What began as a College of Charleston graduate research project, researching and cultivating an edible, salty succulent that thrives in saltwater has grown into a rapidly expanding start-up that nationally distributes “sea beans.”

“So the last time we talked, it was in a lab at the College of Charleston…and at the time it was just me.”

Back in 2019 I met Sam Norton in a lab at the college’s campus downtown. It was really nothing more than a converted closet, bathed in purple neon from the grow lights of the several dozen plants growing in a vertical rack, soaking up saltwater.

Salicornia. Samphire. Sea asparagus. Or as Norton’s Charleston-based company, Heron Farms, calls them: sea beans.

Now nearly two years later, these salty stalks have exploded in popularity- featured in local dishes, beverages, and delivered to your home. What was once a solo operation is now a team effort- the handful of plants…now a few hundred thousand in the first indoor saltwater farm in the world.

“And that’s not necessarily a good thing,” says Norton. “The saying ‘If you’re the first one to the auditorium you’re either the first one to arrive or you went to the wrong room?’”

It’s hard to argue for the second option in a city plagued by coastal flooding, which will only get worse. Norton sees Heron Farms as the first step in a larger push for saltwater agriculture- using that incoming seawater as a resource to create food, jobs, and freshwater. 

In the meantime, this hydroponic farm, a technological feat of sustainability, will continue to churn out these green shoots, grown under led lights and soaking up saltwater collected right here in the Lowcountry- which gives the plant its characteristic briny bite. 

“It’s got this burst of seawater type of taste, but it has this green apple kind of element to it…citrusy.” 

sam norton, heron farms

Chefs, both home and professional, can’t get enough of them as they use this cousin of beets & spinach as a healthier, brighter replacement for salt to finish their dish with a taste of the sea. For every pound of sea beans sold, Heron Farms is giving back- restoring marshland through seeding other halophytes like salicornia by drone that will suck up salt from the soil of dredged marshes in Charleston and across the world. As the saltwater-tolerant plants lower the salinity, they make way for less salt tolerant plants to return, re-nourishing land previously cut off by the dredging process.

It’s exciting stuff- as Heron Farms joins other farmers and scientists who are actively developing new, smarter ways to make use of the problems impacting agriculture and our planet: urbanization, sea level rise, climate change.

For more information on Heron Farms and sea beans, including where to find and try some for yourself, head over to their website.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson