Can Small Seaweed Farms Help Kelp Scale Up? | Civil Eats

Can Small Seaweed Farms Help Kelp Scale Up?

While some farms plan to grow massive quantities of kelp, Atlantic Sea Farms is counting on Maine’s small-scale fishermen to expand the industry and distribute ownership.

Harvesting Kelp in Alaska. (Photo credit: Rachelle Hacmac)

Harvesting Kelp in Alaska. (Photo credit: Rachelle Hacmac)

When food forecasters made their predictions for 2022, they told The New York Times that farmed kelp would move beyond dashi and the menus at high-end restaurants and into everyday foods like pasta and salsa.

Atlantic Sea Farms, the first commercial edible seaweed farm in the U.S.—founded in 2006 under the name Ocean Approved—is poised to take advantage of the moment. When Briana Warner, 37, took over as CEO in mid-2018, the Maine-based company was producing 30,000 wet pounds of seaweed a year. This spring, the company expects a harvest of 1.2 million pounds, making it the largest in the U.S.

“We need a model where we’re actually doing serious scale aquaculture, whatever that looks like. This cannot be a boutique industry to high-end restaurants.”

As CEO, Warner strives to create sustainable ocean livelihoods by building a business centered on the “virtuous vegetable” that’s good for people and the planet. (The company trademarked the term.) Sometimes on a straight-line trajectory and other times zig-zagging due to COVID, it has driven growth through nonprofit partnerships, added-value product development, and plenty of publicity.

“Kelp is everywhere,” says Warner, speaking via Zoom. Atlantic Sea Farms’ kelp is already an ingredient in cheese, veggie burgers, noodles, even dog treats, and will soon appear in plant-based fish, crackers, and dressings. The job of one team member is solely to sell kelp as an ingredient. “He’s on the phone right now with a sorbet manufacturer,” Warner says.

Briana Warner. (Photo credit: Daniel Orr)

Briana Warner. (Photo credit: Daniel Orr)

But it’s not just trend-watchers who advise eating seaweed. Proponents mention numerous social and environmental benefits: it’s nutritionally dense; it provides fishermen an additional stream of revenue; it requires no land, fertilizer, or fresh water to grow; and it is environmentally low impact. Additionally, ongoing studies indicate it might also absorb carbon dioxide in the ocean and tamp down ocean acidification.

Still, for seaweed to fulfill its promise, the industry—and companies like Atlantic Sea Farms—must grow. To figure out how, analysts, governmental organizations like Sea Grant, and the players themselves are taking a cold, hard look at the many challenges still in the way. Among the levers to push, says the Island Institute, a Maine nonprofit, are expanding processing capacity, creating products that are different from imports, and building consumer awareness.

If the goals of climate and social impact are to be realized, the industry has to go “beyond the froth and the excitement,” says Bren Smith, the former fisherman and long time ocean farmer who, with a Cornell law degree, has advanced interest in aquaculture from the helm of GreenWave, a nonprofit that trains and supports sea farmers. “We need a model where we’re actually doing serious scale aquaculture, whatever that looks like. This cannot be a boutique industry to high-end restaurants,” he adds.

Building Domestic Demand for Seaweed

The U.S. has a long way to go. While worldwide seaweed production has soared to 80 billion pounds, 2019 U.S. farm harvests hovered under 1 million pounds, according to the latest available data from Sea Grant’s National Seaweed Hub, a third-party science-based resource for the domestic seaweed industry.

Most of the nori rolls and neon green wakame salads Americans do eat are made with imported seaweed. In fact, more than 95 percent of those edible seaweed products come from Asia, with China and South Korea accounting for over half. With high production volume, they also deliver at lower costs.

“If you think about Asia, seaweed is consumed almost daily. The volume produced there reflects their market needs and the products that have been developed to address those needs,” says Anoushka Concepcion, the principal investigator of the Seaweed Hub.

“It’s different here in the U.S. We don’t consume seaweed products in the same way. Plus, our species are different,” she continues. “Product developers need to come up with new, innovative ways to use sugar kelp, for example. That’s expensive. It takes time. And farmers aren’t inclined to grow this crop if they’re not assured someone’s going to buy it on an ongoing basis. It’s a Catch-22.”

Still, the not-fully-developed domestic demand hasn’t slowed the desire to start seaweed farms—nor has it slowed the number of permits being issued to people looking to build them. Smith’s team at GreenWave has calculated that there are 240 permitted seaweed farms in the U.S., though no centralized national database exists. “There is incredible social license,” he says.

Kelp grows faster than most terrestrial plants—up to two feet per day—meaning it absorbs more carbon, faster.

Not all permitted farms are growing seaweed yet or achieving optimal capacity, but over the last three years, harvests have soared in Maine and Alaska. Those two states now represent 85 percent of the total U.S. supply of edible seaweed, according to the Island Institute.

At this point, most of what’s farmed in the U.S. goes to consumer specialty foods, as well as some high-end cosmetics and pricey fertilizers, because production costs are so high. These product applications are “where farmers can get more bang for their bucks,” says Sea Grant’s Concepcion. Products that require more volume—such as the alginates or “seaweed gums” used in biomedical science and engineering—tap inexpensive seaweeds from Asia or wild varieties, according to a 2021 report prepared for the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.

U.S. seaweed producers are still in search of ways to grow the market. “Farmers have told us, ‘We know we can grow it. But what do we do with it post-harvest?’” says Concepcion. That last mile between the farm and the consumer’s plate has proven to be a tough—and capital-intensive—challenge for the industry because fresh kelp is good only for a matter of days. So, how should it be stabilized—drying, fermenting, freezing? And in what food products is it appealing?

Collecting Data to Cut Through the Hype

Kelp grows faster than most terrestrial plants—up to two feet per day—meaning it absorbs more carbon, faster. It can sequester carbon when it floats out to sea and sinks to the ocean floor, where it tends to remain.

While the crop has gained the attention of consumers looking for climate solutions, scientists are still studying how both wild kelp forests and the growing number of farms fit into this puzzle. “On paper, it sounds great: Grow seaweed, sink it to a thousand meters,” Dr. Scott Lindell of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said in an article on the organization’s website last December. “But there are a lot of technical things in between to figure out.”

“So much of what is being said out there is hyperbole or just downright wrong,” adds Dr. Thew Suskiewicz, who joined Atlantic Sea Farms about a year ago to oversee their seaweed cultivation center, coordinate research and product improvement, and ensure the scientific accuracy of communications.

Dr. Nichole Price is immune to hype. The former project scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Price focuses on the eco-physiology of seaweeds at the Bigelow Laboratory, an independent, nonprofit research institute in Maine.

Price says one of her projects has yielded “promising” indications that seaweed carbon capture may alleviate ocean acidification and improve shell growth for shellfish. “We saw it happen three years in a row in Casco Bay, but can it be repeated?” she asks. With a new $900,000 grant from the World Wildlife Fund, the lab’s research on this question has now expanded beyond the first site—Bang’s Island Mussels, which grows kelp for Atlantic Sea Farms—into different ocean environs in Norway and Alaska.

Price is also leading the U.S. segment of the Seaweed Project of Oceans 2050, a global effort co-founded by Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. By taking samples from more than 20 farms off five continents, the 15-month study will quantify how much carbon seaweed sequesters in sediment on the ocean’s floor.

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With a $10 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant announced last fall, Bigelow and a team from multiple universities are also addressing the cow burp question. Past research has found certain seaweed feed additives reduce methane-emitting burps. Researchers are also examining their impact on milk production. Price says, “If this methane reduction can simultaneously lead to a boost in milk yield and generate higher quality milk, then there’s a profitability possibility and it could be a win-win.”

Asked about nuggets of learning so far, Price says data must wait for the published paper—it’s a five-year study. But, she adds, “There’s hope and promise.”

Small Farmers, Big Output

Atlantic Sea Farms is building its business on that hope and promise. The company currently works with 27 independent partner farmers, primarily lobstermen, who already have boats and gear. Their leases dot the entire coast of Maine, which is even longer than California’s. Most are small, about four acres, but all together these farms add up to around 100 acres of sugar and skinny kelp production.

In his second year of kelp farming, lobsterman Bob Baines produced 42,000 pounds (a $25,200 paycheck), but he believes he can double that.

The company sees both its scale and the diversity of its network as a strategic advantage in reducing supply chain risk for large customers of kelp, like Whole Foods, Sweetgreen, and Daily Harvest.

Atlantic Sea Farms gives its farmers training and ongoing support, free seed (valued at nearly $10,000 per farm), and an iron-clad guarantee to buy their harvests each spring. In turn, the contract requires farmers to attend an annual meeting to share their experiences and exchange ideas. “Fishermen are better seaweed farmers than any of us will ever be,” Warner says.

The company’s current contract rate is 60 cents per wet pound, so most growers earn between $40,000 and $110,000 a season as supplemental income, she says. The amount depends on the size of the farm, their experience level, and less predictable elements such as the weather. It’s a good return on investment of both the time they put in and gear they already have, including boats that are underutilized in winter.

In his second year of kelp farming, lobsterman Bob Baines produced 42,000 pounds (a $25,200 paycheck), but he believes he can double that. “I’m still learning,” he says. He has applied for a larger lease of seven acres through the Maine Department of Marine Resources where he will be authorized to grow 10 different species of seaweed. As a signal of the future he sees for seaweed cultivation, he’s bringing his nephew into the business.

Baines estimates he has invested $20,000 to $25,000 in his farm’s infrastructure, a grid of 1,000-foot lines that are 13 to 15 feet apart and six to eight feet below the water’s surface. The kelp grows five to 10 feet long from these lines, hanging in the ocean like honey-colored laundry.

In November, it takes Baines about three days to seed the farm with spools of sporophytes from Atlantic Sea Farms’ nursery. Working on a 14-foot skiff, he runs the long lines through two-inch spools, unwinding the seeded twine as a partner maneuvers the boat. The less choppy the water, the happier they are. The springtime harvest will take about five days. In between, Baines checks his farm every week or so, untangling lines in frigid weather if a storm has stirred things up.

Once the farmers harvest their kelp, Atlantic Sea Farms trucks it back to its 27,000-square-foot facility 20 miles south of Portland, where it has been located since January. There it can process five times more kelp in an hour than it did in an entire day at the former location, says Warner. Depending on the product application, it can blanch, shred, freeze, ferment, puree, or dry it.

Under the same roof, the company also houses seed cultivation, product development, and final manufacturing, as well as business functions like sales. “It’s one of the most vertically integrated companies that I’ve ever been part of,” says Suskiewicz. “The only stage we don’t do is the actual farming, but we’re so closely integrated with our partner farms. I mean, we’re on their boats all the time.”

It audits the farms all winter so that Suskiewicz can track how each seed lot is growing. “We trace everything that we do back to its parents.” For the fall of 2022, he plans to produce 400,000 feet of seeded line, making Atlantic Sea Farms’ seaweed cultivation center the largest such hatchery in the U.S.

Not All Seaweed Farms Look Alike

In contrast to Atlantic Sea Farm’s network of many, small growers, business models that tap fewer, larger farms have been emerging in Alaska, which only began issuing kelp farming permits in 2016. For example, San Francisco-based Blue Evolution has partnerships with just two farms in Kodiak, Alaska, but they are geared to deliver 300,000 wet pounds of kelp in 2022. (Atlantic Sea Farms anticipates 1.2 million wet pounds of kelp from 27 farmers.)

Alaska is issuing huge leases compared to the so-called experimental leases that make up most of Maine’s industry. A single farm in the Gulf of Alaska can stretch as large as 132 acres, according to Melissa Good of the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. She adds that Alaska’s total aquaculture acreage could balloon 1.5 times to a total of 2,200 acres if all 23 pending permit applications are approved for seaweed farms and those that raise seaweed and shellfish simultaneously. That’s more than 1,600 football fields of ocean farms.

Lexa Meyer of Blue Evolution harvesting kelp in Alaska. (Photo credit: Alf Pryor)

Lexa Meyer of Blue Evolution collecting kelp for seed cultivation. (Photo credit: Alf Pryor)

In addition to the structure of its farming network, Blue Evolution has veered from Atlantic Sea Farms’ vertically integrated model by emphasizing partnerships. For seed, it is collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries at the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center. And it contracts the Sun’aq Tribe in Kodiak to handle seaweed processing each spring.

Blue Evolution also works across the border: it grows 250,000 wet pounds of sea lettuce in tanks at a land-based organic farm in Baja Mexico. It had been producing pasta and popcorn with this seaweed but is discontinuing product manufacturing.

“We started with the intention of being vertically integrated and having our own retail brand and selling that product as Atlantic Sea Farms was doing, but COVID, frankly, made that tough,” says founder Beau Perry. For now, the company is focused on working with growers, processing, and wholesale opportunities.

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A Pivot to Retail in Support of a Social Mission

Briana Warner studied international affairs at George Washington University before the U.S. State Department recruited her for the foreign service, sending her to Libya and Guinea and paying for a master’s at Yale along the way.

When she joined Atlantic Sea Farms almost four years ago, her food experience was limited to feeding pancakes to teenage boys from warring tribes in Guinea and running a pie company near Portland that only employed immigrants. Even so, she hurled the company into product development, creating pureed kelp cubes for smoothies and soups, raw kimchi- and kraut-style salads, and frozen ready-cut kelp.

Within a year of becoming CEO, Warner convinced Sweetgreen that her operation could supply the kelp for a new bowl which the mission-driven fast-food chain believed would tell an important climate story. Created by Chef David Chang, that salad surpassed sales goals by 50 percent—despite the closure of New York City offices shortly after the product launch in mid-February of 2020.

The spread of COVID forced Atlantic Sea Farms to completely rethink its business model. When restaurants and dining halls shuttered, “we lost 90 percent of our accounts overnight,” says Warner, and paying the farmers that spring depleted the company’s cash.

“Even if it put us out of business, we were going to show up at the dock,” says company CMO Jesse Baines (who is also Bob’s daughter).

To survive, the company secured a loan and pivoted to retail, and in less than two years, distribution grew from 40 small locations in New England to 1,400 stores, including Sprouts, Wegmans, and Whole Foods.

Today, a strong social mission underpins Atlantic Sea Farms business model. As Warner says frequently, “We can do well by doing good.” Like the Union of Concerned Scientists and many others, she believes the terrestrial farming model, in which the bulk of the food is produced by a small number of large farms, isn’t working. It has barred new farmers from entering the marketplace and led to the demise of many mid-size ones, who are historically the backbone of rural communities.

Bob Baines. (Photo credit: Atlantic Sea Farms)

Bob Baines. (Photo credit: Atlantic Sea Farms)

Additionally, Maine’s coastal communities, whose main industries are lobstering and tourism, are facing the fact that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, driving lobster populations north.

“Historically, lobstermen did different types of fisheries,” says Bob Baines, who started lobstering after college and today sits on the board of directors of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. A lobstering life might still include shrimping, scalloping, and ground fishing for cod, haddock, and pollock, though the other fisheries are minuscule today compared to lobster. In that tradition, though, kelp farming offers a supplementary income in the spring and the security of diversification.

Warner believes that independent farmers like Baines and the others working with Atlantic Sea Farms don’t need outside help, such as the government aid to land-based commodity farms or nonprofit price subsidies for new seaweed farmers. “Grant cycles live and die. Business doesn’t. The world is ready for seaweed. It doesn’t need to be subsidized,” Warner says.

She hopes the model resonates beyond kelp. “If you put the strength in the farmer and build guardrails around your business so that it is purely based on planet and people, you fundamentally undermine the broken system that everyone insists is the only way.”

Lynn Fantom is a freelance reporter based in New York City and Downeast Maine. A 2018 graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she previously spent 40 years in business. The company she founded in 2002 was recognized for its diversity and inclusion and won eight “Best Places to Work” awards. Read more >

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