Atlantic Sea Farms Gearing Up for Rapid Expansion

 Seagriculture EU 2024
Atlantic Sea Farms harvesting

Fisherman harvesting line-grown skinny kelp for Atlantic Sea Farms. Image courtesy Atlantic Sea Farms

by Jim McMahon

In 2009 Atlantic Sea Farms (formerly Ocean Approved) created the first commercially viable seaweed farm in the United States, providing a domestic fresh and healthy alternative to imported seaweed products.

More than 98 percent of the edible seaweed on the market is grown in Asia. Some of this product is grown in compromised water with little or no environmental oversight or batch testing for quality and safety. When it comes into the U.S., it is then sometimes re-hydrated and dyed.

“Kelp is an integral part of our healthy coastal ecosystem,” said Bri Warner, President and CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms. “Wild kelp has supplemented the diets of Maine’s coastal residents for centuries. It is a healthful, sustainable food source that requires no arable land, irrigation, or any pesticides or herbicides.”

“Until Atlantic Sea Farms’ products came to market, it was impossible for retailers, restaurants, consumers and consumer-packaged goods companies to buy domestically farmed kelp, let alone fresh kelp,” said Ms. Warner.

She and her team have forged a new path for seaweed aquaculture in the US, by working with fishermen to grow kelp as a climate change adaptation strategy – and building national demand for that kelp. The Atlantic Sea Farms team, and partner farmers, now account for the majority of line-grown kelp grown in the US, and are proving that a model that puts farmers, planet, and people first can drive an entirely new way of producing food.

Kelp

Rich in vitamins, minerals, and unique marine compounds, line-grown kelp is a superfood that has naturally high levels of iodine, calcium, antioxidants, potassium, iron, and folic acid. Kelp is not only one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, it is one of the fastest-growing ingredients in the US, used by fine chefs and home cooks as a flavor enhancer, nutrient bomb, and delicious addition to almost any dish.

Atlantic Sea Farms’ products are made with young, mild-tasting, fresh skinny kelp (Saccharina angustissima), grown on independently owned and operated farms in the clean, cold waters of Maine. Skinny kelp is a particularly tasty species of sugar kelp which grows in just one place on Earth, the Maine coast. Aside from its appealing texture and skinny shape it is high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, calcium, iodine and magnesium.

Rapid Growth

In 2018, Atlantic Sea Farms harvested and processed approximately 30,000 pounds of kelp during its April through June harvest season. Four years later, in 2022, the company harvested close to one million pounds of kelp.

“We are branching out and expanding our line of products to appeal to a wider audience,” said Peter Rahn,” Director of Quality and Food Innovation, at Atlantic Sea Farms. “To that end we have contracted with many more fishermen to produce our line-grown kelp. Fishermen play a pivotal role in our kelp production model – we grow and provide the seeds, and they plant and harvest the kelp.”

“Additionally, in December 2021 we moved into a new, much bigger facility,” added Mr. Rahn. “Our new plant is 27,000 square feet, more than four times bigger than our old facility. This has allowed us to considerably expand our processing capability and build out a state-of-the-art seaweed processing center.”

Processing Skinny Kelp

Atlantic Sea Farms processes the bulk of its kelp within the three-month April–June harvest period. Once the kelp is harvested and brought into the plant for processing, it is put through a series of systems to prepare it as finished consumable products. The process includes:

a) inspection;
b) washing;
c) shredding into fine strips;
d) blanching;
e) cooling (dewatering);
f) packaging (primary and secondary);
g) storage of finished products in deep freeze or refrigerated storage for non-frozen products.

In this series of processes, blanching is a critical function, as the time and temperature of the blanch cycle directly determines the texture and quality of the finished product. Prior to moving into the new facility, the kelp was blanched in kettles, 15 to 20-pound batches at a time.

“Blanching in kettles was really a challenge because of the inconsistency with managing the time and temperature,” explained Mr. Rahn. “We were continually having to do quality checks throughout the blanch and cool process to ensure that we would end up with the finished product quality we needed. We could manage with the kettles processing 30,000 pounds of kelp annually, but handling one million pounds was just not feasible.”

Continuous-Process Blanching

Atlantic Sea Farms process blancher

Atlantic Sea Farms’ continuous-process blancher. Image courtesy Lyco Manufacturing

Atlantic Sea Farms needed a more efficient blanching and dewatering solution, one that could handle the higher volumes while maintaining consistent product quality.

Reviewing a number of options, Atlantic Sea Farms settled on a continuous-process rotary-drum, combined blanching/dewatering system from Lyco Manufacturing.

The blancher utilizes a completely enclosed rotary-drum design, 36” diameter x 8’ length. The rotary drum functions like an auger, with a perforated skin sheet wrapped around it and fixed to the auger flights, eliminating pinch points.

These flights gently move the kelp through the system in a first-in/first-out sequence. The kelp is carefully turned over and massaged, while totally submersed in the temperature-controlled water as it advances through the blanching cylinder, without causing damage to the kelp.

“In the blanch section, the water is heated via steam manifolds located in the tank,” said Travis Vergenz, Area Sales Manager, at Lyco Manufacturing. “During transit through the blanch section, a patented agitation system gently stirs the kelp, which ensures accurate and uniform results. Additionally, a system called Hydro-Flow™, applies water injection that keeps the kelp in suspension, more evenly distributing the product loading across the width of the machine, uniformly treating the kelp and producing a consistent blanch.”

Dewatering-Cooling, and Water Reuse

“Once through the blanching section of the machine, the kelp is gently transferred to the dewatering section of the machine, where it’s drained,” added Mr. Vergenz. “It then exits the dewatering chamber, and onto a cooling belt before conveying to packaging and cold storage.”

The high-temperature water discharged from the dewatering cycle is recirculated back to the blancher and reused as make-up water, which reduces water consumption and reduces the energy required to heat the water in the blancher.

Precisely Controlled Process and Recipe Management

Aided by the integration of a pre-programmed logic controller (PLC) that ensures precisely controlled operation and recipe management, the blancher/dewatering process delivers precise automated control of all machine functions, resulting in uniform heating and dewatering that achieves totally consistent end products.

“Lyco worked closely with us to develop a blanching and dewatering system that would process our skinny kelp exactly per our requirements,” continued Mr. Rahn. “There were modifications that were needed to be made to their standard blancher/cooler system, particularly with the dewatering process.”

Performance

“The blanching/dewatering system has been up and running since January 2022, processing 4,000 pounds per hour of kelp through the machine on eight-hour shifts daily. The system is performing as planned, and the kelp is blanched perfectly.” said Mr. Rahn.”

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Seagriculture USA 2024
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