FOODLEVERS – Leverage points for organic and sustainable food systems
The FOODLEVERS-project uses a three-way approach to recognize leverage points to help scale up and develop “innovative organic and sustainable food systems”. It does this by examining innovative case examples in seven different European countries to help identify best practices from each of them. The three ways are:
- “re-connect” reinvigorating people’s connection to food growing,
- “re-structure, how institutions create the environment for sustainability to flourish in, and
- “re-think”, taking a new look at knowledge creation, usage, sharing and validation.
The legwork is carried out by interviewing the farmers and filling a Public Goods Tool that measures, as the name implies, the public goods that the farm provides. The result is a spider gram that shows how the farm fares in 11 different sustainability themes: agri-environmental management, landscape and heritage features, soil management, water management, fertilizer management, energy and carbon, food security, agricultural systems diversity, social capital, farm business resilience and animal health and welfare.
In the project, each country has their own innovative food system they focus on and in Finland it is mushroom cultivation. Wild mushroom and cultivated champion mushroom are established lines of business and product types in Finland, so the focus turned to uncommon species, in this case shitake and oyster mushrooms, and cultivation methods that also hold great innovation and circular economy potential. The focus is on agroforestry and more specifically on cultivating mushroom on logs and bags filled with organic material substrate, like wood chips or coffee grounds. These methods can improve land-use efficiency, create higher added value for the input, like birch logs or sawdust, and promote circular economy by using side products and waste streams.
Mushroom farms in Finland – lessons learnt in field visits
As part of FOODLEVERS-project, I visited two very different mushroom farms in March 2022 together with EFI Senior Researcher Michael den Herder. The first farm consists of two circa 25-40 square meter rooms of which the smaller is used for storing, sanitizing, and mixing the substrate, the bigger room is used for R&D and general storage. Outside there are three containers, two large and one small. The smaller one is the fridge where fresh mushrooms and inoculation material is stored. The other two containers are for spawning and fruiting. We visited the fruiting container where there were large plastic bags full of substrate that were overtaken by the oyster mushroom spore. The bags had small slits cut to them where the fruiting body of the mushroom would grow. After visiting the production areas, we moved indoors where they had further R&D areas and offices. It was easy to see how enthusiastic the owner was about their business and how they have established good relations with their customers. Growing something like oyster mushroom in Finland must seem like a daunting task at first. They utilize spent coffee grounds in production so they can’t join the organic farming scheme if the coffee isn’t organic, but we were ensured that the customers know them well enough not to hold it against them.
The second farm cultivates shitake mushrooms in outdoor conditions, in Finnish forests. They had intended to make a small side revenue from shitake mushrooms, but very soon found out that the American literature they based their assumptions upon was a poor match to Finnish conditions. While they still grow shitake, it provides only little more income than the cost upfront. This would provide a good case study for shitake log cultivation in the Finnish climate, giving potential entrepreneurs an accurate image of the hurdles and possibilities.
Cultivated champions and forest mushrooms are a common sight in Finnish cooking but “novelty” mushrooms, like shitake and oyster mushrooms, are seldom seen. It was interesting to learn how in the Netherlands each step of mushroom cultivation is a separate line of business but in Finland some farms do everything themselves from spawn preparation to fruiting. Promoting local consumption is also a hurdle for the business in Finland — a big portion of mushrooms grown in Finland are shipped abroad and from sustainability point of view this is not very desirable. Only time will tell how this, small, but full of potential, niche develops.
Photo: Michael den Herder