August 2016

Seaweed is harvested and processed for use in horticulture and pastoral farming

AgriSea NZ Ltd is a multi award winning family owned and operated, sustainable NZ company, brewing nutrient applications from NZ seaweed, for soil plant and animal heath. AgriSea is committed to the NZ farming community and healthy functioning soil. They have recently embarked on a 3 year research programme to track the transition of high input chemical farms to biological farming methods, the end results of which are intended to produce safe pathways for farmers to transition and further proof of the efficacy of their products.

AgriSea’s products grew from the early research of directors Jill Bradley and Keith Atwood. Travel and research confirmed to them that seaweed held enormous potential for farm health and productivity. French vineyards on the coast, known as the ‘Golden Belt’, have used seaweed fertilizers for centuries and are producing great wines.

“We learned all seaweeds are categorised by colour – green, brown and red, and we knew brown was used overseas in agriculture and horticulture, so we knew we were looking for a brown NZ seaweed ,” Bradley says.

The seaweed of choice has turned out to be the native species Ecklonia radiata (kelp). Seaweed is a very complex material containing most trace elements. Ecklonia has at leas 20 of the known 21 amino acids and a vast range of minerals, trace elements and naturally occurring nutrients that are vital for animal health including zinc, iodine, cobalt, copper and sodium.

AgriSea have many families living in remote coastal areas around the North Island who gather the kelp that is cast up on beaches. They dry it, put it in wool packs and send it to the AgriSea factory in Paeroa. “We have highly skilled people that pick up the seaweed and dry it naturally to protect the vast array of compounds, as many vitamins are destroyed by the high temperatures of kiln dryin,” says Jill.

AgriSea uses a unique, ‘no heat’ process to cold brew their product to preserve the nutrient balance. This allows the natural growth stimulants and micro-nutrients to be released in an active form when the product is used. The seaweed is batch-fermented with a selection of herbal catalysts for up to 90 days. Not all seaweeds are the same and not all seaweeds products are the same, AgriSea products are seaweed concentrates not seaweed extracts.

Research has been at the heart of the company since its inception in 1996, starting with research into the efficacy of AgriSea products, originally for kiwifruit and subsequently moving into viticulture.

Fast forward 20 years and AgriSea have an impressive array of products for the horticulture, agriculture, viticulture, bee keeping and equestrian industries.

Their viticulture products are being used by 60% of vineyards in NZ. In the 90’s Europe wanted sustainable, low residue wines and NZ viticulturalists were quick to respond to market demands and get onboard with more biological farming methods.

“We work closely with our farmers and we listen to them,” says Jill. A couple of newer products in their range were in direct response to farmer requests, for instance a seaweed salt lick for stock and a solid dry product.

Sheep and beef farmers in areas with difficult access and some simply as a preference were wanting a solid product for application. Working with Blue Pacific Minerals, AgriSea developed a liquid seaweed concentrate that is infused into a zealite base. The seaweed concentrate takes 3 months to brew and is stirred by hand with paddles, every day.

Research has been an important component for AgriSea – providing proof of the product efficacy to the end user. “Our responsibility is to do the research to show the efficacy of our product, if we don’t add value to a farming or growing business, we won’t sell to them”, says Jill.

Up until now this research has been outsourced to organisations like the Cawthron Institute and Scion, but times are changing.

AgriSea is presently working with marine scientist Dr Tim Haggitt. Tim led trial research into commercial seaweed harvesting with MPI. The results are promising but also show that harvest needs to be very specific and considered in order to assure the continuing natural abundance of the resource and protection of the coastal eco-system. Part of Tim’s research was to establish if wild sea-harvested seaweed contained more nutrients than beach-cast seaweed.

Jill and the AgriSea team see an urgent need for people to better care for soils. They are passionate about the benefits of biological farming to assure soil health. For AgriSea, biological farming is where the biology of the soil is cared for and encouraged. Jill worries that a lot of present solutions to nutrient leaching, for example riparian plantings, are simply ‘sticking plasters’ to mitigate chemical overload. AgriSea understands that soil needs to be functioning properly and then it has the biological components and physical capability to overcome a lot of stress and to deal with nutrient overload before the nutrients can be leached into waterways.

Jill speaks of ‘biological farming’ as a continuum – high fertiliser input farming systems at one end and the biodynamic/organic systems at the other, with the biological farming system in the middle. She wants to see the significant movement from the high chemical input farming systems towards the middle ground. The benefits are healthier stock, healthier pasture and healthier soils that are better able to recover from drought and a better bottom line for farmers.

About a year ago the family sat down and thought about these goals and made the decision to ‘put their money where their mouth was’. While the majority of research has been conducted by external parties to date, AgriSea has committed to their own 3 year research project – the Soils First Production System.

The research aims to develop a system and track the transition of 6 high fertiliser input farms to biological farming methods over 3 years. The goal is to provide safe and effective pathways for farmers to transition to biological farmimg methods and also provide further proof of the efficacy of the AgriSea products.

The research is being led by Dr Christine Jones, a leading international soil ecologist – known colloquially as the ‘Carbon Queen’.

In an early interview for Rural Delivery, Christine says, “If we get the biology working and we get microbial diversity again in soils, we can use the free CO2, the free sunlight energy, we can stimulate that whole biological process, manage the carbon cycle which is really what we are talking about – managing that cycle for the benefit of farmers to get soils to function the way they have for millennia. I mean soils have functioned without people coming along and putting fertilizer on them before today.”

Christine is presently in the process of relocating from Australia to Paeroa where she has been working with the AgriSea team, setting up the project. They have started the transition on one farm in the Central North Island. The dairy conversion from forestry land has already shown a remarkable 1% increase in carbon sequestration in 8 months and a significant decrease in aluminum.