A day's work for the 'kelp lady' is a walk along the beach

A new 'kelp lady' is continuing a visionary business established 50 years ago to harvest and sell seaweed for its nutritional and health benefits.

In 1965, when Betty Long was diagnosed with what she was told was an incurable circulatory disease she changed her lifestyle and her diet, moved to her father's south-coast property and adopted a diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish — and seaweed.

The seaweed products had to come from overseas, however, and so Ms Long took to gathering the fresh seaweed that washed up on the beach of her new coastal home and learned how to process it.

Fifty years later Jo Lane and her family had their own sea-change to the south coast, with Jo working as a marine biologist with CoastCare, and various government agencies.

"Then one day I read about the sale of a coastal property that had included a kelp farming business," she said.

The property sale had a lot of media attention, not because of the seaweed business, but because the farm's 1.5 kilometres of absolute beachfront had attracted a sale to hospitality entrepreneur Justin Hemmes for a reported $7.5 million.

Ms Lane had heard about the "kelp lady" and her enterprise and so after making enquiries if the kelp business was also for sale she ended up with the business, purchasing a small amount of equipment, and the customer database, from Ms Long's family.

Jo Lane and Warren Atkins collecting kelp. (ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

Jo Lane and Warren Atkins collecting kelp. (ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

Jo Lane placing kelp on racks to dry before processing. (ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

Jo Lane placing kelp on racks to dry before processing. (ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

While the original kelp lady simply needed to walk down to the beach to harvest a crop, Ms Lane, with the required licence and a permissible quota, works along a stretch of the coast.

She and her husband, Warren, walk the beaches with plastic baskets, scanning the waves.

"We're looking for it to be rolling in on the waves, or freshly washed onto the beach," she said.

"I'm looking for one particular species called Ecklonia Radiata."

Already with an extensive knowledge of these beaches, she is now learning when and where the kelp washes in.

"It's physical work too, so we're fit. The baskets of wet kelp are quite heavy, and you're carrying them back along the beach to the trailer."

The harvested kelp is then taken back to their property at Tilba where it is laid out to dry on open-air racks, and then crushed in a machine that was also used by the original kelp lady.

"It becomes a fine consistency like salt and pepper. It doesn't have a very strong taste, it's quite pleasant, a little bit salty," Ms Lane said.

The product is distributed directly to customers all over Australia.

"It has a lot of vitamins and minerals and trace elements, and is very high in iodine. It's like taking a multivitamin but in a more natural form," Ms Lane said.

The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation reported to the government that, "The clean waters and natural resources in Australia are an opportunity for highly marketable products".

The report confirmed the health benefits of kelp, citing historical uses especially in Asia and parts of Europe.

The report recommended that, "Production of NSW species of seaweed can provide novel, healthy food products with nutrients such as iron and iodine that are currently deficient in the western diet, and in addition have a range of health benefits including anti-cancer and anti-cholesterol properties."

Processed kelp packaged and ready for distribution

Processed kelp packaged and ready for distribution. (ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

Processed kelp packaged and ready for distribution. (ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

Of particular relevance to areas like the far-south coast of NSW where there are limited employment and industry opportunities, the report highlighted the potential for "Local employment supporting regional sustainable communities".

Ms Lane stressed the need to scale their business so that it remained viable as a family business but did not over-reach itself.

Above all, it is a lifestyle that the once Sydney-based family are happy with.

"I have a marine science degree and I've always been interested in anything from the sea, so I feel very fortunate to be able to pursue my passion and be around the ocean every day," Ms Lane said.

"I've spent a lot of time on south-coast beaches. It's my comfort zone."

Catherine Leach