Sam Wiese, right, and Dave Labbe harvest kelp in Casco Bay for Ocean’s Balance in May 2022. They’re a part of the team that has brought Maine its first industrial seaweed dehydrator, which is predicted to triple the amount of kelp farmers can preserve each year. Photo courtesy of Ocean’s Balance

A 50-foot-long, 17-ton, moisture-sucking machine from South Africa is en route to Brunswick – where the device may allow Maine seaweed companies to triple production and make an international jump of their own.

Ocean’s Balance, a Biddeford 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, predicted to grow 12% annually and reach $30.2 billion by 2027, according to industry analysts.

“This should have a knock-on effect to create more farms or bigger farms and to 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.”

The growth potential of Maine’s seaweed industry has been gaining attention but also has drawn criticism that an increase in farming could damage the marine environment.

Regardless of the impact, increasing seaweed production is pointless if farmers can’t preserve their crops.


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.

“The freezing of seaweed around the world is not a big part of the market overall,” he added.

Drying, Lench 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 a snack.



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.

Lench found that in most dehydrators, sugar kelp would leak a sticky substance and dry unevenly at high temperatures. He hoped someone would come up with a solution, but no one ever did.

“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,” Lench said. “We finally just bit the bullet and said we need to get a dryer if we want this market to move.”

The high-tech dehydrator, shown here while being assembled in South Africa, should be up and running in Brunswick before June. Photo courtesy of Ocean’s Balance

Since making that decision, Ocean’s Balance has moved fast. 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. Setting up the dryer should 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.


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.

Ken Sparta said he and his son, who together began Spartan Sea Farms in Freeport five years ago, have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to preserve their harvest. Sparta has been using a dehydrator at Replenova Farm, which grows vegetables, berries and herbs in Durham. But that machine doesn’t have the capacity or availability that Spartan needs.

“What it’s limited us to is not having the resources that we need to do that (preservation),” Sparta said, adding that he expects the new dehydrator will open up many possibilities for his business.


That’s what Lench is hoping, too. If all pans out for Ocean’s Balance, Maine’s seaweed industry would grow exponentially and, in turn, help the state’s ocean-based economy grow.

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.


Maine is the largest producer of harvested seaweed in the country, ahead of Alaska, which turned out 650,000 pounds last year.

The U.S. seaweed business has bloomed, well, like seaweed.

“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.”


However, the U.S. is merely a blip on the radar of the worldwide seaweed market. More than 97% of the 789 million pounds of seaweed produced in 2019 came from Asia, according to United Nations data.

Lench hopes his machinery’s benefit will extend across the country. He is planning to share the dryer design with companies in Alaska to help them expand their state’s industry, too.

But he 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.

Greg Tobey, left, of Source Inc. and Mitchell Lench of Ocean’s Balance are teaming up on a venture called Seaweed Farmer Services. Behind them is where they plan to install a 17-ton dehydrator, designed to preserve the harvest of Maine’s seaweed producers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In addition to drying the kelp, Seaweed Farmer Services plans to offer processing services, such as milling the seaweed into different forms.

“We don’t view things as being a zero-sum game at this stage of the industry,” Lench said. “The whole idea behind it was to charge reasonable fees to utilize something that we’re not going to be able to utilize (completely) ourselves.”

Local seaweed farmers seem to be excited about how the dryer may help their businesses grow.


“I think it’s gonna be a game-changer for all of us,” Sparta said.

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.

Ocean’s Balance will soon begin drying its own harvest, but the technology’s real test will come in the next harvest season. With other producers using the dehydrator, Lench said, the work will then begin to make Maine a competitor in the global market.

Belle said, “Maine is really the case study at a national level for how … you develop a seaweed aquaculture sector and then how you monetize that sector in the United States.”

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