Marine farmer strikes ‘brown gold’ turning kelp water into wine

It might sound like the latest health drink to hit the market, but you probably don’t want to drink this nutritious tonic.

Shame though, because a Marlborough man is about to pump out 50,000 litres of the stuff this season – almost double what he produced last year.

Marine farmer Mick Norton stumbled onto his natural kelp tea back in 1991 after he investigated New Zealand’s native giant kelp for commercial use.

Although the tea, a mixture of kelp and fresh water, doesn’t do much for people, it’s a game-changer for grapevines.

Norton said the kelp tea was the “big breakthrough” his business Tory Channel Natural Kelp needed thanks to the tea’s ability to enrich vineyard produce in Marlborough.

“Everything was a bit hit and miss for a long time, but I was driven,” he said.

“I call giant kelp ‘brown gold’ because it soaks up minerals from the water like a sponge.

“As a result, our kelp tea is nutrient-dense and contains many plant growth stimulants such as amino acids, proteins, vitamins.”

 Norton approached the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, in Wellington, in the mid 1990s to see if his kelp tea would benefit Marlborough’s budding wine industry.

He also inquired if there would be enough demand from Marlborough vineyards to warrant producing the product.

But the research and development department came back saying there would not be enough business for the kelp spray at that time.

Several years later commercial demand saw Tory Channel Natural Kelp’s facilities move from 100-litre barrels to 1000-litre stainless steel pods, with upgraded equipment.

Norton’s first connection with Marlborough’s growing wine industry was a deal with Seresin Estate to sell them chopped kelp.

“Seresin Estate was making the chopped kelp I was supplying them into kelp spray and using it in their vineyards,” Norton said.

“This made it tough for me to sell my own kelp spray to them.”

It was another several years before the business began averaging about 5000 litres to 6000 litres of kelp spray per year.

Big-name customers such as Cloudy Bay and JTC Contractors helped push that figure up to 26,000 litres last season.

“Our product is unique in that it requires low-tech technology but is listed at a high-quality standard,” Norton said.

“There are no agents or middlemen to inflate the prices of our product, and businesses like that.

“We’re also local, so we’re fast. Once an order is placed, the product goes directly to the client within eight to 24 hours of purchase.

“The kelp spray is also ready-made on site and available all year round.”

Norton’s kelp tea, from his farm in Hitaua Bay, was one of eight kelp products to be supplied to Marlborough vineyards.

The marine farm was rolling into its 33rd consecutive year harvesting the giant kelp.

Despite his growing business, Norton refused to delegate his day-to-day duties to staff, despite bringing on more workers and kelp harvest divers.

“I still do 99 per cent of the work,” Norton said.

Norton said he also purchased a truck for bulk deliveries.

“Around 50,000 litres worth of kelp spray is projected to be sold next season,” he said.

“The processing area can hold around 20,000 litres at a time, so we’ve looking into ways to store that excess 30,000 litres of kelp spray.”

Norton hoped to release a line of kelp fertiliser mixed from “tank bottom” kelp and fish oil for use in Marlborough vineyards.

“It’s currently in the works, but I’ve been trialling it myself within my own garden – to great success,” Norton said.

“I’m hoping it will reap additional benefits for grapevines in the Marlborough region.”

In 2017, Tory Channel Natural Kelp featured at the Havelock Mussel and Seafood Festival to voice how kelp could be used to benefit the region.

“Marine farming is good for New Zealand,” Norton said.

“It’s environmentally friendly. If it wasn’t, I would be damaging the kelps’ own environment and I wouldn’t be able to grow my produce.

“Kelp will grow naturally up to a metre per day on mussel lines, regardless of whether or not it is harvested.”

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