Making mushrooms-in-a-box

A Fraser Valley mushroom entrepreneur hopes to teach circular ecology with grow-your-own shroom kits made from reused materials.

Several varieties of mysterious fungi can take up residence in an old chicken barn. Gourmet blue oyster mushrooms are not usually one of them. But Kyle Born’s mushrooms and chicken barns are a bit different.

Born’s mushrooms—oysters in pink and blue, puffy white lion's mane, and golden brown chestnut, all carefully cultivated in a renovated barn on his family’s farm—won’t be sold in farmer’s markets or grocery stores. Instead, their spores will go into mushroom-growing kits for people to grow at home.

Born, the co-founder of Circular Harvest and one of the minds behind the mushroom kits, said they can demonstrate an important ecological lesson. 

“We came across gourmet mushrooms and realized that they tell the story of the circular economy really, really well,” he said. 

Like the Abbotsford barns they’re growing in, the mushroom kits are part of an effort to get value from reusing waste—or form a circular economy. It’s a lesson that Born, armed with boxes and boxes of little shippable mycelium networks, wants to share.

FVC: What sent you down this path—of not just growing gourmet mushrooms, but producing kits that people can grow at home with?

KB: I had met my business partner at the University of Waterloo and we had studied environment and business there. We were studying the intersection between environmental stewardship, and basically how to run a business. We were both entrepreneurial in nature, and both interested in the circular economy—or how to create value from what would otherwise just be underutilized wastes, and we wanted to implement that into agriculture more. 

We came across gourmet mushrooms and realized that they tell the story of the circular economy really, really well. They're natural decomposers in forest ecosystems. And so we thought about what the circular economy [means] to the greater public, then about an opportunity to grow your own mushrooms at home and [help people] to better understand that natural decomposition process, while using a product that was made from waste sources.

FVC: What is that waste, and where does it come from?

KB: We source hardwood sawdust from a mill in Chemainus on Vancouver Island. It's just their leftovers after they're done doing what they do, and we source soybean hulls, or the casing of the soybean which is a waste product of the soy farm business in the prairies. And we combine those to make the mushroom kit. 

FVC: I'm assuming that you add the spores to the waste material? Or are they already in there?

KB: So we first sterilize the growing medium to kill all of the competing organisms. And then we add the spores into the bags. And within about a couple of weeks, the mycelium has fully expanded its network in the bank. As soon as you expose it to oxygen, then that's its signal to start to fruit.

FVC: I think my knowledge of growing things is limited to things that come from seeds.

KB: It's quite similar to seeds. But just a little different. Mushrooms are their own kingdom. There's the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom and the fungal kingdom as well. So they're different—and actually more like people than they are like plants.

FVC: Why do you say that?

KB: Plants are able to create their own energy from the sun. And we as humans…we don't create our own energy from the sun, we have to consume food. It’s the same with mushrooms: they need to consume some kind of food in order to grow. 

They do need light to grow towards, and to get color in their caps. So I like to say, if you let a mushroom fruit in a completely dark room, it's gonna look pretty weird. It's going to grow in all different kinds of directions, it's just not going to have any color. And the same thing goes with a human. If you put them in a dark room for their whole life, they would grow up pretty weird, not have any color and not be overly happy either.

FVC: Do you grow the mushrooms yourselves? Like, on a farm somewhere and take the spores to make the mushroom-kids? Or how does that work?

KB: So we repurposed old poultry barns that were just sitting shells. We took out the infrastructure and cleaned it up and turned it into a gourmet mushroom farm. And the mushrooms that we grow, we continually take new spore prints. That’s kind of like the mushroom having a baby. It's an entirely new genetic code, essentially. That allows for a new generation of mushrooms to thrive.

FVC: Do you grow mushrooms to sell commercially as well?

KB: We do primarily mushroom kits. And we do grow our own mushrooms at our farm, but not to sell fresh. We make our own frozen mushroom food products. So we deliver our mushrooms to a chef and they prepare them in their commercial facility. We pick them up afterwards and we sell them at different stores.

FVC: Do you imagine the circular economy of using waste in this way, and putting it into kits for people to grow mushrooms at home, being a replacement for commercially grown mushrooms? Or is it more of a learning opportunity?

KB: We’ve marketed them as more of a learning opportunity, to learn not only about the circular economy, but about how our food is grown. I had no idea how mushrooms grew before I did my own kit. I had been buying mushrooms from the store my whole life…It’s also as a way to learn about these more exotic, specialty mushrooms that you typically don't see in a grocery store.

FVC: You mentioned the old poultry farm that you renovated. The website says that’s your family’s farm. What do they think about your new direction for their old farm?

KB: My Opa built these barns back in the 70s. It started off as a poultry farm, and we kind of gave it new life as a mushroom farm. It's definitely always been encouraged to better utilize them in an agricultural manner. I’m kind of following in their footsteps, but just in a different way.

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- Tyler, Joti, and Grace.


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