How One Farm is Harnessing Waste to Improve Soil Health and put the Best Mushrooms on Your Pizza

The growers at Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms are part of an awesome cycle of care

Photo: DesignDesign

When you take a bite of a hot slice of California Pizza Kitchen’s Mushroom and Green Onion pizza, you’re surely not thinking of mushroom farms, organic soil and sustainability.

Next time, perhaps you will.

What you might not know is that those mushrooms, and the farmers who grow them at the Pennsylvania-based Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms, are part of an awesome cycle of care that supports organic farms throughout the East Coast. Nestlé values the farm’s high-quality mushrooms, their rich flavor and the nutritional boost they provide — but we also seek out partners like Mother Earth to create shared value that goes beyond the products we create.

Meghan Klotzbach, part of the sixth-generation of her family to grow mushrooms at Mother Earth, explained the cycle begins with developing a compost that the mushrooms will be grown in. The compost consists of waste materials from other farms, such as hay, straw, cottonseed hulls, corncobs, chicken litter and horse manure.

Developing this compost, called a substrate, benefits farmers, helps to decrease landfill use and produces healthy, tasty mushrooms.

“We’re paying them for waste materials, giving them added income so they can keep growing their business, and keeping waste out of the landfill,” she said.

Photo: Addison Film Company

Once the substrate is developed, Meghan and her family bring it into the concrete houses where they grow the mushrooms. The substrate is carefully placed in beds that are about a foot deep. From there, they pasteurize the entire house, raising the temperature above 140 degrees for at least two hours, to make sure the growing environment is as clean as possible.

Then the mushroom spawn — a mix of sterile carrier grain and mushroom culture called mycelium — is applied to the substrate. The mushroom mycelium grows and strengthens to form a network under the soil, similar to the roots of a tree.

To get the mushrooms to grow up instead of just continuing to spread horizontally, the farmers simulate the natural conditions of a thunderstorm in the house, decreasing the temperature and the level of carbon dioxide, while increasing the humidity.

“By simulating that thunderstorm, we’re allowing those mushrooms to say, ‘I need to produce, I need to reproduce, I need to grow up instead of out,’” Meghan said. “Every temperature degree matters, every humidity percentage matters, CO2 and O2 matters. One little snap off can change the way the mushrooms grow.”

When the mushrooms are ready, a team of harvesters comes to the houses to hand cut them. The same day they’re harvested, the mushrooms are transported The Mushroom Company for processing. Nestlé then purchases them for use in products such as pizza and risotto.

Photos: DesignDesign (left), Addison Film Company (right)

After the harvest, the cycle of care continues. The substrate becomes a useful, natural fertilizer for other organic growers, helping to improve their soil quality.

“We have people come from up and down the East Coast to retrieve that compost material. They use it to fertilize their fields and grow more hay, corn, straw. Then, they can continue to give us their waste material to complete that loop,” Meghan said.

For Meghan and her family, commitment to soil health isn’t just about growing the best possible mushrooms. It’s a promise to future generations. The farm has been in their family for nearly 100 years and they’ve been growing mushrooms since 1921.

“Most farms are building something to pass on to the next generation,” she said, “That’s the mentality of the farmer.”

Her dad, and fellow mushroom farmer, agrees.

“There’s a strong sense of stewardship,” Tim Hihn said. “Each generation doesn’t have a sense that they own the land. It’s something that’s given. We have the honor to improve it and pass it on to the next generation.”

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