How an Indoor Mushroom Company is Cultivating a Better Food System – Food Tank

Four Star Mushroom (FSM), a Chicago-based mushroom company, is using controlled environment agriculture to decentralize food systems in urban areas. After its first three years of operation the company is undergoing a major expansion and hopes its new facility will help connect even more people to nutrient-dense, locally grown mushrooms.

Joe Weber launched FSM in 2019 to address the growing environmental concerns associated with traditional agriculture. Weber envisions future food systems that integrate technology and production methods to prevent further ecological collapse. In addition to their environmental benefits, mushrooms boast broad culinary applications. Now, FSM is responsible for supplying gourmet mushrooms to over half of the city’s Michelin Star restaurants across Chicago, including the famous Alinea.

“The goal of this facility is really to bring people in and teach them about mushrooms, the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) process, and how their local food system can work for them,” Weber tells Food Tank.

With CEA, producers can vertically stack mushroom blocks, allowing them to be more space-efficient. The upgraded high-yielding facility, still under development, will be between 3,048 and 4,572 square meters and will be capable of producing 900 to 4,500 kilograms of high quality mushrooms per week. Their current facility is just 550 square meters.

“People are starting to become more conscious about the role fungi can play in our society to help us with issues surrounding climate change, sustainability, toxic waste buildup, mental health, agriculture, and more,” Justin Hyunjae Chung, an agriculture technologist specializing in specialty mushroom cultivation, such as Food Tank.

An analysis published in Food & Nutrition Research finds fungi to be an important source of micronutrients and bioactive compounds. Incorporating mushrooms into dietary patterns can address nutritional gaps, such as shortfalls in potassium, Vitamin D, and choline, without influencing overall calories, sodium, or fat.

Weber notes that he saw consumer appreciation for mushrooms increase after the release of the documentary “Fantastic Fungi” in 2019. And with growing public interest, Chung has observed an expansion of the amateur mycologist and cultivator community. “There are a lot more people growing at home or within their community as agriculture continues to trend towards decentralization,” Chung adds.

According to Weber and Chung, CEA for mushroom cultivation is relatively new. But the use of CEA allows producers to grow mushrooms to a client’s exact specifications.

FSM’s new facility will have 17 individual grow rooms that can be controlled with precision. Controlling growing conditions such as oxygen, temperature, humidity, and light produce different observable traits. The alteration of size and structure allows cultivators to influence a mushroom’s flavor profile. Weber is excited to build out a roster of “lesser known and lesser grown” mushroom varieties, such as Black Pearl and Lion’s Mane mushrooms, for example.

While indoor cultivation offers consistent year-round production, the initial upfront costs can pose a large barrier to entry.

Chung also says One of the most important aspects of mushroom cultivation is contamination management. The invisible enemy, such as airborne spores or bacteria, can be a source of competition for mycelium so it’s crucial to design the farm in a way that limits contamination.”

According to a report on CEA by the James Hutton Institute, CEA shows promise for a more accessible, sustainable food supply. In urban settings, CEA can reduce food miles and fossil fuel emissions associated with food transportation. Minimizing the distance between sites of production and consumption results in fresher, more nutrient-dense produce, wards off spoilage, and can ultimately prevent food waste. And compared to traditional agriculture, CEA operations depend less on agrochemicals and irrigated water.

But CEA requires more energy than conventional agriculture—a key rebuttal to CEA’s positive environmental potential. Energy usage varies with technology, but the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting systems essential to mushroom cultivation are energy intensive. Supporters of CEA see room to integrate renewable energy sources to offset this dependency.

One of the most potentially sustainable aspects of mushroom cultivation is its waste management. Mushroom cultivation not only recycles agricultural waste—its byproduct is a valuable resource.

Agricultural and industrial waste can be used as substrate—the material mushroom mycelium grows upon. Currently, FSM upcycles soybean hulls and red oak sawdust as substrate but would like to include more waste streams in the future. Weber tells Food Tank, “We view ourselves as a recycling company, where we’re taking these agricultural waste streams upcycling them to create a high quality product.”

Weber’s intention is for FSM’s model to be completely circular. He tells Food Tank, “The long-term goal of Four Star Mushrooms actually centers around soil creation and regenerative agriculture at scale, because the only way to fix the food system is to fix the ecosystems.” When added to soil, spent substrate amends it and sequesters carbon. Mycelium also has the power to restore ecosystems by bioremediating sites from heavy metals and hydrocarbons. Mushroom waste even has significant biofuel applications.

Weber predicts that Chicago may even be a hub for a flourishing CEA industry. Chicago’s proximity to Lake Michigan provides a steady supply of fresh water, a critical input for mushroom cultivation (as mushrooms are 80 percent water) and CEA in general. He explains to Food Tank, “There’s a lot of potential in Chicago because of its geographic location next to water, and because it has this deep history of food production.” He continues, “I think it’s going to be a game changer and people are going to see what’s possible with controlled environment agriculture.”

The new space will also boast a full commercial kitchen for research and development, private and public event opportunities. In the next three years, FSM hopes to be completely plastic free by swapping polypropylene bags for biodegradable ones. In the long term, FSM hopes to scale nationally across both foodservice and retail outlets.

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Photo courtesy of Thanh Soledas, Unsplash

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