Chicagoan farmer aged 25, Joe Weber, studied Biology at the University of Illinois where he became particularly interested in the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) industry as a way of contributing to a more sustainable food system, especially through urban mushroom indoor farming.
Growing data sets to achieve machine learning is an immediate goal in terms of technology to supply the Midwest with a wider variety of healthy, high-quality mushrooms. During Covid months Joe onboarded his family to support his small business, to in fact expand their space from 400sq. ft. to 1200sq. ft.
What was important for the survival of your small business over the last few months?
Pivoting to direct sales to consumers was helpful in the immediate effects of covid. This helped move products that were already grown but did not have a home. Also, almost all of my customers are restaurants and so at the beginning of March, it was super challenging. We continued to communicate with our customers and still supply them during the times they remained open. In the “new covid” world we are continually looking for innovative companies to partner with in the food space to deliver consumers, restaurants, etc with high quality and locally grown mushrooms. Recently, Four Star Mushrooms has really evolved into a small family business, before it was just me. My younger brother has taken over the production aspects of indoor farming, my Dad is just next door working on the construction for some extra space, and my Mum with bookkeeping.
How important is technology for indoor mushroom farming?
Climate control is something that I’ve learned to get right since starting the business around 19 months ago. This is important for the yield and quality of the mushrooms we produce. The optimal temperature for a firm mushroom that does not crack is a very cool temperature in the 50’s, and high humidity which fluctuates from time to time. This is a journey with no true end. As we gain more data we learn more about what is needed to grow the most robust and healthy mushrooms. I would say that machine learning is very important for indoor farming. So, recording data and understanding how our environmental controls are able to affect things like yield, phenotype, taste, medicinal characteristics, and quantities is necessary if we want to build reliable indoor agriculture systems.
Why does indoor mushroom farming contribute to a sustainable food system?
I see us as a recycling company of agriculture in the future. We take waste products from other industries such as the organic soy hulls from the Ag industry and grow fresh produce with them. Once we are done growing the mushrooms, that material is further recycled as compost, which will ultimately be used to grow more food. Joe mentioned that he is also working on new ways to achieve this goal. Stay tuned for one which will be announced very soon.
What mushroom varieties do you produce?
Right now, we are mainly producing oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushrooms. Occasionally, we have reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). We’ll be adding some more variety since we’re now expanding from a facility of 400 sq. ft. where we cultivate over 200lbs a week, to one of 1200 sq. ft. where we will be growing hopefully in the 000’s of lbs.
What are your favorite ways to use mushrooms in the kitchen?
We use our mushrooms a lot in our cooking. There are so many different ways you can prepare them, you can: roast, sauté, and grill them. I prefer to sauté our lion’s mane mushrooms on medium-high heat until they brown, then melt butter over them and add a little salt. We love to add them to a well-prepared stir-fry for dinner.
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