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UMaine Today Magazine

Sea veggie savvy
Back to Pleasing Palates-]

Shep Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables
Shep Erhart of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables

Shep and Linette Erhart moved to Down East Maine in the early 70s to homestead, living off the land and an income of $3,000 a year. They did the seasonal work raking blueberries, cutting holiday trees, wreathmaking, carpentry to earn enough money to buy what they couldn't raise. Seaweed imported from Japan, their substitute for meat, was their most costly expense.

That is until one day they were having a picnic at Schoodic Point near low tide. There on the granite rocks at their feet they found seaweed resembling the dried fronds they crumbled into their miso soup for breakfast.

The epiphany that summer day changed their lives.

"It was such a labor of love," remembers Erhart of their start in 1971. "We were saving money and turning our friends on to the healthfulness of seaweed."

The Erharts' first foray into the business world - and into the University of Maine - came in 1975 when the campus hosted the 23rd World Vegetarian Congress. They packaged up dried alaria, kelp and dulse in brown paper bags, made up a name for themselves Maine Coast Seaweeds, which they carefully printed on a wooden plank, and set up a booth at UMaine that weekend.

"That was our launch," says Erhart. 'We were so excited."

Those were heady days for the Erharts because they were such pioneers in sea vegetable production.

"No one (in this country) had done this before," he says. "There was no one to tell us how to sell or dry seaweed. The Internet was not available and there wasn't access to Asian markets (where the process had been going on for years). So we grew the business slowly and organically, one customer and seaweed (species) at a time. And we kept our odd jobs."

The watershed moment came in the mid-'80s. Maine Coast Sea Vegetables outgrew the Erharts' house and relocated to the barn. The first two employees were hired, a husband and wife hired to help harvest and pack, and who worked for the company for nearly two decades.

It was also during this time that the marketplace started changing, Erhart says.

"People were more savvy and asking harder questions, such as what about the proteins of seaweed are assimilable. That's when I would call Al (Bushway).He would go through the literature and send me the research, or tell me how to get it.

"At one point, CNN got hold of us and got excited about seaweed. As part of the segment, they went and interviewed Al. He has the perfect weight needed for that kind of exposure."

While Bushway is on speed dial on Erhart's office phone, others at UMaine also work with Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. Food scientist and Chair of UMaine's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Rod Bushway, Al's brother, has analyzed the active ingredients of seaweed that make it such a "healing food." In 1989, Debra Ahern from the Department published a study about the beneficial effects on hypertension from the seaweed found in MCSV's Sea Seasonings shakers.

In addition, Erhart has worked with marine scientist Susan Brawley, whose research focuses on marine algae.

"At the University, I'm linked with people who have helped me to understand why seaweed is beneficial and to ensure that customers get the scientific answers they're looking for," says Erhart.

Maine Coast Sea Vegetables' product lines expanded and so did the company.

In 1998, the organically certified company moved from Erharts' barn, where one attached shed after another had been added to try and keep up with the growth, to a former salmon farm production facility in Franklin.

Now out of production and shipping space, a purpose-specific facility is on the drawing boards. It will be built on land at the head of Frenchman Bay to be more connected to the water.

"That will be a major step," Erhart says. "We've never worked in a space designed for what we're doing. It will be fantastic. And we'll likely use the university resources for things like building materials and solar heating."

No matter its size, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables remains committed to serving the needs of individual customers. The company has long-since discovered the efficiency of selling "big boxes of little bags" to distributors. Yet Erhart never forgets that filling the direct mail orders of individuals is just as critical to sharing the wonders of seaweed.

"It's about honoring those people who want to know more about their food," he says. "Feeling connected to the source of our food is important to us, and has been all along."

Similarly, Erhart focuses on indigenous seaweeds, avoiding the temptation to import from other parts of the world. "There's more to be sold," he says, "but it doesn't feel right when there's a lot of seaweed here. We just have to educate people that these indigenous plants are good to eat and important for good health."

UMaine Today Magazine
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