March 2019 is a landmark month for the Hebridean Seaweed company, as they move home just a short distance, and at the same time create a sea-change in the company’s production capability.
The company will stop production at their existing processing plant in Arnish in mid-March, to begin two months moving their production line into a brand-new, purpose-built factory just next door.
The new premises are relatively vast, filling two levels in a covered area of 3,100 square feet. The area includes everything from the super-modern centre for research and administration to a much more traditional concept – a ‘wet area’ with slatted timber walls to let the wind help dry the seaweed.
The £6.9 million development will bring research, production and administration of the company under one roof for the first time, as well as considerably expanding production capacity. The staff team will also expand – from 15 to 26 initially, and potentially further as business grows.
Money’s been contributed to the massive development by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE, £659,000) and by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (£800,000). Managing director Martin Macleod, who founded the company in 2005 with scientific director Malcolm Macrae, says the whole project is the culmination of many years of hard work.
He told EVENTS: “We’ve spent years researching seaweed from the Hebrides, designing, experimenting, establishing markets, so that going forward we have the knowledge and we can reach one of the fastest-growing markets in the world.
“The key is sustainable harvesting, a method proven and certified to be as sustainable as it can be. Seaweed needs no fresh water, no land, no fertiliser and no labour to grow. Harvesting is another matter – it grows in extreme conditions and we have to work in those same conditions. Not many people have to work with a crop which is 80% water when harvested!”
Martin is sure of the sustainability of the crop from his own observation – even before Hebridean Seaweed was founded he worked for 12 years for a seaweed-processing company in Keose. But the history of seaweed use by people goes back much further into history.
“Historically seaweed has been harvested since the monks of Iona, so it really is sustainable if managed correctly,” he explains. “We’re always working on that, moving forward from the days when it was all harvested by sickle and staying within strict parameters that the regulatory bodies set for what is acceptable.”
The result of careful attention to sustainability and production quality is that the company and its products have been certified biodynamic, organic and kosher, approved under FEMAS rules for agricultural use and under SALSA rules to guarantee human food safety.
Some of the seaweeds harvested in small quantities include locally-known specialist foods such as dulse, sugar kelp and bladder wrack. But the main crop is the most common inter-tidal weed in the Hebrides, ascophyllum nodosum, more commonly known as knotted wrack, and full of potential.
“It grows between high and low water on rocky shores and is really unique – it’s one of the only plants that has to be drowned twice a day, and when it is uncovered it faces every extreme from ice and strong winds to baking sun. Because it has to be robust to cope with such extreme conditions it has numerous properties and offers a huge range of potential applications.”
The uses for the fully-processed seaweed include skincare, human and animal food supplements, fertiliser and crop protector. “It can be used as a food supplement, low sodium salt replacement and mineral supplement – it is full of iodine, zinc and other minerals,” continued Martin. “It’s useful for satiety – helping people to feel full. There has been so little research on seaweeds, by comparison to the properties of other plants, that we really are in the forefront of the research here.”
Hence the importance of a research centre within the new factory, which will look at technical processes to extract elements from the processed seaweed in a controllable manner. “The premise has always been to extract as much value as possible out of every tonne of seaweed we process,” says Martin.
The product, which is already shipped all over the world – including as an agricultural supplement to the USA and for horticulture to Germany – has to be harvested, processed and packaged. All this is good news for future employment at Arnish and for much further afield around Lewis.
“We are building the most modern seaweed-processing factory in the world. It’s modern machinery, which is highly efficient, and we have a small carbon footprint. The business itself is sustainable, which is important to the markets where we operate. What’s important to us is to be a company founded in the islands and to be creating an industry which is leading the field.”