Robert Barron column: Technology adds efficiencies, but often takes away fun


It’s interesting to see an innovative robotics company from Salmon Arm devise a new mushroom-picking device that could revolutionize the whole commercial mushroom industry.

TechBrew Robotics has developed an autonomous, vision-guided mushroom harvesting robot that, in tests, has successfully picked 95 per cent of the extremely delicate mushrooms it set out to harvest.

Last week, the company announced it had secured $17.5 million in equity financing to accelerate the development and deployment of its mushroom-harvesting robots.

Without such technology, mushroom-harvesting is extremely labour intensive and can lead to a lot of waste if not done effectively and efficiently.

I know this from personal experience after spending many years working at a white-button mushroom farm back east in the early 1990s.

The operation was nothing like the futuristic farm that TechBrew Robotics showcased in its video of its latest robotic harvesters, but it was more than 35 years ago when robots were only seen in Star Wars, and the budget for the farm was much more bare bones.

It was a good and industrious friend of mine who came up with the brilliant idea of utilizing for growing mushrooms the many underground concrete bunkers in Newfoundland that were constructed by the American army to store explosives during the Second World War so they couldn’t be seen by enemy aircraft.

When the Americans left after the war, these concrete structures were abandoned and remained so until my ingenious friend saw an opportunity to grow mushrooms (these dank and dark places were ideal for that purpose) and leased many of the bunkers to set up mushroom-growing facilities.

He had done his research into the industry and we were busy for many months dividing the bunkers up into growing rooms where we installed shelving and water and air-intake systems before hundreds of 75 pound bags of horse manure and other compostable ingredients were brought to the bunkers and seeded with mushroom spores.

We would spend days watering and tending to the mushroom bags in almost complete darkness before the harvests began weeks later, and that’s when the real grinding work began.

White-button mushrooms sprang up fast and we used box cutters to harvest them as quickly as we could because they would lose more than half their value if they were picked after their hoods had opened, which occurred within hours of the mushrooms maturing enough to harvest.

Dozens of us would begin at one end of a growing room and cut down each of the thousands of mushrooms individually as fast as possible without damaging them or leaving fingernail indentations.

It would take eight to 10 hours to get to the other end of the room and then we’d have to begin again immediately as each flush of mushrooms (there were usually four of five major flushes before the room’s potential began to peter out) would immediately follow the previous one and you couldn’t stop harvesting until the flushes starting winding down.

That meant that each of us would spend between 24 and 48 hours constantly picking mushrooms before we would get a few hours sleep and then begin again.

We also had a packaging room where the mushrooms were gently placed in cartons and covered in plastic before heading to market, which was pretty strong at that time and in that place for the fruit of fungi.

Before our operation, local restaurants and grocery stores had to ship in mushrooms, and most other produce, from large distances away so fruits and vegetables were not usually very fresh by the time they arrived.

So most jumped at the chance to be able to acquire pristine white-button mushrooms that were picked just hours before, and they were bought up as quickly as we could produce them.

I eventually moved on to other work and my friend diversified into growing lettuce hydroponically and he’s still making a good living from his operations to this day.

I haven’t had contact with him for many years and I wonder if he has resorted to such labour-saving and more efficient technologies for growing and harvesting like TechBrew Robotics is now offering.

But my friend was always a sociable person and I remember he always loved it when we got so busy that we would have to call in friends and family to help with the harvesting, so I don’t see the newer ways of doing things having much appeal for him.

Sometimes the old ways are best (and more fun).


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