A Mushrooming Social Enterprise
Adam Sayner, 29, has always been interested in sustainable food production and foraging for food. His particular passion is mushrooms, “there’s something other worldly about them.” So, when he left Sussex University in 2009 with a degree in Ecology, it seemed a natural step to set up a mushroom growing enterprise. He could not have predicted what would happen next, or how his simple mushroom cultivation idea would start growing beyond his wildest dreams…
Sustainable food production
“Compared to other countries in Europe, the UK is pretty mushroom-phobic,” says Adam. “I’m not sure why, maybe it’s linked to our folklore and a general fear of eating mushrooms. But, many types of mushrooms, particularly the gourmet varieties, are delicious and full of protein. And, they can be cultivated without huge resources of land or water, which fits in with my principles on sustainable food production. So, when I finished my degree I thought I would like to start growing some of these varieties and supplying to local restaurants and gourmet food shops.”
Attracted by the Transition Town movement, which is all about strengthening the local economy and reducing dependence on fossil fuels, Adam moved from his native Sussex to Totnes in South Devon and set up his business in a small unit in nearby Dartington.
“Initially I grew five varieties of gourmet mushrooms – Shitake, Lions Mane, two kinds of Oyster and Pioppino. I was soon supplying to a range of local restaurants. It was a steep learning curve to keep up with demand and produce consistently good results. I was working seven days a week, I wasn’t making much money and I realised I was in danger of burning out.”
Adam realised that something had to change. “I made the decision to stop producing fresh mushrooms and, instead, used all of the knowledge I had gained to develop my own range of grow kits so that people could produce their own gourmet mushrooms. It worked really well.”
A Eureka! moment
However, it was in the Summer of 2011 that Adam had his Eureka! moment.
I was researching how I could improve the grow kits and I came across the idea of growing on coffee grounds, a technique that was being pioneered in America. It was this idea that was to change my business beyond all recognition.
The problem with conventional approaches to mushroom growing is that they require costly equipment to set up and considerable resources to run. The mushrooms are cultivated either on sawdust or straw, which has to be sterilised before use to kill any spores that would compete with the mushroom spawn for food. Huge pressure cookers are used to do this, which are both costly to buy and require considerable energy resources to run.
“The benefit of using coffee grounds,” explains Adam, “is that they contain plenty of Lignin, Cellulose and Calcium, which is what the mushrooms feed on. They have already been sterilised when they go through the coffee making process so, providing you use them within 24 hours, they don’t have to be sterilised again. And, they are a waste product that would, otherwise, end up in landfill. In every respect, growing mushrooms in this way made perfect sense to me.”
According to the UK Coffee Association, more than 80 million cups of coffee are drunk every day in the UK and there are around 16,000 cafes. That’s a lot of coffee grounds… and a huge potential supply of mushroom compost.
Grown on coffee grounds
In 2011, Adam set up Fungi Futures, a social enterprise with the aim of developing the idea of growing gourmet mushrooms on coffee grounds. He emailed nearby Schumacher College, which runs courses on sustainability, to ask for volunteers to help him. The email caught the attention of Eric Jong, 36, a former Supply Analyst for Exxon Mobil, who had quit the pressurised corporate life to pursue a more fulfilling career in sustainable food production.
Eric explains: “I graduated with a Masters in Finance from Maastricht University in 2002 and went on to work for ExxonMobil and then EDF Energy. I was a Portfolio Optimisation specialist and then I went into fuel procurement, negotiating quarter of a billion pound contracts for power stations across the UK. My wife was a magazine editor. We lived in London and lived a fast-paced life, earning and spending a lot of money. We were on the train by 7.15am daily and rarely got home before 8pm. At first it was exciting but, after a few years, I started looking up the food chain at my bosses and thinking ‘this is not the way I want to be.’ By 2007 we’d had enough. We both quit our jobs and went travelling. We were away for three years.”
During this time, the couple volunteered with Willing Workers on Organic Farms, gaining experience of food production in Australia and India. By 2011, they were back in the UK and spent six months working on an organic farm in Wales. “In Holland, the concept of a care farm, which gives work to people with mental health issues or who are on the fringes of society, is well-established. There are more than 1,000 of them. I was interested in the idea of setting one up over here and enrolled at Schumacher College so that I could formalise my training in sustainable farming,” says Eric.
When Eric saw Adam’s email requesting volunteer help, the idea immediately gripped him. “I liked the simplicity of the concept and the fact that it was being run as a social enterprise.” Eric started volunteering at Fungi Futures… and never left.
New director, new direction
“Eric had a part-time job when he started working with me,” says Adam. “We found that we got on really well and, when his job came to an end, I offered to make him a Director of the company. He became joint Director of Fungi Futures in April 2012. The fusion of Adam and Eric’s experience began to take the business off in a new and unexpected direction.
We started exploring the idea of creating a network of urban farms across the UK growing gourmet mushrooms. Our vision is to have an urban farm in every city, where there is both the demand for gourmet mushrooms and a ready supply of coffee grounds to use as compost. The urban farms will give employment and training to people who might, otherwise, struggle to get a job.
The first urban farm
Fungi Futures has been developing its business model for urban farms over the last 18 months and plans to open its first one in Exeter in Autumn 2013. It has teamed up with Exeter-based charity, Exeter Community Initiatives (ECI), which runs community-based projects in the city. Together, they have secured premises right in the heart of the city shopping centre.
We are setting up in an empty office block right opposite John Lewis,” explains Eric. “The only way that shoppers on the street outside will realise that this is a farm is if they look up at the windows. Instead of the usual office paraphernalia, they will see huge bags of coffee grounds suspended from a metal framework on the ceiling, with mushrooms sprouting from them.
Spreading the word
In addition to creating its first urban farm, Fungi Futures is spreading the word about growing mushrooms in coffee grounds by providing training courses and do-it-yourself growing kits. “The training courses confirmed a hunch that we had that lots of different types of people would be interested in this concept – from retired people looking for a new hobby, through to corporate high fliers wishing to quit the rat race and young 20-somethings with an interest in sustainable food production,” says Adam.
The company also offers what it calls the GroCycle Workshop, which is a set of educational resources supplied to community groups to enable them to run their own training session on growing mushrooms using coffee grounds. “This has been very popular with all kinds of different charities, community groups and social enterprises.”
Reducing food miles to food metres
Eric says: “The urban farms work sustainably on so many different levels. They bring unused urban spaces back into productive use, they cultivate a crop that can be used locally – reducing food miles to food metres – they re-use a waste product that would, otherwise, go to landfill, and they provide employment and commercial training for local people who might, otherwise, struggle to find work.”
Initially, the urban farm in Exeter will produce around three tons of mushrooms for every 10 tons of coffee grounds. The grounds themselves will come from local coffee multiples, which are able to supply the sort of quantities needed. “Each of our smaller growing bags contains coffee grounds from around 100 cups of coffee. So, somewhere like Starbucks, which sells around 1,000 cups of coffee per day, is the ideal supplier for us. On our urban farm, we will be growing in larger bags, equivalent to 1,000 cups of coffee.”
The company is now researching the potential to use its spent compost as a potential soil improver or biofuel.
Scaling the idea up
Like the mushrooms themselves, the business continues to spread as new ideas and approaches sprout from the fertile minds of Adam and Eric. “Providing we can find a market for them among local restaurants and food shops, there is no reason why the urban farms cannot continue to expand and employ more people. Our interest is in scaling the idea up and involving as many other people as we can so that the business model can be made to work in different ways. There are a few other companies in the world experimenting with growing mushrooms in coffee grounds but, as far as we are aware, we are the only social enterprise working to spread the idea in this way. In the future, it would be great to have an urban farm in every large city in the UK..”
Mushroom growing kits are available from www.grocycle.com You can also find details here on the courses in Growing Mushrooms from Waste and the community GroCycle Workshops.