As you drive towards Kilkelly from Kiltimagh, Co.Mayo, you would be forgiven in thinking that the narrow road and surrounding land contained little more than family homes and pastureland.
However, if you follow one of the small byroads off the main route, you will eventually arrive at a number of outbuildings, boasting a large sign that assures you that you have arrived at Sealac - a seaweed production company run by Martin Dempsey.
Held in one of the buildings - which I was later to discover is actually a mill - lays a number of large bags containing dried seaweed, ready for exportation.
Martin - who works as a pig farmer for the Costello Group - explains how the idea was first conceived;
“Billy Costello wanted to take the antibiotics out of the pig business, so we looked to seaweed to do that. We couldn’t find a product that we liked.”
“Every product that we got, we found that it was kind of burned, or as a result of an extraction process, so we dried some seaweed ourselves at a really low temperature and we ended up with a fresh product," Martin added.
Working together, both Martin and Billy spent a year-and-a-half developing their seaweed product. They dry out the seaweed at a twenty-eight-degree temperature, allowing for plastic and other sea pollution to be hand-picked out of the crop from a conveyor belt as it travels towards the mill.
The low temperature is one of the secrets in keeping the seaweed as clean and unpolluted as possible; this method also ensures that there are no minerals or nutrients lost during the drying process.
If higher temperatures are used, sea pollutants get melted down amongst the crop and can end up infiltrating the end product.
Seaweed is widely known for its healthy properties, which is why Martin and Billy first trialled it with the pigs on Billy’s farm. The results were very positive and both of Billy’s Irish pig farms are now completely antibiotic-free.
All the seaweed procured by Sealac comes from the rocky and sheltered shores around the west of Ireland. Hand-cut, the cutters have a short window of about six hours a day to harvest the seaweed as this has to be achieved at low tide.
The company have also developed their own phone app to help the cutters ensure sustainability of the crop.
“The cutters can take a photo of an area, it then logs their GPS. They then cut that area and take another photograph of where they’ve cut.”
“A signal is sent back to us so we can track it on a map and this helps us keep sustainability on the foreshore, sustainability is a big part of what we are doing and to respect the environment,” said Martin.
As business began to grow, more of Martin’s family came on board to help with the seaweed production. Both Martin’s wife Mhairi and two of their four daughters - Rebecca and Jennifer -have joined the company.
Jennifer spent many years working as a pharmacy technician in London before returning home to settle in Mayo. “There are days when we’re all here getting stuck in,” explained Jennifer - who was on hand to give me a tour of the production site.
“Everything has to be weighed out and hand packed individually. We have no machines to do that as we’re still really just a start-up company”.
Sealac has been exporting their seaweed in bulk, to eleven different countries across the world for the past three years including China, Panama and New Zealand, to name a few, and they have further plans of expansion.
The hand-packed product that Jennifer spoke of is called Gut Health Starter and was launched on Friday morning by Aurivo in Westport; this is the Dempsey’s first product for the Irish market.
Certified by FEMAS, the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and IOFGA, it is a supplement for very young bucket-fed calves; a 5g dose added to the replacer is enough to simulate gut health and well-being in very young animals.
Martin Dempsey doesn’t plan to stop there. There are already new products in the works that he hopes to launch into the Irish market in the coming year and increase employment in the local area.
By Marcella Connolly