Farming the sea

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A Maine company is growing sea greens to meet demand for the ocean’s nutritious bounty.

They began two years ago. Three men partnered to fulfill a mission. They formed their own company, Maine Fresh Sea Farms, bringing together their collective wisdom, energy and curiosity to explore how to grow and harvest sustainably raised seaweed in Maine’s coastal waters and be the first to bring fresh sea vegetables to the table.

One of the company’s co-founders, Peter Arnold, former sustainability director for the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset, said, “We are discovering ways to tilt the American palate toward the consumption and enjoyment of nutritious, delicious, sustainable sea greens.”

Arnold joined forces with Seth Barker, a marine biologist formerly with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and Peter Fischer, a well-known expert in the state’s seafood industry with experience in nearly every aspect, from fish cutting to direct sales, handling and shipping.

With hard work, experimentation and some grants, it wasn’t long before the team proved sea greens could be “farmed” sustainably. Because favorable conditions for growing and harvesting sea greens are evident in many tidal areas in the Gulf of Maine and Canada’s Maritime provinces, the entrepreneurs say they have successfully developed an alternative to wild harvesting of sea greens that could revolutionize the industry.

“The wave is building,” said Arnold. “We don’t envision wild harvesting to keep up with demand, even though it’s conducted responsibly. So a farming model is the future here in Maine. The goal is to be in full commercial operation, planting, growing, harvesting, packaging and marketing sea greens.”

Their prime market is currently restaurants. The team has formed alliances with area chefs who are putting sea greens on their menus. By borrowing from other cultures already familiar with the consumption of sea greens and by experimenting, those chefs are finding that seaweed — with its range of favors and qualities — can be eaten fresh, dried, roasted, fried, put in soups, sushis and salads, layered in lasagna, blended in smoothies and so much more.

The team hopes to eventually be filling bulk orders for commercial kitchens and are considering ways to even get their products to individual customers.

From spores to plate

Currently, Maine Fresh Sea Farms grows sugar kelp and winged kelp within the waters of Clark Cove, a 40-acre tidal inlet on the nutrient-dense Damariscotta River Estuary just a few miles downstream of Newcastle.

Each species of kelp flourishes under different conditions, with sugar kelp thriving in the coldest, darker waters, and winged kelp preferring warmer temperatures and abundant sun. The site was chosen by the three entrepreneurs for its history: Maine’s first aquaculture site was established in Clark Cove in the mid-1970s to grow mussels.

Sugar kelp, or saccharina latissima, is the company’s most prolific, versatile and primary sea green crop. It’s planted in the fall and by late winter, baby sugar kelp is available. Left to mature through the spring, the sugar kelp develops into long golden, tender blades resembling giant lasagna noodles with stems, or stipes. By the end of the season, large quantities of kelp can be harvested and dried to use and market throughout the year.

Winged kelp, known as alaria esculenta, is another late-winter and early-spring kelp that has a more distinctive sea flavor and more texture. It looks more like a fern with a rib up the middle. A popular sea green in Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Europe and Norway, winged kelp is becoming better known in the U.S.

This is the time of year when harvesting is in full swing, but it all starts when organic seaweed spores are saved from reproductive tissue and carefully nurtured in tanks of finely filtered seawater so there aren’t any competitors.

Next, the spores are seeded onto twine wrapped around spools made from PVC pipe. These are later unspooled on ropes and “planted” six feet under the water throughout the autumn months. Maine Fresh Sea Farms has been able to use this basic process for sea farming and modified it to make it their own.

As the crop grows, the seaweed fronds wrap themselves around the rope, then float to the surface, where they are picked by hand from February through June.

Besides these two main crops, dulse and several other lines of experimental crops are being watched by the team with the hope that other varieties of sea vegetables can also be grown there.

Maine’s underwater farming potential

Early in the process the men conducted a feasibility study to help determine the viability of year-round sea vegetable farming, helped by a first-of-its-kind Small Business Innovation Research Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A pilot lab was also created that could be replicated to grow varieties of seaweed up and down Maine’s coastline.

With promising initial results, more research and development has continued with the help of two more grants. The R&D has included building a prototype multi-species, multi-seasonal farm, gathering data on water quality and nutrients, and exploring processing and marketing to ensure a clear path to commercialization of sea vegetable products.

One aspect of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant is being used to determine how long each sea green can withstand refrigeration without losing its nutritional value.

Arnold is passionate about growing sea greens, not only working to create an industry in Maine but teaching the next generation about new food sources. The personal connection is key.

“Not only do I eat sea greens every day myself, but I find ways to educate and promote them,” he said.

He makes a habit of sampling most of the sea green dishes prepared in the restaurants that purchase from Maine Fresh Sea Farm. He also recently led a cooking class in the Focus on Agriculture in Rural Maine Schools (FARMS) Community Kitchen above Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta.

The health benefits of sea greens have been well-documented, but marketing it needs to be fresh and innovative, Arnold said. For instance, he likes to talk about “noodlizing” it, cutting fresh seaweed into strips, like spaghetti, to make it easier to work with. Another idea involves raising sea greens for the fermented beverage industry.

To that end, Maine Fresh Sea Farms has already begun working with “food partners” that include Rising Tide Community Market, the Chewonki Foundation, Crown of Maine, Southern Maine Community College Culinary School, Eventide Restaurant and Native Maine Produce.

“The farming model (for sea greens) is the future,” Arnold said.

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a publication that supports the arts, and has been a contributor to the Sun Journal since 1996. When she isn’t writing or editing, she’s enjoying her seven grandchildren or playing the ukulele. She can be contacted at [email protected]

FMI: Visit Maine Fresh Sea Farms on the web at www.mainefreshseafarms.com.

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