New workshop hopes to inaugurate a new generation of Kelp processors

Some 20 aspiring kelp entrepreneurs got hands-on experience on Thursday processing ribbon and sugar kelp in a few different ways. Some are involved in pilot growing programs scattered around the Alaska coast, some are involved in recently opened farms- all of which are convinced that they are slicing, grinding, brining and freeze drying the crop of the future.

Chris Sannito is an Alaska Sea Grant seafood technology specialist, and is one of the instructors for the workshop.

“I think it’s very early in the game here. I think other parts of Alaska are still in their infancy as far as processing and growing kelp. We’ve had a few seasons under our belt. So I think the growing side of it, they’ve got it down,” Sannito said.

Sannito’s three-day workshop began Wednesday at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, and features a mix of classroom work and hands-on processing.

While Alaska seaweed farmers may have some meaningful experience under their belt, that doesn’t mean that it’s arrived at the cash crop status that some may have expected. The seaweed market is still relatively small, and with only a handful of brands selling a small catalog of Alaska seaweed products, there is still some more market development to be done. That’s what Sannito hopes this workshop will do.

“Part of the workshop is going to be giving the participants their own tools and kind of latitude to create value added products. You know, we’ve already experimented with some commercial products like kelp tortillas with the help of taco Loco and Anchorage. And by making a dried kelp material, participants can experiment with their own value added product forms, and you know, around the state, for years, entrepreneurs have been using kelp to get products in the marketplace, and some have been fairly successful,” Sannito said.

That entrepreneurial spirit has certainly motivated some of the attendees, such as Sean Denadel, a kelp farmer from Cordova.

“There’s definitely other companies already doing those products and I think there’s still opportunity to make more so or make similar products. So yeah, just experiment and see what we can do with it. I’m excited to see what everybody else here is going to create,” Denadel said.

Sannito says the workshop was the first of its kind in Kodiak. There have been others held for aspiring growers during recent years, but this is the first to focus on kelp processing. Alaskans were giving priority as attendees, and the class was capped at 20 participants.

As for where the kelp market will go, it’s not yet clear. But a recently discovered feature of kelp has Chris Sannito anticipating a boom in demand.

“One of the exciting projects going on is introducing kelp into agriculture feed. And we’ve got a project where some of this kelp harvested this year will be introduced as a food component in pork farmers, which will apparently change the microflora in the animal’s digestive tract and lead to less gas production and better absorption of nutrients from the animal,” Sannito said.

While Alaska’s seaweed production is still a very small part of the global market, aquatic farm harvest has ballooned from 18,000 lbs in 2017 to over 440,000 lbs in 2020. And active farm sites in Alaska are set to double to eight in 2022.

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