The company uses seaweed to feed cows and clean rivers

When Tane Bradley was a child, his schoolteacher mother and her partner returned from a working holiday on organic farms, packed up the family and moved south in the name of seaweed. Nearly three decades later, Tane and his wife, Clare Bradley, run the company formerly known as Ocean Organics, now AgriSea, turning the local seaweed species Ecklonia radiata into liquid concentrates. They have just been awarded a $750,000 loan from the Government’s Regional Strategic Partnership Fund. Kate Green reports.

Talk about the use of seaweed in agriculture.

Our products are primarily used in the main industries – horticulture, dairy farmers, apple growers, kiwi orchards and everything that grows.

Seaweed is full of nutrients, growth promoters, amino acids and complex carbohydrates, but not all are created equal. Aotearoa has about 1,000 species.

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Brown cabbages are selected for agriculture. Extraction and fermentation methods ensure that nutrients are used by soil, plants and animals.

Our beekeeping crop was a happy accident. We have observed beekeepers buying one of our dairy cow products to feed their bees while feeding on sugar syrup.

Research has revealed Ecklonia radiata contains bioactives that treat bee parasites and intestinal problems.

Tane Bradley and his son Reef take care of the bees.

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Tane Bradley and his son Reef take care of the bees.

How did AgriSea start?

Tane’s mother and partner started the business in 1996 under Ocean Organics. They were school teachers in South Auckland, and while working on organic farms in the summer, one stood out for its quality – and its main input was seaweed.

They returned and, amazed at the possibilities of seaweed, did serious research. They knew there was already demand, so they sold the house, packed up the van and moved to Paeroa.

Twenty-six years on, long gone are the days when we could drive in a day to see our clients.

From grape growers to beekeepers, we supply industries in the US, Canada, Italy and Australia. Fall sales are up 200% year over year and our recent partnership with Farm Source has increased farmer purchasing.

Currently, there are about 40 employees. We cooked dinner every day of the week, six people around the table. Now we only cook on Wednesdays, but we are still delicious.

Original founders Keith far left and Jill far right, current owners Clare and Tane, center.

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Original founders Keith far left and Jill far right, current owners Clare and Tane, center.

How do you ensure your practices are sustainable?

The environment is our life support system and it fights to support us. There are many times when you can operate under the buy and dump model.

We make sure we never take all the seaweed that washes up because there is another ecosystem that relies on what’s on the beach.

Our local collectors collect seaweed by hand under permission from the Ministry of Primary Industries – this can be a difficult and inconsistent supply chain.

But if we want to have a healthy life support system for future generations, we need to do it in a more rounded way.

Tane, Clare and their team only harvest seaweed sustainably - by hand and never by taking it all at once.

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Tane, Clare and their team only harvest seaweed sustainably – by hand and never by taking it all at once.

Is seaweed good for humans?

We always knew we wanted to make products for people. Everyone thinks it’s going to be fishy enough, and different ways of processing it can make it taste like this – trust us, there have been some bad attempts.

In 2021, we received a high-value nutrition grant to investigate different ways of fertilizing seaweed. We tried a number of different types and narrowed it down to one we thought was just right for the taste.

Brown seaweeds are high in long-chain mannitol sugars, which is why they have a very sweet, almost salted caramel flavor. We think we’ve landed on one that has good iodine but isn’t too strong.

We all drink seaweed ourselves as a family – our three kids always knew we were not allowed to drink juice without seaweed.

These are particularly rich in sulfated polysaccharides, which are complex carbohydrates typical of brown kelp. The formulation is now being developed for consumer testing at the University of Otago.

Through a process of trial and error, Clare and Tane, pictured, think they've landed on one that contains good iodine but doesn't taste too strong.

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Through a process of trial and error, Clare and Tane, pictured, think they’ve landed on one that contains good iodine but doesn’t taste too strong.

What’s next?

Currently, we primarily use one type of seaweed, but there are thousands to discover. The opportunities are vast, not just for AgriSea, but for Aotearoa New Zealand and our economy.

Seaweeds do not have a root system, they get food by absorbing them from the water. We are working on a never-before-seen bio-remediation project, pumping water from the Waihou River through a special seaweed pond system.

It absorbs nitrogen phosphorus and makes the water cleaner. The seaweed can then be turned into fertilizer for farms.

Our new range of animal supplements has won the Fieldays Innovation award as the first product for dairy cows to reduce their levels of oxidative stress, a major cause of disease and nitrogen excretion, which can greatly benefit our water quality.

Tane and Clare say AgriSea's recent win at Hi-Tech Māori Company of the Year is a credit to their team, whānau and partners.

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Tane and Clare say AgriSea’s recent win at Hi-Tech Māori Company of the Year is a credit to their team, whānau and partners.

We have also teamed up with a local distillery in Wellington, Southward Gin. Seaweed has been a great way to remove the drying components in gin. They released dry vodka and are working on whiskey.

Winning Hi-Tech Maori Company of the Year was a tribute to our team, whānau and partners – getting the words ‘seaweed’ and ‘hi-tech’ in the same sentence is just the start.

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