Michael Guttman is the Sustainability Officer for Kennett Towsnhip, PA, a small town that single-handedly supplies around half of the US’s mushroom supplies. A veteran of the IT world, Michael is applying his entrepreneurial skills to aiding the town in diversifying its crop base. Ahead of him talking at Indoor Ag-Con in May, we caught up with him to talk commercial indoor mushroom growing and foraging in Pennsylvania’s woodlands.
1. How did Kennett Township come to be a mushroom metropolis?
The Kennett area become the ‘Mushroom Capital of the World’ through a combination of factors, including an early start (late 1800s), central geographic position to much of the US produce market, favorable inputs (manure, topsoil, etc.) to support the growing process, and constant innovation by our community-minded multi-generational family mushroom farms. Also, mushrooms only grow in commercial quantities indoors, so, unlike greens, we have never had to compete with an outdoor-grown crop. Eventually we achieved economies of scale (500M lbs/year, $1/lb. delivered) unknown elsewhere, supported by an extensive infrastructure. That includes ‘cold chain’ distribution facilities built over decades that can deliver product to 250M people with a single day. That would of course be very difficult and very costly to duplicate today.
2. What do you think that new vertical farming startups can learn from Kennett Township’s success?
Due to constant changes in grow technology for greens, most startups today are largely focused on the grow cycle, and assume – or just hope – they will be able to arrange by themselves to consistently sell and deliver what they can produce near they are producing it. That simply does not take into account economies of scale and distribution, which ultimately determine whether a product is truly competitive in the cutthroat produce market. In Kennett, our family-run farms compete on growing, but they survive and thrive because they also collaborate extensively on packing, logistics, distribution, marketing, and sales. My first advice to ‘green’ indoor farmers is to find a place, like Kennett, with an existing indoor ag infrastructure you can plug into and leverage. If not, prepare for a very long slog to get to scalable profitability.
3. Which other crops would you like to see flourish in Kennett Township?
Our infrastructure is largely crop-agnostic, so almost any other crop could fit in. That includes both pre-grow (construction and outfitting) and post-grow (packing, storage, shipping). Our shippers already buy lots of produce on the spot market that we don’t grow here to ship along with our mushrooms, because our customers request it, so there are lots of opportunities to sell almost any produce here. But for more serious growers, it is ultimately all about scale, reliability, and cost. The very best fit are growers that have already proven they can grow produce profitably and have good reason to believe that they can scale up consistently to meet increasing demand. Such growers should be looking at locations like ours that have the infrastructure to support that kind of growth.
4. Where do you see the biggest technology overlap between cultivating mushrooms and other crops?
Except for lighting, we use most of the same technologies for growing, although they may be applied differently. We have very sophisticated operations in spawn and substrate production, climate control, watering, pest control, recycling and so on. Post-grow, we have exactly the same ‘cold-chain’ technologies that any indoor farmer needs for packing, storage, and distribution, and at a scale most current green indoor farmers can only dream about.
5. What’s the coolest mushroom you’ve ever encountered?
Although it’s not a variety we grow commercially, a lot of ‘chicken of the woods’ grow around here, and I can easily harvest it in the woods in back of my house. It looks really cool and properly prepared has a meaty taste like, well, chicken!
Join an exclusive Kennett Township mushroom farm tour as an Indoor Ag-Con Philly participant in October, 2017
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