In the middle of a video parody on YouTube that skewers council on our new rec facilities, there’s a comment about “the mushroom farm debacle.” It then goes on, rather erratically, to rail about “two yanks” and mushrooms growing in manure and “enobe” mushrooms.
Clearly the video’s creator never actually watched the public presentation made to council a year ago about a possible use for the terminals as an indoor mushroom farm. Or read the stories in both newspapers. Or heard the news reports on local radio. Or asked anyone on staff or council about the proposal. Or did any online research. But don’t worry if actually verifying the facts was too much work: I’ll do the hard work for you here.
And as far as I am aware, the two gentlemen who made the presentation are both Canadian, not American. One is a local chiropractor.
The mushrooms in question are not your standard grocery-store button mushrooms (most of which may come from China*, by the way!): what was proposed were specialty (gourmet) mushrooms that grow on substrate: commonly wood chips, sawdust, used coffee grounds and composted or processed vegetable material (such as the corn waste produced by the now-former Amaizeingly Green plant). Manure, the proponents said several times during the presentation, would not be not used. There would be no odour.
The USDA, in one of its brochures on mushroom cultivation, notes that oyster mushrooms,
Although commonly grown on sterile straw from wheat or rice, they will also grow on a wide variety of high-cellulose waste materials. Some of these materials do not require sterilization, only pasteurization, which is less expensive. Another advantage of growing oyster mushrooms is that a high percentage of the substrate converts to fruiting bodies, increasing the potential profitability.
There are no similar, large mushroom farms growing these specialty – and expensive – mushrooms in Ontario (or, I believe, in Canada**). There is potential for considerable profit in a big and growing marketplace, we were told, for a successful farm that grows these mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, enoki (not “enobe”) and so on). The University of Missouri’s Centre for Agroforestry, notes that specialty mushrooms are a growing and sustainable industry:
Not only can specialty mushrooms be grown on a range of acreage allotments, mushroom cultivation is a sustainable and profitable way to recycle low-value forestry by-products, including non-merchantable stems and branch wood. Utilizing shade levels and understory from a forest farming practice, UMCA scientists and collaborators are determining the best suited types of mushrooms for Missouri soils. The goal of this research is to refine established production techniques for a diverse suite of outdoor mushroom species and enable Missouri landowners to capture a growing gourmet market… One of the state’s most significant demonstrations of a successful forest farming practice is Dan Hellmuth and Nicola Macpherson’s Ozark Forest Mushrooms, Timber, Mo. The entrepreneurial couple established the specialty mushroom operation in 1990 on what was then a timber operation, and coordinate every step of the value-added process, from the inoculated log to packaged, consumer-friendly products. Under the guidelines of the Stewardship Incentive Program, administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Hellmuth and Macpherson harvest a renewable supply of mushroom bed logs while simultaneously maintaining their forested acres in a healthy ecological state – and what began 14 years ago with only 100 oak logs in production has grown to include 12,000 shiitake logs in production.
Penn State University has a similar agribusiness program. They note that the market for specialty mushrooms is growing by leaps and bounds:
For the past 8 years, specialty mushroom production has increased an average of 20%. Based on recent and historical trends, it is expected that diversification of the mushroom industry will continue in the United States and many other western countries. The development of improved technology to cultivate each species more efficiently, will allow consumer prices to decline.
These mushrooms are not solely for food: they are an important source of nutraceuticals used in alternative and traditional medical practices (see also here). A gourmet mushroom farm has the potential to spin off a side industry of medical research and product preparation. More jobs.
Then, the video says these “yanks…want to buy our precious grain terminal for one dollar.” Again, someone wasn’t listening. Or reading. Or thinking.
The proposal – made in front of council, the media and TV cameras – suggested a nominal one-dollar purchase PLUS a percentage of the profits, should the proposal be accepted. The proponents also proposed to cover all costs for remediation of the building.
The “precious” terminals had been publicly declared surplus in fall of 2011 (motion 392). The motion called for “input from the public, developers and respective agencies” on any potential uses for the building. The unsolicited, public presentation to council on January, 16, 2012, from the proponents, was part of that process.
Nothing hidden there. Someone had a creative idea and brought it to council. It was one of those “outside the box” ideas that surprised me because it was so unusual and innovative. Is that what bothers some folks? Or was it the potential to create a sustainable, safe industry that offered well-paying jobs?
The idea was presented in greater detail when the town put forward a “request for proposal” on the terminals, along with the proponents’ financials. However, to date, no decision has been made about selling the “precious” terminals (it’s an abandoned brownfield, a heritage building on the waterfront, resting on wooden piles almost a century old, with asbestos and other pollutants inside, sitting beside a waste dump; adjacent to a publicly-used harbour, within a stone’s throw of protected wetlands; it has inadequate power, water and no waste-water outlet for other uses, and has leases for telecommunications equipment and the yacht club associated – there are MANY legal, procedural and environmental issues that we must resolve before we can move forward with any proponent).
No money ever changed hands, not even the imaginary dollar that seems to haunt some folks. (What’s with that dollar? It’s never explained why $1 matters; it just raises its ectoplasmic head on the Ouija board of this conspiracy.)
The proponents asked council if they could have a biologist examine the building to see if it was suitable for such an idea, and to determine what, if any, work would be required to make it happen. We’d allow any potential buyer’s engineer or building inspector to check it out, why not a biologist?
They also requested permission to run a very small test inside the building to find out if the idea was actually viable – a “proof of concept.” This would involve (as I recall the discussion) putting two small table-top-size trays in the terminals, with spores on a base material (sawdust, I believe), to see if these exotic mushrooms would actually grow. The test would take a few weeks, and would not involve doing anything to the building aside from cleaning the space for the test, then putting the trays inside, and waiting.
Council said yes. We are pro-business, after all, and permitting this non-invasive test simply made sense. If the test proved it was not viable, then the proponents would not invest further money in testing and inspection, and would not give us a proposal when we asked for RFPs.
Staff agreed. A facility report on the proposal, in late January and provided by the former CAO to council, noted,
…the proponents cannot invest substantially without knowing if their process is likely to work. Therefore, they have put forward the following stepwise program as the “Proof of Concept” phase.
- Initially, they would bring in a microbiologist to identify if there are existing competing species of life in the facility and whether the environmental conditions prove to be favourable for their process.
- Then, they suggest that up to three of the North-South hallways (approx. 8’ X 96’) in the basement would be cleaned and sanitized and set up with trial rooms for various species of mushrooms…
The first two steps, if they have a plan to maintain adequate egress and air quality, are fairly benign. With careful preparation and adequate monitoring, staff do not have serious concerns with them doing this.
The former CAO was directed by council to have the caretaker let them in so their microbiologist could examine the building, and they could conduct this test.
This council wants to overcome an impression of the past that “Collingwood is closed for business.” Had we refused, we would – fairly – have been accused of being closed. But then the conspiracy would have been about why council was putting up roadblocks to local businessmen.
It was all public and very straightforward. The test was done, the building examined, and the proponents made a formal proposal when the town called for an RFP.
But somehow, for some folks, it became a conspiracy.
Last September, the town received an anonymous letter that warned, ominously, “Mushroom plants are known to cause odors (sic) and have the possibility to cause health issues…” and then goes on for four pages railing against mushroom farms and dangerous manure odours in other locales. Obviously the author didn’t watch the presentation or read the stories, either (the spelling suggests an American, so perhaps he or she has no access to local council coverage – in which case, what is the interest in a Collingwood proposal?).
In October, a letter was circulating among a small group that asked, among other things, “Who gave the mushroom people the key to the terminal building when was that decision approved?” (sic)
The letter never explained why knowing who gave the proponents the key was important or even relevant.*** Conspiracy theories are like that: they’re not about logic.
Then, in December, similar questions were asked of staff and council in an email (quoted as sent):
Have you been able to find any member of council or staff that;
- Gave permission for the tenants to use the terminals (the original email or note confirming this would be great)
- Who physically handed them the keys
- Who has collected any money (even as little as the $1 they offered) during their use of the facility.
Again, no explanation was ever made as to why any of this was relevant. It was just part of that dark Machiavellian council doing evil behind closed doors. Of course the fact that this was all done openly and presented publicly and made good business sense doesn’t make the conspiracy play very well.
In response, the current CAO replied:
As I previously mentioned the proponents made an open presentation to Council where they requested an opportunity for a “proof of concept” and offered the “symbolic” dollar for the lease to do so. I was informed that Council were all generally interested in the proposal but realized that the proof of concept was required for the gentlemen to provide an unsolicited proposal to Council. As I understand, the issue was referred to staff whereby permission was given to complete the proof of concept. There has not been any collection of money nor has it been asked for.
But even that didn’t kill the conspiracy. It pops up again in the video (linked above in the first paragraph). No rational explanation seems to satisfy some folks that nothing untoward happened.
So I have to ask: What’s all this nonsense about? It was a public process; it was pro-business; the land was declared surplus openly and approved in the fall of 2011; we had open discussions about the property at the council table in front of the media; we had open discussions with the proponent and about the proposal at council, and we have a staff report on the request that indicates all the issues, and staff support for doing the ‘proof of concept’ test.
Why are some folks treating this like some political zombie they continue to resurrect? Put it to rest!
Surely there are other conspiracies to pursue****. Just because the Mayan Apocalypse didn’t work out for you, doesn’t mean this one will turn out any better. Please, let this be the end of it.
* See plantpath.psu.edu/facilities/mushroom/resources/specialty-mushrooms: “Mainland China is the major producer (3,918,300t-or about 64% of the total) of edible mushrooms (Chang 1999, 2002).” The manure used for button mushrooms here in Canada, at least, is sterilized first. But these aren’t button mushrooms, so it’s moot point.
** There is a small scale one in Markdale, however.
*** As far as I know, they didn’t get one; the caretaker opened the door for them, but even if they did – so what? It’s not the key to Fort Knox. It’s an abandoned building. Never mind that it makes no sense for a member of council to have the keys to the building or the authority to collect as much as $1 from anyone (we don’t).
**** If you must pursue a mushroom conspiracy, look for one with some substance or at least greater entertainment value. For example this, this, this, this or this one.
And as a disclaimer: I speak for myself alone here, not for anyone else or any organization. I have no vested interest in any of the proposals for the terminal use, nor have any conflicts of interest in the process.