The nation’s first saltwater hydroponic farm in Charleston, SC

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Heron Farms saltwater hydroponic agriculture | Photo via @heronfarms

Agriculture is cool, but Lowcountry agriculture is even cooler. 

Did you know that it’s possible to harvest crops using saltwater? Charleston is home to the first-ever indoor saltwater hydroponics farm that utilizes ocean wateraka the world’s most abundant resourceto grow food. 🌱

Saltwater hydroponic farming at Heron Farms | Photo provided by Heron Farms

Heron Farms, located at 1783 Harmon St., was established by Sam Norton in 2018. Sam grew up on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina where his family home flooded more frequently + severely every year due to the sea level rise. The same issue was seen during his trip to Bangladesh, where he witnessed saltwater intrusion into coastal rice paddies upending the lives of many farmers in Asia.

This led to the idea of treating sea level rise as a free resource that could be used for agriculture instead of just an environmental problem. 

Sam’s concept took shape and won the ACRE Startup Competition from the SC Department of Agriculture + the Charleston-based Harbor Accelerator Startup Competition. Following these achievements, Heron Farms was created and the idea became a reality in June 2018

So, how does saltwater hydroponics work? 

The first step in understanding the process is studying up on general hydroponic farming. Simply put, this method of indoor farming eliminates soil use by utilizing an alternative root anchor for plants + growing them directly in water (think: “hydro” = water). The inside setting eliminates the barriers of land use constraints + seasonality of crops. Plants receive controlled amounts of water, oxygen, nutrients + light that promote the growth cycle. The difference with Heron Farms is that in all other cases, fresh water is used. 

Why saltwater? 

Along with the reasons mentioned above, the micronutrients of seawater that are transferred into the plants are a great source of minerals in our daily diets. Additionally, seawater irrigation allows the company to use less freshwater than any farm in the U.S. 

What crops are grown? 

Heron Farms sea beans | Photo provided by Heron Farms

Heron Farms’ first crop is sea beans salicornia europaea – an edible plant that grows in the salt marsh. These types of saltwater-tolerant plants are known as halophytes, which have evolved to tolerate salt across its whole life cycle. Learn about cooking + eating sea beans here

What makes this local company even cooler? For every pound of sea beans sold at Heron Farms, the company replants a sq. ft. of salt marsh along coastal South Carolina + Bangladesh using a custom seed-dropping drone. So far, 30,000 sq. ft. have been planted.

Heron Farms has been invited by Seawater Solutions to present at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where the Charleston-based company will build a second saltwater hydroponics farm.

Heron Farm’s future location in Glasgow, Scotland | Image provided by Heron Farms

Learn more about Heron Farms, its mission, sea beans + local partnerships here.