In Edible-Alpha® podcast #75, Tera interviews Briana Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms, the nation’s first commercial seaweed farm, based in Saco, Maine. Since Briana took the reins in 2018, the company has developed a dynamic mission-based brand around promoting kelp consumption, diversifying the coastal economy and mitigating climate change.
Although nutrient-rich kelp has gained popularity in recent years, Briana explained that 98% of it is grown in Asia, often in dirty water, then dried, imported and sometimes rehydrated and dyed. This includes seaweed salad from sushi restaurants and those seaweed snacks millennials love. Atlantic Sea Farms, on the other hand, is vertically integrated, providing the first U.S.-grown kelp products for foodservice and retail.
The company started out cultivating its own seaweed in Maine’s cold, clean waters but needed a different strategy to scale. Now it contracts a couple dozen local lobster fishermen—who already had the boats, equipment and ocean know-how—to grow kelp on lines in the off-season. Atlantic Sea Farms provides the seeds and training, then, once the kelp is harvested, picks it up at the dock and drives it to its facility to flash-freeze or process immediately. The result is two frozen and three fermented SKUs for retail, plus a foodservice line.
But this business is about much more than crafting nutritious, delicious, sustainable food. As Briana told Tera, the effects of climate change have hit coastal Maine hard, with carbon-driven ocean acidification decimating commercial fishing. The lobster industry has been spared for now, but catches are expected to decline as the ocean keeps changing. Therefore, by building up a market for kelp, Atlantic Sea Farms is helping fishermen to diversify their income now while honing a new skill that’ll keep netting them money if and when lobster collapses.
Along with its economic-development mission, the company also confronts climate change head-on just by planting kelp. This seaweed sucks up carbon from the ocean, making local waters less acidic and benefitting the entire aquatic ecosystem. There’s a social justice piece too. Atlantic Sea Farms pays staff fair wages, supports a healthy work-life balance and gives its farmer partners buying guarantees.
Briana admitted that this massive undertaking, with all its interconnected and moving parts, is a giant experiment. The company is learning every step of the way as it builds an entirely new industry and market in the U.S.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made things any easier. But Atlantic Sea Farms has pivoted where necessary, such as by fast-tracking its national retail launch earlier this year as its foodservice channel got trounced. Briana is grateful to have a solid slate of impact investors who are devoted to the mission and supportive of switching strategies.
While it’s still too soon to tell how well the products will perform at retail, Briana believes the combo of award-winning flavors and clear environmental and social values will elevate Atlantic Sea Farms into a trusted, must-have brand. In doing well by doing good, she hopes to be a model for future kelp operations and other industries.