Sam Norton's Heron Farms started as a College of Charleston graduate school thesis
Sam Norton (right) in the College of Charleston lab that launched his sea bean business, Heron Farms.
Order a raw fish dish at one of the Lowcountry’s most exciting restaurants, and your plate might just include a vibrant green garnish. These stalky fronds known as “sea beans”— which yield a toothsoom bite and salty, spinach flavor—have cropped up at Chubby Fish, FIG, Prohibition, and Minero. Low Tide Brewing recently drafted the plant into its Coastal Harvest Gose, and Renzo has baked it into sourdough loaves. For locals, noshing on Salicornia is nothing new (Europeans also frequently serve a summer side of the veg, known as “samphire” across the pond.) “I grew up eating these things right out of the marsh,” explains Isle of Palms native Sam Norton. But as the founder of Heron Farms, the 26-year-old has cultivated a fresh approach by growing the plant in the world’s first indoor saltwater farm.
As a senior at the College of Charleston, Norton interviewed for Boeing’s biofuel team, which was then using seawater agriculture to grow plants for biofuel in Abu Dhabi. “When I learned that they were sourcing seeds from marshes in the Southeast, I had this ‘a-ha’ moment,” he says. “It was the same plant I ate as a kid.” That’s when Norton realized sea beans could be a viable food source in the face of sea level rise.
When he won the Department of Agriculture’s inaugural ACRE (Agribusiness Center for Research and Entrepreneurship) startup competition in 2018, Norton gained funding to help conduct experiments and later root his vision in an on-campus lab. His setup lengthens the plant’s growing season from a few months to year-round while also scaling each harvest from a handful of sprouts to upwards of 500 pounds a month from one shipping container. With trays upon trays of the salt-tolerant plants soaking up specific light and saline levels, the operation appears more applicable for science than salad, but Norton has successfully adapted the hardy succulent into a delicacy that has chefs forking over $27 a pound.
Over the past two years, his unique concept has nurtured a graduate school thesis and gained the interest of local entrepreneurs. With guidance from Don Taylor of Amplified Agriculture and Matt Daniels of Vertical Roots, Norton is expanding his hydroponic halophyte farm business into a repurposed shipping container on Amplified Agriculture’s former Summerville headquarters. And a second win last fall in the biannual Harbor Accelerator program earned the startup additional funding from angel investors. “Four of the five Harbor Accelerator judges have invested in Heron Farms, including Stuart Bascomb, who founded two companies that ended up becoming publicly traded,” says Norton. “For him to be mentoring me is a big deal.”
Heron Farms sea beans were first featured in this Renzo dish
Pitching the world’s first indoor saltwater farm has Sam Norton seeing green
- $25,000 Prize money from the Department of Agriculture’s ACRE startup competition (June 2018)
- $35,000 Investor capital from Harbor Accelerator Program startup competition (November 2019)
- Pursuing additional investment capital from Charleston Angel Partners