Mushroom farms in Canada are taking on new workers: robots.
Salmon Arm, B.C.-based 4AG Robotics develops fully automated solutions for mushroom harvesting in Canada and globally, and has raised $17.5-million in equity financing to further its quest. The company’s chief executive, Sean O’Connor, says the company’s name – pronounced “forage” – reflects its novel focus.
The equity financing is led by the Business Development Bank of Canada’s Industrial Innovation Venture Fund, a $250-million fund aimed at bringing innovation and digitization to Canadian industries, including agriculture and manufacturing.
“4AG’s technology is helping grow mushrooms in a more efficient and sustainable manner, all while tackling the industry’s ongoing labour challenges. We’re excited for this market-driven solution to a large global problem,” Joseph Regan, managing partner of the Industrial Innovation Venture Fund, said in a company release.
Harvesting mushrooms is an arduous task. In September of this year, 250 workers at a Canadian-owned mushroom farm in Sunnyside, Wash., signed a petition demanding the right to negotiate pay and expected production quotas, which included 50 pounds of mushrooms an hour, something that most workers weren’t able to meet.
“Part of what drew us to the mushroom sector were the labour challenges. The industry relies on foreign labourers and there’s a lot of employee turnaround at farms. Mushroom harvesting is challenging work,” Mr. O’Connor says.
Mushrooms, which grow in tight clumps in dark, humid environments, can double in size over 24 hours and are fragile, making them challenging for automation.
Working with owners at Highline Mushrooms farm in Langley, B.C., and Banken Champignons, in the Netherlands, Mr. O’Connor says that 4AG’s solution is able to pick, trim and pack mushrooms, while using artificial intelligence to determine the best possible time to harvest the product and maintain optimal growing conditions.
In its last deployment at one of Highline’s farms in Abbotsford, B.C., 4AG’s robots were able to pick 13,000 pounds of mushrooms that were sold in grocery stores across the West Coast of Canada and the United States.
In April, 2022, then-agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced an investment of up to $344,100 for the Canadian Mushroom Growers’ Association – funds that could be used to help the organization market the nutritional benefits of mushrooms to consumers and stakeholders. According to government data released at the time, Canadian mushrooms had an export value of $361-million in 2020.
Globally, the mushroom market reached US$63-billion in 2022, with a forecasted market of US$90.4-billion by 2028, according to the International Market Analysis Research and Consulting Group, a U.S.-based market research firm.
Mr. O’Connor, who spoke to The Globe and Mail from his hotel room in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands, is meeting with current and prospective farmers on a four-country European tour, where he hopes to deploy 4AG’s robots.
The company is filling a need, says Leah Nguyen, chief investment officer at InBC Investment Corp.
“There’s not a lot of players in the mushroom space. So, the attraction they had relative to their competition was something we were excited about supporting,” Ms. Nguyen says.
The $4-million contribution to 4AG is the first direct investment in a company by InBC, which was created by the B.C. government and launched in October last year. The group supports B.C.-based companies that are driving climate action, innovating for the future, advancing reconciliation or elevating inclusive communities.
“It’s a homegrown company that has the potential to be world-class,” Ms. Nguyen adds.