The vision of an automated harvesting system for the mushroom industry recently took a significant step closer to becoming a reality.
The federal government, through its national supercluster for advanced manufacturing, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), announced almost $4.2 million in funding to improve the mushroom harvesting system that Putnam,
Ont.-based Mycionics Inc. has been developing.
Why it matters: The mushroom industry has been facing chronic labour shortages, with an almost 20 per cent vacancy rate, while demand for mushrooms has been increasing.
“Our company was founded in 2014 to address the labour issue common on mushroom farms in Canada,” says Mycionics CEO Michael Curry. “Mushrooms grow four per cent an hour and double in weight and size in 24 hours so it’s very important to have the labour there to harvest them at the appropriate time.”
Canada grows more than 91,000 tonnes of mushrooms annually, mostly white buttons and creminis. They’re sensitive and delicate - if the top is touched during picking, a bruise will form - so they have to be harvested by hand.
It’s hard work with a lot of bending and reaching, and it takes about six months of training for a harvester to be fully proficient, according to Janet Krayden, workforce expert with Mushrooms Canada. The industry relies on approximately 900 temporary foreign workers to help fill jobs for which mushroom farms are unable to find local employees.
Curry says mushroom farms are well-suited to robotics because their layout around the world is very similar — climate-controlled growing rooms with two beds of aluminum shelving about six to seven levels high and about 100 feet long that operate all year round.
“Because there is common infrastructure, you can develop a robot for multiple farms without having to customize to each individual operation,” he says.
The Mycionics system includes a mobile, 1.4 square metre harvester that rolls along the side rail of the bed to scan and digitize the mushroom bed. It uses lasers, cameras and algorithms to identify and pick the right sized mushrooms at the correct angle without damaging them.
A lift on the harvester lifts picked mushrooms up to a second level, where a packing unit receives the mushrooms, trims the stems, and places them in a package.
A “smart graze harvest strategy” picks over 24 hours and harvests each mushroom at its ideal time instead of being restricted to harvesting only during normal working hours. Additionally, automated harvesting and the use of data analytics from the system will increase food safety, traceability and disease detection.
According to Curry, the robot can pick at 15 to 20 kg per hour, compared to human pickers at 30 kg/hour.
“We probably wouldn’t compete on speed, but in quality and accuracy, we are superior. We are picking the mushrooms exactly the same size every time. If you let them grow to the retail-desired size, we can fill yield improvement,” says Curry.
NGEN’s funding is supporting a project to demonstrate the viability of this system in commercial mushroom farms. Whitecrest Mushrooms Ltd. and Piccioni Brothers Mushroom Farm Ltd. are participating in the case study that is starting this year.
“We’ve basically developed this system from scratch because the environment it is in is so unique and there isn’t a lot of off-the-shelf technology,” Curry says. “Our focus has been to make sure it mimics what humans actually do and doesn’t require massive overhaul for implementation on-farm.”
About 60 per cent of the Canadian market for this system is in Ontario, home to the majority of the country’s mushroom farms, after which the company hopes to expand into Europe where labour costs are high. The longer-term plan is to become a picking service partner with farms, Curry says.
“Any new technology that could avoid bruising the mushroom is what everybody is looking for,” says Krayden, adding a robotic harvesting solution would be a dramatic advancement for the industry. “As industry progresses and robots more commonly used, we will also require upskilling, so we will always need workers but just in different roles.”