It's certified organic and cholesterol-free. It's rich in vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium and amino acids. It's even low in calories and fat, while adding fiber to the diet. It's an herb, but can be cooked like a vegetable. In Europe, it's considered a delicacy, while stateside it's coveted by gourmet chefs as a versatile flavor enhancer.
Best of all, it's a halophyte—a salt-tolerant plant that thrives on seawater. That means eco-farmers can grow it on reclaimed land that was once considered dead or useless for agriculture.
"Salicornia puts retailers who carry it on the cutting edge," says Lesley Sudders, marketing director for Saline Seed Mexico S.A., the only commercial North American salicornia farm.
Agribusiness consultant Daniel Murphy and Mexican agricultural engineer José Ramon Noriega hope to raise awareness of salt-tolerant edible plants through their work at Saline Seed. Though it started as a small agricultural research facility, Saline Seed has grown into a successful farming operation in Ensenada, Mexico, off the west coast of Baja California—a region where the proximity to the sea has wreaked havoc with traditional crops on neighboring farms, according to Saline Seed's Web site (www.salicornia.com). "The planet is losing to salinity roughly 5 million acres annually of agricultural land," the Web site says. "By some estimations, 40 percent of the world's 640 million acres of irrigated land is already too salty for most conventional crops."
Couple that with the limited supply (and cost) of getting fresh water to these coastal plains and it makes sense, Saline Seed officials say, to explore the viability of cultivating salt-tolerant, edible plants, as well as plants that can be used for coastal landscaping and land reclamation. After all, the company notes, 97.5 percent of the earth's water is seawater.
Since establishing the farm in 1999, Murphy and Noriega have been able to bring production up to 3 tons per week, says Sudders. That's significant, because salicornia, which is found in the wild in coastal estuaries along the coasts of England and France, has historically been harvested during a short growing season in spring and summer.
Murphy and Noriega experimented for several years with various locations and growing regimens before hitting on just the right degree of salinity to encourage salicornia growth while also preserving the land. As it turns out, Ensenada's temperate climate was just the trick. So far, Saline Seed is the only North American company to successfully cultivate salicornia year-round.
At Saline Seed, salicornia takes 90 days to reach maturity, at a height of about 8 inches. The crop is harvested twice per week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The bright green, thin vegetable, said to resemble asparagus tips, has a shelf life of about two weeks. It sells at retail for about $10 per pound, says Sudders.
"I deal with many chefs who want something pretty, interesting and unusual and who don't care about the cost," says Sudders. "The consumer may care about the cost but is looking for something that is organic and provides good nutrition."
Today, two-thirds of the crop goes to distributors in Europe. The other third goes to Saline Seed's six distributors in the United States and Canada, including John Vena Inc. The Philadelphia-based produce wholesaler, in business since 1919, has been selling salicornia since late May as part of its line of specialty produce and herbs. The reason: "People have asked for it," says John Vena, company president.
Though there has been customer demand for salicornia over the years, Vena says, he wasn't able to find a constant supply for the vegetable—until he hooked up with Saline Seed. "We handle some pretty low-volume items, such as fiddlehead fern and edible flowers," Vena says. "So it's not the volume that concerns me. My experience with foodservice people is that they want it available year-round. If it's not available year-round, it's hard to maintain a consistent business."
For Vena, handling salicornia is another way to differentiate his company from the other wholesale produce distributors he goes up against in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, where he sells salicornia in a 5-pound bulk pack for $30."We got heavily involved in specialty produce and herbs 15 to 16 years ago," he says. "We were going head-to-head with some large players and trying to sell the same products that everyone was selling. We saw an opportunity to move into other things, and one product led to another. Today it's salicornia."
It's selling pretty well in Philadelphia, aided in part by recipes and information about how salicornia is grown and how it restores the land. It's the same story at Gentle Strength Co-op in Tempe, Ariz. Produce manager Henry Bellavia says the co-op, which offers a full range of natural and organic products, has been selling salicornia for about six months and sells about 10 pounds every 10 days. "I introduced it as an interesting vegetable and provided some information on where they grow it and explained how it's been used for centuries," Bellavia said. "It's sold itself. Most people seem to like it because it adds a refreshing taste to salads."
Chris Faulkner, corporate chef for Melissa's World Variety Produce Inc., a Los Angeles-based distributor, says salicornia makes a great garnish. "When you use salicornia, you don't have to use any seasonings," says Faulkner, whose job is to give food demonstrations for the company and recommend recipes for the products it carries. He notes that many chefs like salicornia "because it's different," while consumers have been buying it because they consider it a healthier way to get sodium into their diet.
Salicornia, says Sudders, is only the beginning. The farm is at work growing three other seawater-tolerant vegetables: purslaine and sea aster, both edible greens, and crystalline, a lettuce indigenous to the coast of South Africa. The company also continues to develop salt-tolerant plants and grass for use in landscaping and golf courses. All the while, it says, the farm keeps giving back to the earth. "We hold our land in trust for the future and have created a system that returns to productivity land lost to salinity processes," Saline Seed's Web site reads. "Our crops produce considerable biomass, which, tilled back into the ground, constitutes our chief source of fertilization."
Connie Guglielmo is a freelance writer, editor and novelist in Los Gatos, Calif. Reach her at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 72