With a mushroom disco and some cool robots, a very savvy Newbridge farmer hopes putting the fun into harvesting fungi might just help save the planet.

Words and photography Sarah Harris

It’s only partly because he didn’t want be left in the dark and fed the proverbial in a starving world that Chris McLoghlin became an organic mushroom farmer.
The 2018 Australian Young Grower of the Year and self-described “mushroom geek” also holds no small measure of respect for fungi which he calls “nature’s internet.”
“I basically view fungi as amazing technology,” he says. “It has unparalleled capacity. Like we are just trying now to build neural networks and deep-learning algorithms that could do 1/100th of what a mycelial network does in a forest or any landscape really.
“It is able to take live rolling stock of every nutrient and resource that is available in the ecosystem. It knows which organisms have them at what levels, what they are short on, then it actually breaks the stuff down to its base form and delivers it to where it is needed.
“I view the emergence of the internet as some kind of feeble attempt to mimic that design and resource allocation protocol.”
Well before the city-raised business administration graduate and his wife Natalie bought a “beat-up old Datsun” of an organic mushroom farm at Lockwood South in 2015, Chris had an interest in food politics.
“By the time I was in uni I had taken the view that we had about 30 or 40 years of topsoil left and then we were all going to either starve or go to war over food and water,” the 32-year-old says. “I formed the view that the massive agribusiness chem-farming, mono-cropping GM model was a recipe for disaster. And it is. It turns soil to dust and if we keep using it we will starve, there is no two ways about it.
“So how do you fix that? Well, there are a whole bunch of economic drivers that have the incumbent system in train and it is like a glacier you have to turn around.”
Organic farming and permaculture, Chris says, at least offer an alternative to this bleak picture.
In the years between finishing his degree and buying his first farm Chris did some serious food-related homework. He co-founded the Roller Door Cafe, a popular West Melbourne eatery with a focus on ethical, seasonal produce. He also did several agricultural courses, worked in the supply chain at the markets to find out how food moved around and ran his own online organic produce delivery service.
“I started going to farmers’ markets and rattling the cages of some of those smaller scale farmers and begged to hang out with them on their farms for an afternoon. So I spent a few years trying to figure out an entry point and then I got a call about this farm, I was already buying from, that was about to fall over.”
For a while it looked like it might defeat the new owner, too.
“We spend a whole lot of money fixing it up because the infrastructure was shot only to realise that, even with it running optimally, it was not a viable size. Twenty years ago there were between 140-150 mushroom farms in the country, now we are down to 41 and that is through consolidation, basically much bigger farms. So unless you are servicing the supermarkets you are going to struggle to get the economies of scale in production to be cost effective. I figured that out … a few months after having bought the farm!”
A merger with a Bulla-based farm and associated compost-supply business at Newbridge saved the business and the jobs of workers, many of whom come from Bendigo’s Karen community.
The Bulla farm, while bigger, was also at the point of being marginal so Chris’s new partners Bill Littleson and Mick Surridge embraced the idea of going organic to become the largest certified organic mushroom farming company in Australia.
Now able to offer a consistent supply to supermarkets, the number of staff across the business has since trebled and it is producing between 10 – 12 tonnes of organic mushrooms a week with construction of a third farm underway at Newbridge.
The new site will feature technology that takes the production and harvesting of the world’s oldest land-based organism into the future.
“People will still do the picking, but we have automated a bunch of that process with some cool conveyors and robots so they will be able to pick twice as fast,” Chris reveals. “We are also working with Northraine, a deep-learning software company, to develop some additional technology which will help tell our pickers which mushrooms to pick, which it will do by pointing lasers or LEDs.
“Then we can gamify it for our pickers, we can add music and we want to do that. I did mushroom picking for 12 months when we first bought the farm and believe me it can do your head in, so anything that can break the monotony of that will be beneficial.”
The new plant will employ 20 per cent more people than the Bulla facility, but produce four times the volume. Automated post-pick cutting will mean even the extra chunk of stalk which is wasted at present because of supermarket specifications, about 3000kg in all, can be saved to process for soup or stock.
“We have a target to get to 100-tonne capacity over the next handful of years by adding 24 tonne-a-week tranches. It will be powered by some of the leading state-of-art solar technology on the planet.
“We can’t compete with Costas and the like using the same stuff so we needed a point of difference and that difference is technology. This way we will be able to produce to a similar degree, cost and level of efficiency as a farm that is five times as big as us.”
But the really big picture dream is ultimately to map the innate genius of mycelium to provide a blueprint for allocating resources in our food ecosystem to their highest and best use including determining the future use of farm land.
“The outcome of doing all these things inefficiently is that the value gap is being made up by our ever-decreasing level of nutrient base and that is what we depend on for survival,” Chris says. “We fix that or we starve.”