little ones this year. We wash some of the salt water off the seaweed first. We only applied it once.”
To our knowledge, during forty years of hearing farmers and gardeners tell about their big crops, Oscar Wood has the world record beanstalk.
Author of such classic works as The American Farmer and Earth Foods, the late Lee Fryer was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds and voices in the service of sustainable agriculture. In addition to his powerful writing, Fryer worked to improve American agriculture through 30 years’ experience in the USDA and the farm and garden supply industry, where he helped hundreds of farmers and gardeners to grow safe, nutritious food crops. A longtime associate in Fryer’s research, writing and work with fertilizer technologies, Dick Simmons was a marine biologist, chemist and fertilizer agronomist.