SOUTH COAST — Tim Foley’s hand emerges from a 1,300 gallon tank of bubbling seawater with a chunk of dripping-wet red algae.

“It’s actually crunchy,” says Foley’s employee, James Weimar, who admits to snacking on the “superfood" algae while he works on the tanks.

And while the claims of a pork-fat flavored seaweed have yet to be verified by Weimar, he argues the algae in its raw form, is still delicious.

“You could put it on a burger," he says. "It’s better than lettuce.”

Even though Foley and Weimar currently only have a few hundred pounds of dulse growing in three modest tanks at the Port Orford docks, the future for their business, Mach-1 Industries, a commercial diving company now venturing into the world of food growth and distribution, is bright.

That’s because Foley, a commercial fisherman of 24 years, and Mach-1 are set to receive $21,500 for the purchase of air tanks and air circulation equipment to increase their dulse production, a much needed inflow of funds for an operation largely unique to the Oregon Coast.  

The money comes as part of a $45,000 grant, to be awarded to three businesses, made possible by NeighborWorks Umpqua in partnership with SouthWestern Oregon Food System Collaborative and Rural Development Initiatives.

“This investment is the result of more than two years of collaboration and conversations,” said Michelle Martin, community and economic development director for NeighborWorks, in a press release on Monday.

The rest of the grant will be divided among Watson’s Live Seafood, located in Old Town Bandon, and Charleston’s SeaCoast Compost.

Watson’s was awarded $10,000 for a new tank system to store live fish on site, while SeaCoast Compost will receive $13,500 to purchase new equipment to increase production.

Rob Watson, owner of the fish market at 250 1st St. SW in Bandon, says the money will help him cut costs for travel while also allowing him to better prepare for future demand.

“All summer long, I was chasing my tail,” he admits. “I’d go buy 100 pounds of crab to get me through the weekend and then half the time I’d sell out and then I’d have to drive to Gold Beach or Charleston or some place to get more. Now I can buy 500 to 1000 pounds and that will get me through and if I see a weather window coming up — where it’s going to be windy and (sic) — I can buy more product and if I buy larger amounts, I can buy it cheaper.”

Watson also sees the money as a chance to make his business unique not just for Oregon but the entire West Coast.

“When I get the tanks right, I’d like to have some halibut when the season comes around,” he says. “Have you ever heard of being able to buy live halibut? I might be the only person on the coast.”

Watson’s approach is somewhat of a novelty for the Bandon area, where a large portion of seafood found in restaurants comes off commercial trucks, rather than the docks in and around town.

He says he’d like to see that change, with fresh caught fish, made available by live markets like his, leading the charge.

“We’ll see how far we decide to go pushing product to restaurants and stores,” he says. “If anything, we’ll most likely end up going to do farmer’s markets.”

Standing on a pile of decomposing oyster shells outside of Charleston, David Boyer, owner of SeaCoast Compost, surveys his modest parcel of land with eyes toward the future.

“No one is actually doing anything like this on the coast with seafood waste,” he says. “As far as I know, this is the only composting facility on the Oregon Coast. I even talked to (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality).”

What makes Boyer’s compost unique is the content of his blend: a potent mixture of timber, cow manure, crab, shrimp and oyster shells, along with fish carcasses; all from the immediate surrounding area.

“It makes a very good, sort of full-spectrum compost,” he explains. “Essentially, it will replace fertilizers because it is so fertile, especially with the fish and cow product. It’s really good with plants. We’ve been testing it with a landscape company, and have a couple trials in different companies and so far, it’s going really, really well. We are very excited to see the results.”

Boyer says he plans to purchase a screener to better filter and sell the product, along with a loader and bagger to increase production. Ideally, he would like to add some infrastructure, such as a barn, to the currently empty parcel of land.

According to Boyer, part of his company’s success depends on making connections with other local businesses and entities, made easier by Neighborworks Umqua and their partners.

“I feel really supported by the community and seeing that they want this and are helping me get started,” he says. “And I’ve been gaining relations needed for compost with timber companies bringing their wood product, crab fishermen bringing crab and shrimp shells and fish carcasses coming in from Hallmark Fisheries. So just all these different connections I’m making are helping and, of course, meeting landscapers and farmers to sell the compost to.”

Those connections, similarly evidenced by all three companies, is part of the reason RDI, Neighborworks and SouthWestern Oregon Food System Collaborative awarded the grants.

“When we first initiated this project, we imagined it being closer to the ground and it finally got there,” says Heidi Khokhar, executive director of RDI, at the compost site. “We wanted investments in the community and investments that will make a difference. I am thrilled with the three investments that are here and I only hope it kind of leverages new investments and energy around this business and this region.”

In 2014, NeighborWorks Umpqua was awarded a grant from RDI to pilot the first WealthWorks Northwest project on the West Coast with the stated goal of connecting community assets to meet market demands while still building stable livelihoods, according to the press release from NeighborWorks.

Following a two year evaluation of the area commercial fishing industry, the Food System Collaborative identified needs for growth that included cold storage, fish waste issues found at multiple ports and more access to niche market development.

Then, in January 2016, the team requested small grant proposals from businesses that would meet a few key eligibility requirements: increased economic value of local and traceable seafood, have general community support and impact the community positively.

The result was the awarded grants announced on Monday.

The impact of the investments are yet to be seen but, according to Martin with Neighborworks, should lead to increased sales for all three businesses, along with five to six new employees in the short term and potentially the same amount for the long term.

Martin said the money would also increase income for at least 12 small boat owners and their crews, as well as contribute to non-financial benefits that include the reduction of fish waste, increased availability of local seafood to local markets and the establishment of a new product type, dulse, in collaboration with Oregon State University.

“Since the goal of WealthWorks is to bring together and connect community assets to meet market demand in ways that build livelihoods that last, it made sense for NeighborWorks to focus on supporting families and people whose livelihoods depend on the commercial fishing industry on the south coast of Oregon,” she said.

Shaun Gibbs, economic development specialist for the South Coast Development Council, said in an email that his organization was pleased with the successful culmination of two years of planning, hard work and collaboration with the Southwestern Oregon Food System Collaborative.

“The SCDC's goal is to create a sustainable economy through business development and living wage jobs on the South Coast,” he said. “The SCDC believes that this allotment of funds, which has been awarded to three local businesses, will kick start both direct and indirect job creation that will lead to the success of multiple businesses along the Oregon South Coast.”

Amy Hause, rural economic vitality consultant with RDI, pointed to the underlying nature of the businesses that her nonprofit organization, Neighborworks Umqua and the Food System Collaborative had identified.

“These small businesses are not focused on just making money,” she said. “They are focused on making a real high-quality product.”

Reporter Spencer Cole can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 249, or by email at Spencer.Cole@theworldlink.com Follow him on Twitter: @spencerdcole.

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