Mushrooms can be green too!

Premier Mushrooms, one of the top growers in the country, incorporates environmental practices

Once considered “food for the gods” by the Romans. Egyptian Pharaohs forbid commoners to eat mushrooms, saving these delicacies for themselves. By the late 1800’s, mushrooms were being cultivated in the United States, in Pennsylvania, as a side crop.

Today, Americans enjoy over 750 million pounds of mushrooms each year. Northern California is home to one of the countries top growers, Premier Mushrooms, a five-year old company based in Colusa, California, that produces close to 11 million pounds of white, crimini and portobello mushrooms annually.

With a strong focus on a Triple Bottom Line (a measure of business’s sustainability that incorporates People, Planet, Profit), Premier Mushrooms began incorporating environmentalism as part of its business practices about a year ago, said CEO John Ashbaugh.

“Most mushroom farms are generally pretty green to begin with,” he said.

Ashbaugh took a tour of the Sierra Nevada Brewery and was impressed with what they were doing – particularly with their solar panels and anaerobic digester. It sparked some ideas of what he could bring to Premier.

They’d already been involved in composting and had begun looking at ways to utilize their waste stream.

Ashbaugh’s next key step was bringing Kevin Foley on board, Foley, a recent graduate of Chico State’s Net Impact program, a program focused on social responsibility, nonprofit management, and environmental sustainability in business, was soon documenting everything that needed to be measured and eco-managed.

And results started to show.

Within three months, Ashbaugh said, the company had diverted and baled a significant amount of plastic – well beyond its usual levels. Along with regular recycling, they now started measuring how much water they use, a key factor in the mushroom process. All the residual water from their growing process is reused for composting, which has allowed Premier Mushroom to become a zero-discharge facility.

By reusing its residual mushroom growing water, Premier Mushroom is a zero-discharge facility

Composting is a large part of what Premier Mushroom does.

All the major ingredients that go into the process are composted. These include cottonseed meal (a byproduct), gypsum board from construction, dried poultry waste and wheat straw. The compost is used to grow the mushrooms, then even the stems get recycled back in. Premier generates around 15,000 tons of compost, which is then sold and used as soil amendment in a local orchard. And the loop becomes a closed circle.

“We were a pretty green store to begin with but we wanted to continue with that,” Ashbaugh said.

Premier is built around a Dutch style farming process. Dutch growing technology uses a later technology than most – one that’s more common in Europe and Canada but barely seen here in the U.S. It uses fixed aluminum shelving in rooms versus moving compost trays around in wooden beds. Premier was one of the first to bring this over to the States. The company also incorporates a computer and sensors to monitor everything in each of its 48 growing rooms. Growers have the ability to log in from anywhere in the world and technology allows them to control temperature, humidity, CO2 and the mix of inside and outside air.  All this increases Premier Mushrooms’ consistency, production and safety while reducing operating costs.

There are also barcodes on every flat to allow for traceability. Each box of mushrooms can be traced to the specific picker, room, and vendor, a useful strategy in a world where food-born illnesses have caused serious food recalls over the past few years.

“It’s pretty technologically advanced,” said Ashbaugh, “and the result is quality yields.”

There are many other green measures the company follows.

Premier utilizes Dutch growing technology to effectively monitor each of its 48 growing rooms

Before releasing air back into the atmosphere, it’s scrubbed clean, then it goes through several large industrial bio-filters. Energy efficiency is also a priority at Premier, as evidenced by their efficient lighting, refrigeration retrofits and strip curtains that hold in cold air.

They’ve gone well beyond the ideas Ashbaugh originally had about being green.

Currently, they’re looking at what to do with their outputs, he said. This includes finding ways to extract and utilize the energy from their digester.

Premier is also seeking alternative uses for its compost, Ashbaugh said. They’re following up on a recently introduced methodology that could turn it into a casing / packaging material.

Several key factors drive the operations at Premier.

One is providing great products to our customers, Ashbaugh said. The other is to serve the community in terms of providing jobs, growth, and support for community members.

“What’s exciting about ag right now,” said Ashbaugh, (is) the combination of science, technology, biology, agriculture, – it’s all coming together with some interesting results.”

Premier Mushrooms are available locally at Raley’s. You can find out more about Premier and its innovative, eco-practices at PremierMushrooms.com.

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