MENDOCINO, Calif. — Vegetable farmers John Lewallen and his wife, Eleanor, harvest their crops in the intertidal waters of the Pacific Ocean at a picturesque, remote cove studded with rock outcroppings.
Their briny farm yields wild sea vegetables--seaweed--handpicked in hard-to-reach coves and bays along a 40-mile stretch of rugged Northern California coast.
The small town of Mendocino is the West Coast center of the esoteric sea vegetable industry, which supports three little companies whose combined yearly sales are less than $75,000.
The Lewallens harvest a dozen different species of edible seaweed, which they rinse in fresh water, dry on lines in the open air, package and sell through the mail and at health food stores across America.
Gross sales for the Lewallens' 9-year-old Mendocino Sea Vegetable Co., operated out of their home in nearby Navarro, totaled $36,000 this year, their best on record.
The two other companies, Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable and Rising Tide Sea Vegetable Co., have logged gross sales of $30,000 and $7,000, respectively, in 1989.
Sea vegetables sold by the three companies retail for $18 to $24 a pound, $1.80 to $2.50 for 1-ounce packages.
Connoisseurs prepare the seaweed much as others might serve land-grown vegetables: in side dishes, casseroles, omelets, soups, salads and sandwiches.
Growing profusely in the bay near Mendocino are fucus, the seaweed known as bladderwrack and popular as an herbal tea; grapestone, a seaweed with an oyster-like taste and covered with crunchy bumps; sea cabbage; sea lettuce, a soggy version of that found in the back-yard garden, and nori, rubbery in the wild, the basic ingredient in the popular Japanese soup miso and the seaweed wrapper for sushi.
The harvesters are licensed by the state Fish and Game Department.
One recent day, John Lewallen, 47, swam ashore from 100 yards out in the bay, where he had cut foot-long fronds from huge onion-shaped bulbs of sea whip seaweed bobbing on the surface.
As he boosted himself out of the water and onto a rock covered with fucus, 50-degree seawater flowed off Lewallen's black wet suit. He lifted a small float filled with the sea whip fronds he had harvested. Sea whip is anchored to rocks on the ocean floor with 20- to 30-foot long tubular stems.
"The amazing thing about sea whip fronds," Lewallen remarked as he and his wife loaded the seaweed into a large plastic bag, "is that the leaves come from a monstrous plant, yet (they) are light and delicate in texture and flavor."
Eleanor Lewallen talked about the uniqueness of harvesting vegetables from the sea. "We don't plant, fertilize or till our crops," she said. "Nature does everything. We use no machinery harvesting, and we are very careful when trimming the plants to leave the reproductive organs so they continue to produce. Our only tools are knives like the one John is using."
As they spoke, John and Eleanor Lewallen and their son, Loren, 5, munched on various kinds of seaweed they had plucked off the inshore rocks. Each tasted different from the next, yet they shared a common flavor--something like how the ocean smells.
They gathered long, hairy strands of feather boa seaweed and pieces of Turkish towel seaweed, both used to rub one's body while taking a bath. "I know some people who eat feather boa," John Lewallen said. "I never had a dinner of it myself. Even I have to draw the line somewhere," he laughed.
John Lewallen grew up in Alaska and graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. He spent a year in India working with villagers and two years with an independent Peace Corps-type organization in a Montagnard village in Vietnam. For a time he published a counterculture newspaper.
Eleanor Lewallen graduated from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, spent two years at UCLA, earned her English literature degree at UC Berkeley and taught for a while. She is widely known as founder of the Ocean Protection Coalition and for her appearances at hearings protesting plans for offshore oil drilling off the Northern California Coast.
"They call me the 'seaweed lady' because I always bring a bag of sea vegetables to the hearings. Our waters off Mendocino County are some of the purest on earth, unpolluted, pristine. Oil platforms would pollute the area, kill the sea vegetables," she said.
After harvest, the Lewallens tie the seaweed for a day or two on ropes strung from trees in their back yard. They place the dried sea vegetables into plastic trash bags for storage in an upstairs bedroom of their rustic home to await packaging and shipping.
"Seaweed has been a basic food in the Orient for centuries. Japanese, Chinese and others have hundreds of uses for it," Lewallen said. "I have tried to interest Japanese businessmen to buy wild sea vegetables from our coast. There are different varieties here than they have. But so far my efforts have been in vain."