Kiwi ingenuity revives fungi farm

What goes around comes around. Just ask Wanganui mushroom farmer Leighton Minnell.

Six years ago, Minnell bought a mushroom farm on the outskirts of Wanganui that had been a part of the region's agricultural "furniture" for years.

At its peak it was one of the biggest producers in the country, employing 47 staff.

The farming operation expanded, but in the early-2000s the enterprise collapsed and the plant and buildings lay idle until Minnell took a punt and bought the business in late-2006.

He said he had no idea what would happen next but about a year ago decided to resurrect the mushroom growing.

Some of the old composting machinery from the Netherlands was still on the site and he discovered it could turn green waste into compost.

Until Minnell revived the business, all the city's green waste was trucked to the Manawatu and dumped.

Working with the Wanganui District Council and local waste companies, all that green waste is now trucked to his property and converted quickly into the high-quality, rich compost the fungi demand.

It doesn't stop there, either. After the mushrooms are grown in the compost "casing", the used compost is bagged and sent to plant centres where it is sold as garden compost.

"Now we're the only mushroom farm in the country growing mushrooms out of recycled green waste," Minnell says.

"I've still got to use some straw in the process but the rest is recycled green waste and no peat.

"So we've lessened our costs and are getting a far better product."

Now he's got a local Maori trust involved, with 11 young people making the compost. They're also the ones bagging it for resale as garden compost.

The trust manages the green waste coming on site - mulching it, airing it and finally cooking it before it's put into trays for the mushroom spore.

And it's not only about recycling.

The previous farm had produced its compost anaerobically which, as locals will attest, had a particularly strong odour. The new operation is aerobic and the smell has gone completely.

And Minnell says the new compost grows a better mushroom, and faster, too.

"What used to take weeks and weeks - and with that smell - now takes seven days and you can't smell a thing," he says.

Every 10 days the white button mushrooms are harvested and regrow twice before the compost and spore is replaced.

The previous owner and his grandson are back working with Minnell, teaching him all he needs to know about growing the fungi.

"At the moment we're growing in one room here but our goal is to open two more rooms.

"We're supplying local restaurants and outlets but expanding production means the market will go national.

"We're only about at a third of capacity at the moment but we want to double that by the end of the year. It's small steps at the moment."

He said they were sticking to the button mushroom because it was easy to grow and the market wanted it.

The flavour and taste they're achieving is "second to none", he says. "I've spoken to other growers and they can't believe what we're doing here because compost-making is a huge cost in mushroom production," Minnell says.

He's excited about the future.

"In its heyday there were trucks going out of here every week taking mushrooms to markets in Auckland.

"But we'll take small steps and get it right."

Although he's now a grower and looking at expanding the business, Minnell never samples the product.

"I can't eat them. I hate the bloody things."

- Hamilton News

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