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Can Small Seaweed Farms Help Kelp Scale Up?

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)

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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