Seaweed company AgriSea New Zealand knows a lot about adversity, so perhaps it was par for the course that dairy prices plunged just as the business reins were handed to the founders' kids.
Pasture and animal nutrition for the dairy industry was a mainstay of the Paeroa-based business, so the 2015 dairy downturn was a gut punch for Tane and Clare Bradley, who had just taken over the daily running of the family-owned company.
They had to let go nine of their 30 staff and close a seaweed brewing and fermenting plant in Gisborne. Tane Bradley still gets queasy recalling those days.
But when your product has been called "snake oil" by a then-prominent soil scientist and your family has fought every inch of the way for more than 20 years to win the confidence of the country's agriculture, horticulture and viticulture sectors, you don't fold under pressure.
Far from crippling AgriSea, the dairy downturn taught it to run - faster and in more directions.
When the young couple put the books under a microscope, they realised beekeepers were buying AgriSea's organic seaweed product intended for livestock, to add to bees' sugar water feed when they removed honey from the hive.
When they are under environmental pressure that reduces their nutrients, honey bees need protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, fats and minerals to survive and thrive.
Unbeknown to AgriSea, some Waikato and Wairarapa beekeepers - and their bees - had been finding AgriSea's organic product just the supplement they needed.
The young couple got a biochemist from Auckland University to help them refine the product for bees, a $74,000 Callaghan Innovation grant in 2017 to formally trial the product for hive health, and launched AgriSea Bee Nutrition.
Today this bee product contributes 15 per cent of the company's total revenue. It is being exported to Australia for the second year and there is some market testing in the US.
There's now friendly rivalry among those pioneering beekeepers over who was the first to stumble on the product, says Clare Bradley.
But even more exciting than the new product was the Callaghan grant, she says.
"It was a big step for us. Until then, everything we'd done [in R&D] had been self-funded. We'd knocked on many doors without success.
"That period was really tough on us but it actually made us much smarter."
That self-funded research includes $1 million-plus for a decade-long project on the ecological effects on the marine coastal ecosystem of harvesting the seaweed species Ecklonia Radiata, AgriSea's main resource. It is harvested from remote East Coast and Northland beaches by contracted local residents.
Now the company is preparing the final report on the research scientist's work for Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash.
The report suggests a safe management framework for seaweeds under the quota management system to enable a long term, sustainable seaweed industry to flourish for New Zealand, says Tane Bradley. But it has to go to the minister before being publicly released.
At present, only one seaweed species is allowed to be harvested under quota management, but it's not AgriSea's preferred type.
Today, with staff numbers back to 30-plus, AgriSea is in growth mode.
And seaweed as a biostimulant to support sustainable farming is becoming a "huge growth phenomenon" overseas, says Clare Bradley.
Biostimulation involves the modification of the environment to stimulate existing bacteria. AgriSea, which began as a cottage business brewing certified organic seaweed products for home gardens, and seaweed creams and soaps, has never claimed to be a fertiliser maker, but has marketed itself as an organic supplement provider for soil, animal and plant health. Growing international research on the sector has resulted in the "biostimulant" label.
"It's a different mode of action [from fertiliser]. It stimulates the natural process through soil microbes in plants rather than adding a nutrient," she says.
AgriSea claims to be New Zealand's leading biostimulant input manufacturer and the single biggest investor in research in this field. It also makes a wide range of products under its Ocean Organics brand for gardeners and personal health. The company devotes more than $200,000 each year to R&D.
Recently the business moved from a cluster of small buildings in a Paeroa back street to the 20 hectare former Silver Fern Farms processing site on the main road south of Paeroa.
It was a big financial step for the Bradleys, who declined to share annual revenue figures, but say the company is turning a profit after losses in the dairy downturn, which means they can forge on with expansion plans.
These include developing the cosmetic and human nutraceuticals side of the business which has never been marketed, taking on more staff and brewing more product.
Meanwhile, there are several ongoing research projects with farmers to prove the effectiveness of seaweed in sustainable farming, including one that Tane Bradley calls a "game changer".
With a Callaghan Innovation fellowship grant of about $90,000 over three years, the company is supporting a study by a Lincoln University PhD student to test AgriSea's animal nutrition Ecklonia seaweed formula on ruminant animals, along with a new product containing terrestrial plants as well as seaweed.
One year in, the findings from student Matt Beck and AgriSea's own in-house research using dairy cows are hugely exciting, says Tane Bradley - enough so for Beck to present a short seminar at the recent Fieldays.
"There were multiple benefits for animal health - weight gain and reduced oxidative stress - but the biggest thing is a reduction in methane, an 18 per cent reduction in urinary nitrogen and a 12 per cent reduction in carbon emissions."
In his presentation, Beck said Ecklonia Radiata contained phlorotannins which had been shown to provide antioxidant and environmental protection benefits to ruminants. The sea vegetable also contained complex carbohydrates which acted as probiotics. Through fermentation, new bacteria were created which had a probiotic effect.
These results were obtained using a tiny amount of the supplement, say the Bradleys, noting that there has been increasing international attention and research on marine seaweeds for their potential to reduce animals' methane output.
"This is showing the farmer gets the benefit of increased body condition score and better animal productivity at the same time as reducing their environmental impact - an 18 per cent reduction in urinary nitrogen is like reducing your cow numbers by 18 per cent," says Clare Bradley.
The findings have yet to be peer reviewed and AgriSea is working to protect them as its intellectual property.
Dairy company Fonterra has expressed interest and the Bradleys are hoping to get the attention of the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium.
AgriSea is starting to be taken seriously.
The country's largest farmer, state-owned Landcorp/Pāmu Farms, is trialling its product on one of its central North Island farms.
And in a left-field use of AgriSea's waste seaweed, Crown Research Institute Scion is investigating seaweed for use in nano-cellulose crystals to make high tensile strength, lightweight fibre for use in items where heat needs to be dispersed or reduced - such as batteries, phones, aircraft interiors and computers.
Scion research leader Dr Stefan Hill says AgriSea is a consultant in the $1m, MBIE-funded, three-year research programme.
The company is also involved in a $13m Waikato University algal biotechnology research project in the Bay of Plenty, investigating commercial applications for seaweed.
The Bradleys hope this project will be a step towards their dream of farming seaweed in land-based facilities to extract nitrogen runoff from sea and river water. With sea levels rising and millions of dollars having to be spent on stopbanks, the time is right for land farms where the seaweed cleans and filters nitrogen and other contaminants, they say.
Meanwhile, Clare Bradley has students doing market research on Chinese demand for seaweed nutraceuticals. After learning older Chinese preferred their health supplements in liquid form, AgriSea has made a range of teas. But it seems China's youth likes pills or capsules better and the research for a target market in China continues.
The company has done nothing over the years to market a range of seaweed and herbal hydrating creams and soaps it started making more than two decades ago. But that's about to change with a concentrated push in the next two years.
AgriSea has come a long way since 2012, when Tane Bradley's mother Jill Bradley firmly declared to the writer that the company she founded with husband Keith Atwood would be "mainstream" by 2015.
Back then, "organic" was still almost a dirty word to farmers strongly influenced by the deep-pocketed marketing of the synthetic compound fertiliser and mineral industries. About 98 per cent of AgriSea's target farmer market was not organic. But with farmers under pressure to farm more sustainably, Jill Bradley was confident AgriSea's research would soon get its mainstream acceptance.
She and Atwood were qualified teachers, working with at-risk kids in Auckland, when they set off in the early 90s to explore organic farming.
They came across a farm in Hawke's Bay which used seaweed as its major input. The farm had no disease despite it being a fungal summer when they visited, and "the healthiest sheep I've ever seen", recalls Jill Bradley, who chairs the Seaweed Association of New Zealand.
The couple returned to Auckland and researched seaweed use, discovering that there were 900 species in New Zealand waters and that brown seaweed was commonly used in agriculture and horticulture overseas, but hardly at all here.
The problem was that there were dozens of brown seaweed types, so the only way to determine the best sort for New Zealand soil was to start brewing in their backyard shed at Ōtāhuhu.
Gardening clubs began stopping by and an award-winning Waikato rose grower became a regular customer.
Word spread and in response to demand, the family leased an old grain silo at Ngatea in the Waikato to brew, then moved into a 100-year-old former butter factory at Paeroa in 1999 when they outgrew that.
Ocean Organics was born. Then came a second company, AgriSea New Zealand.
The seaweed is brewed in big tubs of water along with secret herbal and plant ingredients known only to Tane and Keith, in a sort of giant teabag called a "fadge", stirred once a day and never allowed to rot.
The company believes it is the only manufacturer in the world that doesn't apply heat to its brews.
AgriSea might have crossed the line into mainstream, but acceptance has come slowly - and in at least one scientist's case, not at all.
In 2009, when the company won the Waikato Sustainable Business Award, soil scientist Dr Doug Edmeades was highly critical, calling its soil product "snake oil".
"No, I haven't changed my mind", Edmeades told the Herald this week.
His opinion is based on a review he did in 2002 on the efficacy of seaweed, based on the results of 15 products used in 543 trials on pasture, crops and animal production. The products had no effect, he said.
"I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary [since], but I haven't really been following the literature closely. My mind remains open. If there are new results, I'd love to see them," says Edmeades, a former AgResearch scientist who these days has his own consultancy AgKnowledge.