Five years ago, Alex Villeneuve was growing mushrooms in the closet of his college dorm, trying to turn brewers’ spent grain from local craft breweries into food.
Now he’s transforming the waste from his mushroom farm into livestock feed — and it’s gone way beyond closet size.
“We’re going to produce around 12,500 pounds of this enhanced cattle feed per week and around 4,000 pounds of specialty mushrooms a week for the local market,” said Villeneuve, whose company, Ceres Solutions, has received $500,000 in funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) to demonstrate the viability of his idea.
“The ERA is helping us with the commercial demonstration of the technology we’ve developed and tested now for the last few years at this incubator space at Olds College.”
The incubator space at the college was a big step up from conducting zip-lock bag experiments in a closet. It allowed Villeneuve to fine-tune his vertical production system, which mixes brewers’ spent grain with local agricultural waste (such as cereal straw) to create a growing media.
“When I saw all this really high-quality grain just being shovelled into bins and taken off to the landfill, it really seemed like we were leaving a lot of value on the table,” he said. “There’s still a lot of proteins and sugars and minerals in that grain, and it seemed like a shame to just be throwing it away.”
But along the way, he realized that mushroom production was changing the spent grain he was using as substrate. Normally quite fibrous, the grain had become “really soft” — a result of the mushroom roots digesting the grain and straw.
So Villeneuve sent some samples for nutritional analysis to a company that tests cattle feed, and the results were surprising.
“I found that for every week that I grew the mushrooms, the protein content of the waste product was going up,” he said. “The longer that I left the mushroom roots to digest the spent grain, the higher the protein content got.
“We were still at the zip-lock bag scale of testing, but I realized there was an opportunity to incorporate a company and focus on both the fresh mushroom production and the cattle feed.”
The ERA grant will help his company commercialize both his made-in-Alberta mushroom farm and his high-protein livestock feed, called Mycopro.
Ceres takes a multi-pronged approach to waste and emission reduction, starting with diverting brewers’ spent grain from the landfill.
“It produces a pretty significant amount of emissions as it breaks down both in landfill and in compost, so by offsetting that grain, we reduce emissions.”
Second, traditional mushroom farms typically use hardwood sawdust as growing media, but since there isn’t a readily available supply here, it’s usually imported from the U.S.
“There’s a large amount of emissions associated with importing the substrate, but since we’re sourcing everything locally, we’re able to offset that,” said Villeneuve.
Ceres also produces 8.8 times more mushrooms per square foot than the average American operation, he said, adding compact processing equipment and making use of vertical space is a big part of that.
“Traditionally mushroom farms are quite large and have sprawling footprints, so there’s a lot of wasted space there. We’ve been able to cut that down.”
Beyond that, Ceres is working with a partner in Calgary that has developed an automation system to reduce energy and water use and with an American AI company that has developed cameras to watch the mushrooms grow and determine when they’ll be ready to harvest.
“We’re able to cut down on food waste because of those programs,” said Villeneuve.
The final piece is the Mycopro feed product, which was approved by the CFIA last month.
The product may also reduce methane output. Olds College researchers conducted in-vitro fermentation trials (which “essentially replicated a ruminant animal’s stomach in a test tube”) and found the product produced less gas.
“It’s very similar to high-quality silage. It really lends itself well to either replacing the silage or a lower-quality forage in a diet,” said Villeneuve. “The protein is quite good, and since it’s a byproduct of our farm that runs 365 days of the year, we’re going to have a very consistent high-quality output every year.”
Villeneuve doesn’t expect it to be a big money-maker, though.
“For us, it’s a really great way to close the loop, support some Alberta industries, and make sure we’re getting all of the value that we can out of that substrate.”
And the funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta (which gets its money from the carbon levy on large emitters in the province) was key.
“We’ve done all of the really heavy lifting at the college, building this brand new system for mushroom cultivation that nobody else is really doing,” said Villeneuve. “Funding like this really lets us commercialize it in a way that’s sustainable and beneficial for three Alberta-based industries.”
Eventually, Villeneuve would like to see his production system as a “cookie-cutter” example for growing mushrooms and producing livestock feed anywhere there’s a local source of growing media.
“We started out looking for a way to upcycle the waste, and now we’ve got a few steps more in our process,” he said. “We’re going to keep looking at ways to take the things that aren’t being used efficiently and create another stream of value for the company and for the region.”