WA start-up turns coffee grounds into mushrooming profits

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In early 2015, following WA’s mining downturn, fly-in, fly-out health workers Ryan Creed and Julian Mitchell turned their sights to a different sort of underground money-spinner: sustainable mushroom growing.

On discovering that around 99 percent of the coffee bean is discarded post-brewing, ending up as garbage, the pair started looking into potential uses for Fremantle’s wasted coffee grounds – 300 million tonnes of which end up in landfill annually.

After investigating several possible uses, they settled on mushroom-growing as the one with the most obvious potential.

Why mushrooms?

Not only was there demand for gourmet mushrooms; Mitchell and Creed had discovered a low-cost, sustainable way to grow them.

  • As mushrooms don’t require sunlight, no farmland is needed to produce crops – just boxes and somewhere dark to put them.
  • Mushrooms can be grown with minimal water and electricity and require no fertiliser, pesticides or fungicides.
  • Nor do they need soil – the pair discovered a mix of moist coffee grounds and low-cost straw was the ideal growing medium for gourmet oyster mushrooms.

Mitchell and Creed settled on oyster mushrooms as the most suitable variety. While not well known in Australia, this variety of mushroom is used extensively across Asia, where it is prized for its smooth texture and appealing flavour. It also has an exceptionally high protein content, nutritional density and some useful longer-term health benefits.

Realising the vision

In the months that followed, Creed and Mitchell set about realising their vision – to solve a significant waste problem and create Australia’s first urban gourmet mushroom farm.

The idea was that they’d collect spent coffee grounds from city cafés, mix them with straw and mushroom spores and use them to grow organic oyster mushrooms in a disused urban commercial space. Once each crop fruited and was picked, the substrate would be repurposed as “a soil amendment for local gardeners”.

Their sustainable ‘waste-to-produce-to-plate’ vision gained traction with eco-conscious consumers and soon, The City of Fremantle jumped on board, committing $15,000 to the project.

“We raised another $15,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to get [it] off the ground,” say Mitchell and Creed.

Meanwhile, the pair was busy conducting mushroom-growing experiments and educating themselves on the minutiae of mycology in the lead-up to the launch of their Life Cykel Urban Mushroom Farm in late 2015.

Less than six months later, they’re selling their coffee-ground-grown organic oyster mushrooms to more than 10 restaurants across Fremantle, including some of those that supply them with grounds.

As production ramps up, Mitchel l and Creed plan to expand their customer base to include more restaurants, food outlets and the Fremantle markets, and eventually envisage ‘going national’.                                                         

Home mushroom-growing kits a hit

Life Cykel has also developed boxed home mushroom-farming kits that have proven a hit online, with initial stocks selling rapidly.

The public’s response had been “phenomenal”, Creed told ABC Rural in early May 2016.

“We've been overwhelmed by our start and we sold out of our first crop,” he said. “We've sold roughly 400 boxes after 30 days of production so it's far exceeded our expectations. People are surprised that you can grow them on your kitchen bench.”

Recently, Life Cykel partnered with more than 10 of the city’s schools, who’ll use the boxed home-mushroom-growing kits as a healthy alternative to chocolate in door-to-door fundraising drives.

Mitchell noted: “With our boxes, we’ve got them online, but we're looking to get them into retail stores and eventually, a national chain.”

The broader benefits

Growing mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds is cost-effective, eco-friendly and highly sustainable. It requires no sunlight, virtually no land and little upfront capital; has low running costs; and produces quick and healthy returns.

Mitchell told ABC Rural he hoped this little-known method of mushroom farming could help shrink agriculture’s carbon footprint.

“Urban farming, such as mushroom, has very low input in terms of water use, electricity use, [and] no chemical input. So we see things like urban mushrooms and other products coming online really decentralising how we go about growing food,” he said.

In a world increasingly in need of high-protein, high-nutrient, ‘low-food-mile’ crops that require minimal input for high-value output, this has to be a winner.

Further information

For more information, go to the Life Cykel site.

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