This is something I learned about the fascinating fungi on a recent visit to Meadow Mushrooms’ main operation in Hornby on the outskirts of Christchurch.
The fact that mushrooms double in size every day was just one of the new bits of information I picked up on a tour around the site with Wayne Collingwood, general manager operations of New Zealand’s leading commercial mushroom grower.
Wayne took on the role about a year ago after a stint as store operations manager with Ravensdown, and appears to have found his niche if his enthusiasm for the humble mushroom is anything to go by.
“I really enjoy the highly technical science of growing mushrooms which require very specific conditions. It’s a challenge to grow a good quality, high yielding crop – decisions have to be made every day.”
It’s quite surreal to step inside one of Meadow Mushrooms’ older growing rooms where tray upon wooden tray of White Button mushrooms are growing in substrate, a special compost the company makes itself.
The pickers have already harvested the mushrooms ready for packing or processsing this day, and all but the smaller mushrooms remain, including the tiniest of fungi, just starting to burst through the substrate.
However the start of the mushroom’s journey goes back to the laboratory where mycelium is used to inoculate grain that becomes the spawn from which the mushrooms are grown.
Wayne says a shed with one lot of compost can produce up to three or more crops or ‘flushes’.
He takes me to the other side of the plant, where Meadow Mushrooms $45 million upgrade was completed a couple of years ago and includes the addition of new growing rooms with the latest technology; new packing facilities; state-of-the-art compost yard and new staff facilities.
The impressive high-tech growing rooms are based on a Dutch shelf system where the mushrooms are grown in six-high aluminium racking with completely automated climate and airflow control. This has allowed the company to significantly increase production per square metre in the new rooms.
“We’ve got better and better at using the technology and are consistently growing good quality mushrooms week in and week out now,” he says.
Meadow Mushrooms produces around 150 tonnes of mushrooms each week, with its market leader being the fresh White Button mushrooms that account for a surprising three-quarters of all sales, ahead of Portabellos (large open brown mushrooms) and Swiss Browns (brown buttons – or immature Portabellos).
The company employs around 500 staff across its entire operations that include Hornby (where its main growing farm and head office are based); its original Prebbleton base; Miranda Laboratories where spawn is produced; Emma Foods where mushrooms are processed for canning; and Giggs Farm at Norwood where the essential compost is produced.
The fast growth rate of mushrooms means they have to be hand-picked 364 days a year, with shifts operating around the clock most days.
“We don’t pick on Christmas Day which requires a huge effort and three months of planning to make this happen. If we get a big snow event it can be a real challenge for us to manage the growing rooms.”
Most of Meadow Mushrooms’ staff are in the harvesting and packing departments, where the product is weighed, packaged, vacuum chilled and stored ready for despatch all over the country.
The company’s full range of fresh product is sold domestically, with only a small percentage of its production exported.
Meadow Mushrooms also produces a range of added-value products including canned mushrooms in brine and a range of sauces; frozen golden crumbed and garlic crumbed mushrooms.
Mushrooms – a nutritional star
A new study into the nutritional composition of mushrooms has revealed some startling results, says Wayne Collingwood, general manager operations at Meadow Mushrooms.
“We know from overseas studies that mushrooms are incredibly nutritious. But now we have defined results from our own research, the degree of health benefits that can be gained from eating mushrooms is really starting to dawn on us. It’s pretty exciting.”
The results of the study carried out in conjunction with Plant and Food Research at Lincoln University revealed that mushrooms contain extremely high levels of vitamins and minerals – particularly vitamin B and the all-important selenium.
A serving of brown Portobello mushrooms delivers an incredible 102 percent of the estimated safe and adequate daily dietary intake (ESADDI) of Biotin (vitamin B) with White Button mushrooms providing 81 percent ESADDI.
Given New Zealand’s potential for selenium deficiency, it is also significant that White Button mushrooms provide 36 percent of our recommended daily intake (RDI) of selenium, with portobello mushrooms delivering 33 percent RDI.
The study also revealed mushrooms are a good source of other B vitamins, potassium, copper, phosphorous and the antioxidant ergothioneine, as well as being low in calories, fat and sodium.
Collingwood says mushrooms can be easy to overlook however research increasingly reveals why mushrooms are now joining the ranks of so called superfoods.
“The research leader we worked with at Plant and Food said even she was surprised at how many vitamins and minerals mushrooms contained relative to other fruits and vegetables. It was exciting to get this sort of confirmation, particularly when the figures we have to date are fairly conservative.”
Meadow Mushrooms national sales manager Yvonne Clyne says the results will shape the company’s marketing campaign over the next 12 months.
“We’ll continue with some of the quirky imagery we introduced in last year’s Year of the Mushroom campaign that included cartoon mushroom characters in a range of fun poses. However the serious message will remain the same – reminding consumers that mushrooms are very high in nutritional value and also providing them with simple and convenient ways to use them.”
The demand for fresh mushrooms continues to grow for the “extremely versatile” fungus, she says.
“Mushrooms are delicious raw, cooked, crumbed, canned, sauced, or barbecued. Hits on our website recipes increase all the time as people look for new ways to try them.”
Wayne Collingwood agrees the variety and ease of use makes mushrooms a popular, convenient choice – and no, you don’t have to peel them, he says.
“This seems to be a common misconception about mushrooms. However our different ranges and sizes of mushrooms are ready to use without peeling, fast to cook and require very little preparation. With the added nutritional benefits, mushrooms really should be an important part of every Kiwi diet.”