Monday, May 25, 2015

Parwan Valley Mushrooms Farm Tour

Disclosure: I was invited to visit the mushroom farm by the Australian Mushroom Growers Association

Usually when one refers to a farm, one might get images of beautiful rolling hills and cut green grass, with sunshine, dew and a cloud of breath in the fresh morning air. 

And I’m sure that there are certainly farms like this, with this beautiful romantic vision behind them. However, it was most fascinating to be invited on a mushroom farm tour along with a group of nutrition and dietary science students from Monash and see what farming on a high scale commercial level looked like for this particular industry.

Let’s be honest, it’s not sexy from the outside. We pulled up to Parwan Valley Mushrooms, which is a great big white box, but we’re warmly greeted by Tim, CEO of the farm, who started it in 2012. Tim and all his staff are immensely passionate about their mushrooms, full of fun facts, laughs and stories from when they first started. You can’t fake this stuff people.

So, how do you set up a commercial mushroom farm that churns out 25,000 tonnes of mushrooms a week? I know. Crazy right? 

The factory is made up of 12 huge rooms, which work on 6 week cycles. Every week, 2 rooms are filled with compost (80 tonnes of it) and peat moss which sits underneath the compost and then the rooms are carefully regulated to ensure the optimum growing conditions.

For the first 6-7 days, the newly laid out compost, which has mycelium (which mushroom grows from) are kept cool and dry, so that the mycelium has the optimum amount of time to vegetate before going into the reproductive stage. So not much to see here.

The next week, after this vegetative stage, the room is amped up, and goes into tropical country with the heat and humidity. This encourages the mycelium to start reproducing, growing denser and denser. It starts looking like a spider web wrapping around the compost, and starts to gather and push through the compost layer into the atmosphere. 

Shortly after, the humidity is reduced again… and you start getting what the guys called ‘pins’. The first signs of mushrooms. And gosh darn, they are so cute. Just look at them! I was amazed at how white and clean they come out, despite being surrounded by all of the compost. Tim commented that the mushrooms are so clean and hygienic (and reinforced the fact we shouldn’t be washing our mushrooms before we use them to cook), that he often just eats them off the bed if he’s forgotten his lunch. Pretty convenient!

By day 14, the beds of compost start looking a bit like this, strewn with mushrooms and ready for picking. And man, the pickers make fast work. Each and every mushroom is hand picked, with some of the pickers averaging 1000 mushrooms an hour! That’s 16 to 17 a minute, and it’s not as simple as just yanking them out. A picker has to carefully twist the mushrooms out with their finger tips, ensuring of course first, that they are the right size, and cutting the stem off to the desired length by their clientele, usually doing one sweep of the room for a particular bigger size of mushroom, before doubling back for another round of smaller ones.

And mushrooms grow so fast, they often have to make several passes through the day to keep up! Mushrooms double in size every 24 hours, so they get to be pretty big buggers pretty quickly! 

After the mushrooms are picked clean, they actually get to have another two crops from the compost, although the gains aren’t as big. The first crop will wield around 13,000 tonnes, second crop 8 tonnes, and the third crop, 4 tonnes. Mushrooms that also don’t quite meet the standards of the supermarkets are utilised in other products, such as pre-cut mushrooms, so aren’t wasted. 

The mushrooms are shipped out within 10 hours of harvest, so that they get to the supermarkets as fresh as possible and ready for us to eat!

I loved the system the mushroom factory had going, and the fact that you could really see each stage of the mushrooms growing (something that otherwise might be a bit hard to witness)! 

I find it hard to believe that I hated mushrooms as a kid (but then I think it’s a pre-requisite as a kid to hate vegetables in general), but I’ve definitely grown to simply adore them, and it was lovely to go home with a bag of freshly picked harvest. Mum and I noted how sweet they were when we cooked them that night, with an absolutely lovely and light texture. Certainly makes a difference to get them as fresh as possible!

One other fun fact I learnt on my visit, although I already knew that mushrooms were awesome for you, I was surprised to learn that they can actually be very dense sources of vitamin D. You simply let you mushrooms sun bake for an hour when you bring them home, then while stored away, they actually continue to generate and grow the levels of vitamin D in them. Fascinating little things aren’t they? 

Find out more at the Power of Mushrooms

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