Between ice, rock and water
“We're super isolated and pretty remote in our spot here, which we like,” says Matt Kern, owner and co-founder of Barnacle Foods. “We’re not on the road system here in Juneau (AK). We're on the mainland, but more or less it’s like an island because we're separated by glaciers and mountains and waterways. Everything has to either be barged in or flown in.”
Barnacle Foods produces kelp-based preserved foods that are created from the dramatic waterscape of the Juneau, AK coastline. Matt describes what he sees from his shoreline, “We have ancient, old growth forests that come up from sea level along salmon streams. The towering spruce and evergreen trees lead their way up the mountain slopes to the alpine and rugged mountaintops loom directly over the sea. If you look up from the beach there are mountains in all directions.”
A love for Alaska and wild food
“We're all from here,” says Matt of the Barnacle team. He goes on to say that interacting with wild spaces and wild food is part of the Juneau way of life. “Our recreation was always oriented around what was in season and what we could go find in the woods or in the sea. We wanted to live here long term and find a sustainable career path that added resiliency, food security, and, hopefully, prosperity to this place that we love.” With wild food as a foundation of their common approach to eating, Matt and his future business partners connected over seasonality and food preservation. “Growing up, we all independently got interested in food. We spent a lot of our free time out fishing or hunting or foraging for the abundance of wild foods that we have here in Alaska,” says Matt of his team’s collective passion around food.
After leaving Alaska for college and then coming back to Juneau, Matt dropped right back into his food-centered life. “I found myself spending a lot of my free time out there on land and water, putting up food and preserving it through the seasons. Once my partner, Lia, and I started dating, we each shared this common hobby and it really exploded into something that is a way of life.”
Kelp is seaweed
Kelp is rooted into the ocean floor by its holdfast and grows to the surface to reach the sun. Kelp is a type of algae, and similar to plants there are many different kinds of kelp. “We work with a couple of different species and each kelp species has its own unique physical characteristics and life history. The main species we work with is called bull kelp, and it's a very unique kelp in its life strategy and also its physical characteristics,” explains Matt. Bull kelp grows in beautiful underwater forests and unlike timber forests, it has a seasonal life cycle that supports harvest.
“Bull kelp grows like an annual plant and so it puts out its seed when it's mature in the summer months. Then in the fall, it dies back. It completely disappears in the winter.In the spring, the subsequent generation of spores, or seeds, begin to grow.” The rapid growth and life cycle of bull kelp adds to the power of the marine plant as a remarkably renewable resource. “It grows incredibly fast. It drops spores out of its long leaf-like fronds that drape along the surface and those spore patches fall to the sea floor where they then get planted for the next generation.”
Matt on what to expect at an Alaskan kelp salsa party
“Sometimes you're out on the boat and go fishing and don't catch any fish, but you want to come back with something. So you take your boat by a kelp bed and fill up a five-gallon bucket or two of kelp, and then throw a kelp salsa party and invite your friends.”
“In Juneau, one of the favorite foods for us to put up every year is kelp salsa, which is a traditional Alaskan food, along with kelp pickles. I learned about making kelp salsa from a friend of mine. She had a recipe for kelp salsa that she learned from a small community in Southeast Alaska, where a lot of kelp salsa gets made every year. We had this traditional recipe that got handed along, and Lia and I started making a lot of kelp salsa. Kelp salsa is almost like an initiation that you get brought into.”
“If you're from around here, you get invited to a kelp salsa making party, and you have no idea what that means or what you're going to come out of it with. We were first initiated into this and you're asked to bring an ingredient that tastes good in salsa. So someone brings onion and someone brings cilantro, tomatoes, bell peppers, just basically any salsa-making ingredient. Whoever throws the party is usually the one responsible for bringing kelp.”
“Everybody comes over and gets the music going and the blenders whizzing and the cutting boards chopping, and stirring it with these giant wooden spoons, and next thing you know, you've filled up giant totes 40-gallon totes with kelp salsa. Then someone starts cooking it on the stove and jarring it up.”
“By the end of the night, it's probably like 2:00 AM, but you've created dozens of cases of kelp salsa and everyone leaves with a couple to go home with. This was a very regular tradition for Lia and I to make this kelp salsa and kelp pickles. Before we started Barnacle we enjoyed eating it and gifting it so much that our batches grew from stove top pots to almost making pallets just to get through the year.”
Embedding himself in Alaskan agriculture
The geographic isolation of Juneau creates a food sourcing bottleneck that is dependent on barge systems. In addition to wild foods, Matt became curious about what cultivated agriculture the temperate rainforest ecosystem of the Alaskan panhandle could support.
“Before starting Barnacle, I was really interested in farming and looking for some way for us to increase food security in our region. I quit my comfy state job as a biologist to go work on a vegetable farm in a remote bay off the road system. I got a taste of farming in Southeast Alaska, off the grid, and really loved it,” says Matt. And as anyone producing or gathering food at the source can attest to, one of the most intimate ways to interact with any ecosystem is to ask how it can feed you.
“I loved the resiliency and the independence of trying to start a business. So I started pursuing a vegetable farm, but in the meantime, I began identifying kelp and kelp farming as an opportunity that might be more well-fit to our climate and our already existing resources here in Southeast Alaska,” says Matt.
Through his time growing food in the ground, Matt became more keenly aware of the power of ocean foods and capturing the resources that were already growing adjacent to terrestrial cultivation. “We're wedged between glaciers and mountains and the ocean, so there isn't really much flat ground to farm traditional vegetable crops. But we do have 35,000 miles of coastline in Alaska and all these different intricate bays and waterways where kelp is naturally abundant. It seemed like kelp farming could make more sense up here.”
Matt on looking to the sea for food
“We saw the missing part of the puzzle for the kelp industry: who's going to buy kelp? Where is the market for kelp? We know we can grow it. We know we have a lot of it in Alaska, but that doesn't do us any good unless you have processors who can stabilize it into something that isn't perishable. And ultimately a market that's eager to buy it.”
“We really thought Barnacle could play that role of pushing forward a market by creating these kelp products that weren't already on the market, like salsas, hot sauces, seasonings, and make it exciting and easy to eat kelp and most importantly, delicious. We were trying to keep the value of the resource in the communities and the coastlines where the kelp was coming from.”
“That's really how we got started. We brought our products to market at a small scale through local events and we were astounded by the response. It would often sell out very quickly and we'd be like, Oh, I guess we got to make more.”
Landscape + waterscape
“It's a very pungent, rich, salty, humid, wet environment, brimming with seasonal bounty like salmon and herring. In the winter we’re left with the slate, gray snowy, short days and cozy time for the indoors. Our climate and landscape here is very unique. We're in a temperate rainforest, one of the largest intact temperate rainforests left on the globe,” says Matt.
“Our waterways consist of a narrow fiorded system with an intricate archipelago. There's thousands of little islands and rocky reefs that dot the waterways here. We have two really large tidal swings every day with a maximum of 25-foot changes. In a six-hour period, the tide might rise 25 feet across miles and miles of ocean.
“Our currents are swift and we're in protected waterways, not on the open ocean, but with those currents and the winds, we can have some pretty foul weather. Being in the rainforest everything is always damp and rainy. We get a hundred plus inches of rain a year, and so anytime the sun comes out, it's something that isn't taken for granted.
Is Barnacle Foods kelp wild or farmed? Both.
Barnacle Foods’ kelp is sourced from regional kelp producers as well as wild kelp gathered by the Barnacle team and independent harvest boats. Wild kelp grows in a narrow band offshore in 10 to 80 feet of water. The ideal range of depth is 20-25 feet, so the kelp can get the maximum sunlight and still benefit from the nutrients of the deeper waters.
“There's so much cultivation and site selection that is being learned on the fly right now with how to farm kelp,” Matt explains of the burgeoning kelp cultivation movement in Southeastern Alaska. For farming kelp, the process involves suspended and anchored lines that are set at strategic depths for productivity and ease in harvest. “We work closely with several kelp farms. Our goal is to partner with as many kelp farms as possible,” says Matt. Building a stable, reliable outlet for kelp farmers is a driving factor for Barnacle Foods.
Providing a market for innovative kelp farmers to try new methods has created economic viability in an otherwise uncertain kelp market. But given the wild access to kelp, Barnacle Foods has pliability with their kelp sourcing explains Matt, “We work with a handful of farms to implement their grow-out techniques through trial and error. The main farm that we worked with this year had a pretty big failure of their crop, so that limited our farmed supply. Next year there's more farms popping up and we're hoping with more trials that the success will eventually increase. Similar to growing a vegetable, it's not as simple as putting a seed in the soil.”
Bringing the kelp industry to the national market
“It's not easy to work in a supply chain that you're inventing as you go along. We work really closely on the logistics of supporting kelp farmers to get their product to us,” says Matt. Farmers generally work in a food system that is stacked against them, taking on both the risk of the weather as well as the fluctuations of market prices. For farmers getting started in kelp, stable commitments from a processor is vital. “We're working with farmers in very rural, remote communities with no road access, barely boat access, getting their kelp to us is probably the only accessible market that they can reach.”
“Because it's a new activity in Alaska, and really across North America, there's a lot of uncertainty about wanting to move forward with kelp. We play a big part in being an intermediary between farmers and the public by helping tell their story,” says Matt of Barnacle serving as a platform for the kelp movement. “We are also learning from the farmers what the challenges are and how we can work together to make sure the kelp market rolls out in the best possible way.”
“Kelp is known to be a nutritional powerhouse,” says Matt. “Its diversity of minerals, micro-nutrients and vitamins is almost unmatched in any food across the planet. That's just from existing and thriving in the water where every micronutrient ends up in the ocean.” Rather than taking nutrients up through soil, kelp is bathed in the minerals of the sea for its entire life cycle.
“Kelp is made up of the ocean’s diversity of elements. Notably, iodine is a hard-to-come-by nutrient that kelp is a great source of.” Iodine is essential for metabolic health and is sparsely found in terrestrial foods. Matt goes on to point out, “Iodine was added to table salt a long time ago because people who lived away from the coastlines were typically deficient.”
From the sea and into the kitchen
“From the time of harvest, we really have only two to three days to stabilize kelp as either a frozen, dried or acidified end product,” says Matt of the ticking clock following a kelp harvest.
Bull kelp can be in transit for 24-36 hours from the time of harvest. This means that kelp farmers and wild harvesters bring their kelp directly to the dock in Juneau to be offloaded by Barnacle Foods. From there, kelp goes directly to the production facility where the Barnacle team refrigerates it and begins the cooking or freezing process.
What makes kelp so nutrient-rich is also what makes it a delicate food crop that needs to be handled with close attention to the timeline, explains Matt, “It's a very perishable food. It's got so many nutrients and micronutrients and minerals in it that it tends to be very active biologically, which is why it's so nutritious and good for fertilizer.”
Honoring Indigenous foodways and collaborating with the Indiginous community
“Kelps and seaweeds have been an important food source for Indigenous people for a long time here in Southeast Alaska. There's a type of seaweed referred to as Black Seaweed, which is a relative of Nori that grows around here,” says Matt of the traditional Indigenous food culture of eating from the sea. “That's the most prized traditional species of seaweed in our waters. We definitely don't want our business to affect the abundance of that species in particular, so we don't harvest or sell with Black Seaweed.”
“Our local Indigenous people, the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida, stewarded this land for millennia and lived in harmony in so many ways and had practices that were truly sustainable,” Matt says. In 2019, Barnacle Foods formed a partnership with a regional tribal group to acquire a portion of the business. Matt explains the importance of being guided by the Indigenous community, “A portion of our business is owned by this tribal corp, which consists of 23,000 Indigenous shareholders, so our business essentially is owned by the people who we feel have the strongest tie and the strongest claim to this land that we are operating our business and living on. We listen to Indigenous leaders and guide our business along principles that we feel align with that worldview."
Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and the ocean are all ecosystems that can capture and hold carbon to offset the impacts of climate change. In a confluence of food system innovation and ocean ecosystems, Barnacle Foods is in an exciting position to work into multiple solutions at once. “There's tons of things about seaweed and kelp that are worth getting excited about. Its potential ability to be a tool in fighting climate change is one of the top on our list. What particularly excites us about the scalability as our business grows is that we can support more and more kelp farmers. The positive impact on our oceans will increase proportionally.”
Oceans play a major role in the global carbon cycle. As carbon dioxide levels rise, atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed into the ocean. “This is what causes or leads to ocean acidification,” explains Matt. “When carbon dioxide enters the ocean, it creates carbonic acid, which then makes the ocean less stable for organisms to exist. Kelp, on the other hand, is one of the fastest growing organisms in the ocean, or on the planet in general. Kelp absorbs and fixes that carbon out of the ocean water into its structure. It's actually pulling carbon out of the water at a rate that is virtually perceptible to ouI equipment and research tools.”
Leaders in the kelp movement
“The industry is really in its infancy right now. We don't think there's another food out there that presents such a dual win-win benefit to our globe. A lot of scientists and conservation biologists are on board with this frame of thought and agree that seaweed is truly a potential tool that we can deploy,” says Matt. The future of kelp holds not only climate solutions but economic security in remote communities.
The risk of investing time and money into food enterprises is substantial across all areas of production. This high barrier to entry has contributed to continual consolidation in our food system. Matt explains how small, locally owned businesses like Barnacle Foods are filling a niche in Southeast Alaska, “Our goal is to help support these kelp farms and help generate a market so that cultivating kelp is actually a viable economic driver. If people can make a living by planting kelp farms that are having positive impacts on the ocean and our climate, that's a pretty unique food source that has this double benefit of providing quality nutrient-dense food along with these ecosystem and climate benefits.”
Kelp, like most vegetables, has seasons. Because of the short window between harvest and handling, Barnacle Foods strategically works with the growing season. “We are pretty year round in terms of overall operations but we do work in a seasonal cycle. Our intake of kelp starts in early June, when we're getting kelp either from farms or some early wild harvests. We intake kelp weekly through early September,” says Matt. Barnacle then dries or freezes the kelp to be cooked and bottled throughout the year.
“We've structured our operations such that through the year, our production, our order fulfillment and our intake keeps a pretty stable full-time work of about 12 people. Every couple of months our team grows because of the need for demand or production,” says Matt. In a food industry that operates so much on seasonal work, Barnacle Foods has prioritized steady, sustainable growth to create job security for their team, “Our goal is to create stable employment because that makes it a fun place to work. When you know you have more than a two-month gig it makes it more fun to be a part of the team.”
Fun in the test kitchen
When taking raw ingredients and turning them into a bottled product, creating new flavors and ideas that will get people excited is a big part of the job. “The recipe and product development is one of the most fun parts of the business. We ask ourselves how we can improve what we're already making? Kelp is such a versatile plant. It can be turned into almost any type of delicious food. The options are nearly endless. We’re constantly innovating.”
Barnacle Foods salsas are nearly 50% kelp and the hot sauces are almost 40% kelp. “Our products are truly kelp-centric because we know the more kelp that goes into each bottle, the bigger our climate impact or our market impact can be,” says Matt about integrating as much kelp as possible into each bottle. Working at the intersection of recipe development, climate solutions through food, and community empowerment, energizes the Barnacle Foods brand.
“It all orients around using the resources that are plentiful here and how we make recipes that are sustainable for our kelp intake and good for our farmers. Kelp is pretty much always the first ingredient in our products,” says Matt.
Matt’s current favorite
“We came out with our hot sauce about two years ago and that product is still my go-to for my most exciting meal. We have two flavors of hot sauce, Piri Piri "Classic Bullwhip and Fermented Serrano Bullwhip, along with some special barrel aged releases, so that keeps things interesting. Our hot sauce in particular is the ideal way to get a taste of how kelp can enhance foods.”
“Some nights, if I'm feeling lazy, I'll just open up a bottle of hot sauce and put it right onto chips straight or make a quick little nacho quesadilla or burrito doused with hot sauce. It’s such a savory, complex flavor.”
Unlike plants grown on land, kelp requires no inputs: fertilizer, water, or pest management. In regenerative agriculture systems, the input to output ratio is the measure of going beyond ecosystem sustainability and into regeneration. Kelp cultivation and wild harvest is a beautiful illustration of a self-generating system.
Matt explains how those who eat kelp are stewarding kelp forests, “There is a disconnect because people think If I'm eating the kelp and pulling it out of the ecosystem, how am I doing anything positive for the kelp? Similar to salmon fishing, hunting and other resources in Alaska, those who are involved in the harvest, and the traditions around sustainable practices in a resource, we find that those people are most passionate at protecting, conserving and enhancing those populations.”
Because Barnacle Foods is a small enterprise, the team can have direct relationships with those growing and wild harvesting kelp, “We work really closely with kelp farmers and folks who wild harvest for us, in terms of sustainable harvesting practices,” Matt says about the importance of being in balance with marine ecosystems in kelp habitat.
He goes on to point out that building and sharing the positive outcomes of the kelp movement can create momentum for others to see, “We see ourselves playing that role around kelp as being a bridge for people to taste it and begin to understand it and get excited about it. Then also relay that to the ecosystem and environmental benefits. You have this coastal push to restore kelp beds that already has some good inertia up and down Washington, California, and Alaska.”
To consider the marine and terrestrial ecosystems and life they support, also means to understand that the system extends to the communities in Southeast Alaska. Regenerative farming is as much about creating a system of economic agency for food producers as it is about stewarding natural resources. In remote areas that are dependent on food shipments, building a thriving food company that supports regional producers is core to what Barnacle Foods is doing. Matt says, “We hope that we're playing a positive role in the abundance and vibrancy of life here in our region.”