Fish food for plants

Oct 28, 2020 | Plumbing the Depths

Nicole Cormier adds panela – raw sugar – to help create the fish fertilizer.

Doreen Leggett

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Adrien Kmeic owns Hatch’s Fish Market in Wellfleet and has spent a lot of time thinking about how to give second life to fish waste that doesn’t end up as bait in lobster traps.

“It breaks down and makes a terrific fertilizer and it was driving me crazy throwing it out,” Kmeic said.

His conversations with town boards and others always dead-ended until this year when he got a call from Nicole Cormier, who had just started a new business, Cape Cod Ferments, with Nicholas Frechette.

“This is a passion project,” said Cormier with a grin. “We are super geeked-out about this.”

Cormier was standing by four big blue barrels near the West End Hyannis rotary. A white, boxy building that houses her Delicious Living Nutrition practice – where she is still seeing clients virtually because of the pandemic – was behind her and across the street was the Local Juice, which she co-owns. Cape Cod Ferments was launched this spring, but Cormier has a 15-year history on the Cape, including involvement with Sustainable Cape, a non-profit that celebrates local food as well as connects individual wellbeing and the health of the community and environment.

“The common theme has always been sustainability,” Cormier said.

Dressed in a blue shirtdress and tan platform clogs, Cormier opened up a barrel closest to the road. This was the most recent concoction and one could see tuna gills on the side. She grabbed a huge bag of “panela,” wrestled with it and dumped some in.

Panela is a high-quality whole cane raw sugar, an essential ingredient in making the fish into fertilizer. It helps decomposition.

“We were inspired by Korean natural farm practices,” Cormier said, long hair tied with a red bandana to keep it out of the way.

Fish waste is at the core of the creation. Locally collected indigenous microorganisms, cultured on grain, hulls and straw with an eye toward fungal development, as well as an Oriental herbal nutrient for promoting microorganism growth, also play a role.

“You can see there is a lot of activity,” she said, peering in at the bubbling mixture. “This one looks great.”

The mini-chemical reactions taking place during fermentation are fascinating to her and an extension of her work as a nutritionist.

“I’m usually talking about gut microbiology, which is how we sustain our health,” Cormier said.

Adding that she has been “obsessed” with gut microbes for quite some time, the microbiology involved in fermenting the fish for plant health is a logical next step.

Along with Hatch’s, which supplies everything from big striped bass heads to various fish carcasses, Cormier also works with Salt Seafood Company in Provincetown. Tuna heads in the most recent blend are from there; Cormier also sells their dayboat sea scallops through the Local Juice.

Sarah Gribbin, who helps run the company with her dad, Beau, and her mom, Kathleen, said her and her mom spent a lot of time with Cormier this summer because their booths happened to be close to one another at Farmers Markets across the Cape.

The Gribbins and Cormier found they have a lot in common. Sarah just graduated from college in Maine with a concentration in sustainability and supported the collaboration right off.

“Nicole wants to connect commercial fishermen to gardeners and farmers,” Gribbin said. “That is why we decided to do it with her because it is such a smart idea.”

Selling at Farmers Markets reinforced Sarah’s feeling that there are still a lot of people who don’t know there is a vibrant commercial fishing industry on the Cape that can be supported by buying local. Linking fishing with local farms and backyard gardeners is another way to draw attention.

Cormier’s knowledge and style is a plus as well. Gribbin remembers the way she would pick up an awkward, 50-pound tuna head with aplomb.

“She is awesome. I’m definitely excited to see where she goes with it,” Gribbin said.

The Hatch’s batches are farther along, said Cormier, explaining those started in June. The fermented fish fertilizers take about six months. The first one will be ready come November and is already looking like fish juice.

“I always get fish juice on my dress or whatever I am wearing,” she said with a slight laugh.

Some fermented fish fertilizers are already being used on Cape; one of Cormier’s associates in Truro has made and used it privately and successfully.

“I think we are the only people producing it for the community,” she said. “It makes me so happy I can be collaborating with fishermen in a way that I can bring it back to the plants.”

For Frechette, Cormier’s partner, the chance to give back is also an impetus.

“I’m on a mission to rebuild soils,” he said.

He is a chemical engineer, but became captivated with the importance of dirt while a member of an organic gardening club at university. Things haven’t changed much in the decade since he graduated; industrial agriculture is still depleting soils. Now he can help battle back on a small scale because using local, natural fertilizers is even better than using organic fertilizers from away.

Adrien Kmiec is looking forward to seeing the finished product from 200 or so pounds a week of fish waste that traveled with Cormier. He has used similar fertilizers before and so predicts major success.

“You mix it with water and you put it on your plants and they grow like crazy,” he said. “I certainly know a lot of people who would like to try it.”

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