by Kay Neufeld/Portland Press Herald
A 50-foot-long, 17-ton, moisture-sucking machine from South Africa is en route to Brunswick, Maine — where the kelp dryer may allow seaweed companies there to triple production and make an impact on the world market.
Ocean’s Balance, a Biddeford, Maine seaweed farm and producer, is spending around $650,000 on the custom-designed dryer, with funding help from Coastal Enterprises Inc., a community development financial institution headquartered in Brunswick.
Mitchell Lench, CEO of Ocean’s Balance, feels the investment is necessary because sugar kelp, the seaweed species most commonly farmed in Maine, requires exacting conditions in order to dry and be preserved. He believes the machine will allow his business and others along the coast to compete in the global market for seaweed, which is predicted to grow 12% annually and reach $30.2 billion by 2027, according to industry analysts.
“The new machinery will be able to process 30,000 pounds of wet sugar kelp in a single day.”
“This should have a knock-on effect to create more farms or bigger farms and allow us to scale up (the seaweed industry) in a way that we have been unable to do previously,” Lench said. “Increased capacity across the industry is key.”
Raw seaweed stays fresh for only about a week. Drying the plants in the sun is the primary technique for preserving them. But that’s a challenge in Maine, where the weather often doesn’t cooperate during the harvest season, from November to June.
There’s also blanching and freezing, which is how Ocean’s Balance and most Maine farms currently preserve seaweed. When frozen, it takes up a lot of space, and 90% of the weight comes from water. Finding freezer storage is difficult and shipping the wet product is expensive, Lench said, limiting how much seaweed Maine farmers ultimately produce.
Drying, he said, is far more cost-effective. Dried seaweed is also easier to mill down to powder or flakes, allowing harvesters to create a wider array of products.
Milled seaweed is used in canned pet food, cosmetics, dietary supplements, seasoning blends and in flour to extend its shelf life. Seaweed is also featured in a variety of foods, including chips, crackers and slices that are eaten as snack food.
Searching for a solution
Ocean’s Balance has been searching for a practical way to dry seaweed since Lench co-founded the company in 2016. The company has tried using other types of dryers, including smaller machines owned by competitors. It also worked with the University of Maine to build a dryer. But all those avenues were dead ends, Lench said, because the technology was either labor-intensive or carbon-intensive or did not function well when handling sugar kelp.
“The only way we saw that the farmed seaweed market (in Maine) was going to really grow and take off was someone was going to have to invest in a dryer. We finally just bit the bullet and said we need to get a dryer if we want this market to move.”
“The dryer is the first that can create the conditions sugar kelp needs to dry properly…”
Since making that decision, Lench began working with an undisclosed South African company in October 2022 to create the machinery. It was scheduled to arrive by ship in Boston on Sunday (May 14, 2023). Setting up the dryer is expected to take about 10 days. The machine will operate in leased space at the Brunswick facility of Source Inc., a producer of seaweed-derived nutritional supplements.
The dryer is the first that can create the conditions sugar kelp needs to dry properly, according to Lench. Those include specific temperatures and air pressures. Without the right drying controls, the sugar kelp can lose important nutrients as well as desirable texture, color and size.
The dryer will run at 140-158 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest temperatures that sugar kelp needs to dry without sticking and leaking. Lench said the new technology is also energy-efficient and resistant to the kelp residue.
A benefit to the industry
While Ocean’s Balance expects the dryer will help increase production, the company isn’t the only business that may benefit. Source Inc. and Ocean’s Balance have launched a spin-off business called Seaweed Farmer Services, which plans to make the dryer available for the three dozen or so other seaweed farmers in the state. Collectively, they farmed 1 million pounds of kelp in 2022, according to the Maine Aquaculture Association.
The new machinery will be able to process 30,000 pounds of wet sugar kelp in a single day. That adds up to 3 million pounds of seaweed over the course of the 90-100 days in each harvest season.
A game changer?
“Eight years ago, we were only growing about 50,000 pounds a year,” said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. “When you realize that you can grow that volume of such an amazing product…the addition of this kind of drying technology and infrastructure in the state is critical to that development.”
But Lench won’t be showing off the plans to Maine companies or even say who built the dryer because he believes that, for now, one machine is all the state’s seaweed farmers need.
Hugh Cowperthwaite, the senior program director of fisheries and aquaculture for Coastal Enterprises, said the dehydrator could create a swath of opportunities for harvesters to expand their businesses. He envisions a future where Maine’s harvested kelp finds its way into foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals around the world.
Belle wants to see Maine’s sugar kelp in Slurpees or used as a condiment on popcorn, for starters. And Lench would like seaweed used in bioplastics, as an eco-friendly replacement for the petroleum-based kind.
“Maine is really the case study at a national level,” says Belle, “for how…you develop a seaweed aquaculture sector and then how you monetize that sector.”
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