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April 25, 2023

Called a ‘game-changer,’ dehydrator will handle up to 30K pounds of kelp a day

person with line of kelp COURTESY / OCEAN'S BALANCE Vertically integrated seaweed farmer and food producer Ocean’s Balance in Biddeford is importing an industrial-scale dehydrator to process up to 30,000 pounds of kelp per day.
The massive dehydrator is expected to arrive in Maine at the beginning of May and to be up and running in time for the end of the annual sugar kelp harvest, which runs from March through the end of May. 
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Ocean’s Balance is importing a kelp dryer that it says will be a game-changer for Maine’s seaweed farming industry and could process 30,000 pounds of seaweed in just one day.  

The Biddeford-based company, which makes edible seaweed products, said today that it made a major investment in state-of-the-art drying machinery. Ocean's Balance has also established a new entity called Seaweed Farmer Services, which will dry and mill farmed kelp on an industrial scale.

Applications for the resulting flakes and powders could be employed by pet food manufacturers, cosmetic and nutraceutical companies, and packaged food companies, according to a news release.

Financed by Coastal Enterprises Inc. and Ocean’s Balance, the dehydrator was built in South Africa and is due to arrive in Maine at the beginning of May in time for the sugar kelp harvest.

The price of the machine and name of the manufacturer were not disclosed.

“Demand for Maine-grown seaweed has grown exponentially over the last decade, yet there is a serious bottleneck when it comes to processing this heavy, wet material,” Ocean’s Balance CEO Mitch Lench said in the release. 

Maine’s seaweed industry has been handicapped by a lack of industrial-scale drying capacity, he added.

Hugh Cowperthwaite, CEI’s senior program director for fisheries and aquaculture, said the dryer will significantly advance Maine’s capacity to process and handle more seaweed biomass. 

According to the Maine Aquaculture Association, 1 million pounds of farmed kelp was grown in Maine in 2022 by roughly 36 farmers. Most of the state’s farmed seaweed was frozen. But because kelp is 90% water, the processing, storage and shipping of frozen kelp is considered carbon intensive, and the industry has been exploring ways to dry on an industrial scale. 

Lench said increased drying capacity could provide Maine’s seaweed industry with an environmentally sustainable advantage and position the industry to become a major economic driver for the state. 

Drying on a large scale proved to be a “confounding” challenge given that harvest time is in April and May, when it’s too wet and cold to dry seaweed outside, Lench said.

For the last six years, the company explored dozens of ways to dry seaweed at an industrial scale, from greenhouses to rockweed dryers to off-the-shelf commercial dryers used for other agricultural products.  

“We learned the hard way that it’s impossible to dry kelp outside naturally in April and May at scale,” said Lench. “It has to be automated. Temperatures must be monitored to preserve seaweed’s dense nutritional benefits. Some seaweeds will clog cutting machines if not properly dried. It was a nightmare.” 

Massive dehydrator

After a series of failures, Lench turned to an overseas partner with decades of experience in seaweed. The company agreed to design and build a custom drying machine that can handle a variety of kelps grown in Maine. 

Now completed, the massive dehydrator is expected to arrive in Maine at the beginning of May and to be up and running in time for the end of the annual sugar kelp harvest, which runs from March through the end of May. 

Lench said the company will charge a tolling service to growers to rent the machine for drying and milling services.

“Drying is fast and provides a lightweight product that can be cost-effectively stored and delivered,” Lench said.

person in hat on waterfront
Mitchell Lench.

The machine is expected to offer large-scale drying and milling opportunities for agricultural products beyond seaweed.

Caleb Goossen, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s organic crop and conservation specialist, said there are a wide range of potential applications for industrial-scale drying and milling across Maine’s agricultural sector. 

“I can imagine that a variety of on-land farmers — herb growers, cut flower growers, pepper and fruit growers — would be interested," Goossen said, "and the timing of their harvests would line up very well for drying after the seaweed harvest is over.”

Ocean’s Balance makes a line of seaweed products designed as cooking ingredients, as a topping, or to be eaten out of the bag.

In 2018, Ocean’s Balance expanded to a 3,000-square-foot space in the Pepperell Mill in Biddeford and launched nine new edible seaweed products.

Founded in 2016 by Lench and Tollef Olson, the company’s first product line was a shelf-stable kelp puree in 9-ounce jars for retail and gallon containers for the service industry.

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