Maine Fresh Sea Farms, a startup based on the Damariscotta River, is one of five Maine companies to share $471,571 in Value Added Producer Grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program. The federal grants were awarded in August 2014 to preserve rural jobs at companies that process and add value to agricultural products.
Maine Fresh Sea Farms received $71,673 to help “study the feasibility of delivering fresh aquacultured sea vegetable products to the marketplace using agricultural produce and seafood distribution systems,” in addition to helping it create a business plan, the USDA said. The funds also will help the company retain 21 jobs and create 10 more over the next decade.
To study the products, the company turned to Skonberg, a professor of food science and human nutrition in the School of Food and Agriculture. Skonberg and Nayyar are collecting baseline data on the length of time several species of sea vegetables can be considered fresh while under refrigeration. They also are conducting basic nutritional analyses to help meet nutritional labeling requirements.
Skonberg anticipates the study will provide key information about the nutritional benefits and shelf-life stability of four varieties of sea vegetables that are farm raised in Maine.
“This information will help the newly developing seaweed industry in Maine with marketing their products, and will help them make decisions about how best to harvest, handle, process, store and distribute products to their customers,” Skonberg says. “The results will promote the production of locally sourced, high-quality and nutritious seaweed products from Maine and help in job creation along the coast.”
Throughout the yearlong project, the researchers will look at four species of freshly harvested aquacultured seaweeds — sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), dulse (Palmaria palmata), Gracilaria, and winged kelp (Alaria) — grown on the company’s Clark Cove farm.
Basic nutritional analyses will be conducted on the raw sea vegetables on a wet weight basis — not dried — for use on nutrition labels. Samples of each species will be collected throughout the year during the time period that each would normally be available for harvest and sale. Using standard harvesting and handling procedures, Maine Fresh Sea Farms will transport the vegetables to UMaine where they will be refrigerated and then stored for up to 12 days, or until they are unfit for human consumption. Whole fronds along with a shredded seaweed salad version of three species — sugar kelp, winged kelp and dulse — will be periodically tested for quality.
Although some nutrient data already exist for dried sugar kelp and dulse, it has been shown that growing conditions, region, strain and time of harvest can affect the nutrient profile of sea vegetables, according to Skonberg. The sea vegetables will be assessed for basic nutrient composition — water, fat, protein, total minerals and carbohydrates.
The shelf-life studies will be conducted at two holding temperatures, one close to freezing at 35 F and another at 45 F, which is on the high end of normal holding temperatures.
The researchers will look at how each species performs at different temperatures and forms. Soluble protein content, which has been shown to be a good indicator of quality loss in fresh seaweed, will be monitored through protein analyses, Skonberg says.
An in-house sensory evaluation will be conducted by an experienced panel to assess quality deterioration of the whole fronds and seaweed salad. Panel members will rate aroma, texture, color and overall quality of the samples.
Nayyar has already conducted shelf-life studies on sugar kelp and dulse, and will be starting another shelf-life study on winged kelp this spring. The researchers have found that sensory evaluation, as well as instrumental color and texture were better indicators for assessing shelf life than microbial analyses.
The shelf life studies and basic nutritional analysis should be completed later this year in December.
Maine Fresh Sea Farms also has worked with Maine Sea Grant, the Brawley Laboratory at UMaine, and the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research. One result of the collaborations is Sea Belt, a Scotch Ale brewed by Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast using dried sugar kelp grown at the Damariscotta River sea farm.
In addition to funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program, Maine Fresh Sea Farms won a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research Grant from the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration and has applied for a Phase II. The Maine Technology Institute has provided grant writing assistance and a Business Accelerator Grant.