Through growing and replanting a humble sea bean that’s also good to eat, Heron Farms aims to reverse the damage done to salt marshes in South Carolina.

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Sam Norton in a salt marsh, Wadmalaw Island, SC
Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Healthy salt marshes help protect the mainland by slowing and absorbing storm surges while providing habitat for numerous species—including herons, crustaceans and butterflies, plus almost three-quarters of the seafood harvested in South Carolina. "If you've ever eaten anything out of the Atlantic Ocean, it either was spawned in a salt marsh or ate something that spawned there," says Sam Norton, who grew up on the barrier island Isle of Palms. But continued dredging to deepen Charleston Harbor to accommodate large shipping vessels has caused less ocean water to flow into the salt marshes, creating a more saline environment with weaker storm-protection power. As a grad student in the Master of Science in Environmental and Sustainability Studies program at the College of Charleston, Norton knew that a salt-tolerant plant called salicornia could help turn things around.

What They Did

Commonly referred to as sea beans, salicornia can actually reduce the salinity of a marsh. Crunchy and salty, they're a trendy ingredient at Charleston restaurants, served over oysters at Delaney Oyster House and with crudo at Wild Olive. And it doesn't hurt that they're also packed with micronutrients and omega-3s (try them out in our recipe for Lemony Samphire). Norton figured he could grow sea beans hydroponically and sell them to area restaurants and consumers, then use the profits to plant them in marshes. He pitched his idea at two start-up competitions—and won. In 2020, Norton launched Heron Farms.

Why It's Cool

For every pound sold, Norton replants 1 square foot of salt marsh with native species. And his project is already making a difference: Soil samples show the salinity has already decreased in two of his three salt marsh restoration sites. "Sam's work is expanding how we think of sustainable agriculture in terms of the places we farm, and the ways that market economies can contribute to the sustainability of ecosystems," says Annette Watson, director of Norton's graduate program. "He's proving that we can dine our way toward our conservation goals."

This article first appeared in EatingWell, October 2021.