New Hope Network writers spoke with certain NEXTY Award finalists to share their stories before the awards were announced in September. Atlantic Sea Farms' Basil Pesto Sea-Veggie Burgers won the NEXTY Award for Best New Product Supporting a Plant-Based Lifestyle.
First, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other body of ocean in the world, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and the state's coastal economy depends almost entirely on one wild fishery: lobster.
Second, 98% of the seaweed consumed in the U.S. is grown overseas, often in compromised waters with questionable labor practices, then shipped across the world to get to our plates.
Saco, Maine-based Atlantic Sea Farms saw an opportunity to launch a new marine industry that helps solve both of these problems: kelp aquaculture. By working with independent partner fishermen farmers to diversify their incomes in the face of climate change—and driving a market on their behalf with innovative products and an entirely new domestic supply chain—Atlantic Sea Farms is actively improving the local food system for both consumers and kelp farmers.
"By making kelp farming a viable opportunity for those already working on the water, we have been able to grow supply in the U.S. by almost 250%," says Chief Marketing Officer Jesse Baines. "Today, we represent more than 80% of the cultivated seaweed production in the country."
For its innovative Ginger Sesame Sea-Veggie Burger, Atlantic Sea Farms is a Natural Products Expo East NEXTY Award finalist in the Best New Frozen Product category and the Best New Product Supporting a Plant-Based Lifestyle category. The brand's Cranberry Kelp Cubes is a finalist in the Best Planet-Forward Product category, as well.
New Hope Network caught up with Atlantic Sea Farms to learn more about its "ocean approved" kelp and how a dedicated community of lobster fishermen and conservationists are working together to improve the local economy—and our planet.
Tell us about your partners. What was the initial community response to Atlantic Sea Farms?
Jesse Baines: Almost all of our partner farmers are lobster fishermen. We also work with other marine businesses, such as mussel farmers and one boat-mooring business. It's really important to work with people who are already set up for success. These are small family businesses with a generational understanding of working on the ocean, and the key infrastructure required to be successful. The response from our local communities here was trepidatious at first, but now that we have shown that kelp farming is not only good for the health of consumers and the ocean—but also good for farmers' pockets—we have a long waitlist of people hoping to join our community.
Explain the difference between Atlantic Sea Farms kelp and the vast majority of kelp that most Americans consume. How is your "ocean approved'' kelp better for the environment and our health?
JB: Ninety-eight percent of the seaweed consumed in the U.S. is grown overseas, and until Atlantic Sea Farms came along, all of it was dried. By offering consumers fresh kelp grown in the reliably clean, cold waters of Maine, we're providing traceability and fresh, nutrient dense seaweed that wasn't available before.
Additionally, by working with fishermen, consumers can see that their purchase is actively improving the health of the ocean and the livelihoods of the people who depend on it. Kelp farming is a diversification strategy in the face of climate change, while also mitigating some of its effects on our local oceans by capturing both carbon and nitrogen, improving the health and balance of the water with every harvest.
A big part of your business model is working with chefs, restaurants, and foodservice organizations. What's a project/partnership you're especially proud of in this realm, and why?
JB: Working with chefs and foodservice organizations is a major opportunity to get more partner kelp farmers into the water and drive more positive impact back to our coast. Right now we are working with a number of universities, most notably the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is famous for its campus dining program. The team at UMass is literally writing the playbook of how to add more fresh, domestic kelp into foodservice programs. They are making amazing menu items with our kelp, like kelp salad with chili crisp, Portuguese seafood sausage stew, and Vietnamese kelp slaw.
What is the single most important message you would like to communicate about Atlantic Sea Farms and your mission?
JB: I want people to know that through innovative, delicious foods we can weave regenerative farming practices and climate activism back into our food systems at scale. The key is putting the reins back into the hands of the people who grow our food.
Why did you choose to enter the Expo East NEXTY Awards competition this year?
JB: While everyone is collectively working on important solutions to climate change and so many of us are wondering where to apply our energies, there is a community of fishermen up in Maine putting their heads down and getting to work. These products are innovative, nourishing and super tasty—but most of all, they are a testament to the good work being done by our amazing partner kelp farmers. I just want more people to know about that.
What would it mean to your team if Atlantic Sea Farms won a NEXTY this year?
JB: So much! We're a small but mighty team up here in Maine, and we continue to innovate and iterate and work our tails off because we want to make a difference. Knowing that others see value in this work is exciting and helps us keep trucking. We know that these first-in-kind products are exactly what consumers are looking for as they make better decisions for their own health, enjoyment and our planet.