Seaweed culture in growth mode
January 25, 2016
By Muriel Hendrix
Maine Coast Sea Vegetables (MCSV) has made its long anticipated move to a new meticulously designed, energy efficient, 1800-square-foot building in Hancock, Maine. The new facility is just 12 miles from the company’s former home, but light years beyond it in terms of size, accessibility, and well-planned and comfortable workspace.
Owner Shep Erhart says the 44-year-old company, which has 20 employees, processed about 100,000 pounds of wild harvested seaweed last year is looking to the future, he would like “to increase our total volume by about 5% a year and if we’re lucky, that will mostly be in cultured plants from our farm and others in the years to come. We’ve really reached our sustainable limit in wild dulse, alaria, kelp, and laver, in my opinion.”
The building achieves Erhart’s highest priorities — abundant natural lighting from windows in all offices and inner clerestory windows, and circulation of adequate fresh air, delivered by a state of the art air exchange ventilation system. It has radiant heating in the floors, where pipes are joined by the wiring and cables of the sophisticated IT system.
At one end of the storage area, two rooms contain state of the art computer controlled humidifying and dehumidifying equipment. On this day, long strands of kelp are spread out on racks to be softened before packing.
The storage area is connected to the packing room, a bright, spacious area with rolling hardware that can easily be rearranged to meet the needs of particular products.
One of the side rooms holds a 40 HP hammer mill made by Meadows Mills in North Carolina, and a sifter by Sweco, manufactured in Kentucky. This $40,000 investment provides an opportunity for increasing product, and it gives MSCV the capability of being a zero-waste facility. “Anything imperfect, such as biofouled wild or aquacultured seaweeds, can be milled and sifted,” Erhart says. The mill has four settings – extra fine, powder, granules and flakes — that will produce seaweed for a variety of products, such as vitamin capsules, shaker flakes, and pet food.
“It is possible, Erhart says, “that we could share this equipment with other growers, charging a reasonable amount to mill their product.”
The new building’s well-equipped kitchen offers ample space for research and development of new products, including processing options for aquacultured seaweeds, which have some different properties from wild harvested seaweeds. This kitchen opens up into the adjacent conference room to provide a future venue for educational programs for area students and other members of the community, and a place to demonstrate how to utilize seaweeds in everyday cooking.
To stretch the resource, Erhart would like to experiment with combining seaweeds with other nutritious foods, and has considered products like ready-made dashi, seaweed salad and kraut, and a nutritious soup cup. He looks forward to the day when he can create the first Atlantic nori sheet, using laver raised at the farm in Frenchman’s Bay, where he and Sarah Redmond are growing dulse, laver, sugar kelp, and alaria.
— Muriel L. Hendrix
Seaweed industry moving forward
Drying a challenge for Maine seaweed farmers – but help is on the way
Peter Arnold, who is in charge of drying the seaweed he and two partners raise at Maine Fresh Sea Farms in Walpole, Maine, says he, like most seaweed farmers and wild harvesters in Maine, is using “the current state of the art method to dry their sugar kelp — the clothesline.”
It’s labor intensive – they hang up and take down about 100 pounds wet kelp a day, which produces about 10 pounds dry – and conditions have to be favorable. A humid, wet week can keep them from harvesting when the product is ready, when their customers need it.
Sarah Redmond, Maine Sea Grant Extension Associate at University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture (CCAR), has been using the same traditional method to dry hundreds of pounds of seaweed grown at a farm in Frenchman’s Bay where she and Shep Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables are raising sugar kelp, alaria, dulse, and laver.
While Redmond is confident that any sea vegetable grown in Maine and the Northeast will find a market, she says the availability of an efficient and cost effective drying system is an essential infrastructure needed to support growth of a seaweed industry in Maine.
She has been giving out seed raised at CCAR to at least seven farmers, but she says before she encourages additional people to take the leap into seaweed farming, “I need to be able to tell them that ‘you can run this much through this drying system, and it will take this long, and you can get this much money for it.’”
Help is on the way. John Belding, Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center at University of Maine at Orono and other researchers at the university are working on designs for a drying system. Belding thinks his will be available by next spring.
The project, funded by an SBIR Phase II grant won by Maine Fresh Sea Farms, follows a Phase I grant that Belding says funded research to complete drying studies and test different moisture content in kelp for shelf life stability.
Belding’s design “will support drying the kelp with very minimal energy input other than the sun. It will utilize a modified green house design with forced ventilation. The only electricity will be for a fan to support the ventilation.”
The system will not be portable, but he aims for it to be low-cost so individual seaweed farmers and wild harvesters can afford to have it near their unloading area, saving time and transportation costs. Once complete, the design will be available to any interested people. “It’s being done on a public grant,” Belden says, “and so would be collaborative.”
Considering the increased interest in seaweed as food and for use in numerous other products, Redmond is confident that once Maine has this final piece of infrastructure available, the industry will thrive.
— Muriel L. Hendrix
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