Mushroom growing companies around the world are facing the problem of labor shortage. In Canada and the United States, there is a labor gap of about 20 percent, and about $200 million worth of mushrooms are lost each year due to labor shortages.
“It’s efficient work because mushrooms are very delicate to handle,” says Michael Curry of Mysionics, developer of the robotic mushroom picking system. “It takes about three months to become a skilled forager, but, because of the continuous nature of the job and the high humidity, it’s a job that people don’t like very much.” With a turnover rate of over 40%, many workers leave the farm before learning the basics of the business.
One of the main factors for developing a robotic mushroom picking system is labor shortage. “Mushroom farms are perfect for automation,” Curry said. “They work year-round and have a common infrastructure.” The Dutch aluminum shelving system is six to seven shelves high and is the most widely used technology worldwide. This is another advantage for robotics as there is no need to change infrastructure. Also, mushrooms grow very fast at a rate of 4% per hour and for optimum yield, they should be harvested regularly when they reach 55 mm in size.
Automatic collection of white mushrooms.
All these characteristics play an important role in the development of a robotic system that mimics the way workers gather. The Mycionics collection system digitizes the collection by scanning the beds and can identify 98% of mushrooms. Data such as location, size, temperature, humidity, CO2 levels are collected and processed.
“It takes the computer about 30 minutes to scan a bed of 200,000 mushrooms or more.” Based on the scan results, the overall collection strategy is decided and the system decides where to start the collection. “This system collects each mushroom at the right time and in the optimal amount”. While growing mushrooms was earlier an art, the availability of crop/climate data and the use of robots are turning it into a science.
Digital representation of mushrooms.
The robotic mushroom picker not only helps solve labor problems but also promotes yield improvement of about 10%. First, digitization of harvesting ensures timely harvesting of mushrooms. Pickers work in 8- to 12-hour shifts, while a robotic system picks continuously around the clock, allowing mushrooms to be harvested at the optimal time and quantity. In addition, the computer allows you to cut the stems evenly.
“They are cut straight and to the right length, which allows for maximum stem length and increases product weight,” comments Curry. This results in about 3% yield improvement. Last, but not least, the mushrooms are weighed and placed in baskets. Since they cannot be underweight, they are usually a little overweight. “With binders, the overage is about 3-5 percent,” Curry said. “Thanks to the uniformity of the pieces, the surplus with robotic collection is reduced to around 1%”. The technology is designed to avoid contact with the top of the cap, so the mushrooms are harvested without damage.
As of fall 2022, six mushroom-picking robots are in operation at a farm in Ontario, Canada. Mycionics is the world’s first company to robotically harvest mushrooms and has already attracted interest from other growers in Canada, the US, Europe and Australia. Currently, the company is in talks with two other companies in Ontario to install harvesting robots this year. The company won’t sell its robot technology outright, but will instead offer a collection service. “We are paid per kilo for the mushrooms we successfully harvest, allowing farms of all sizes to access robotic harvesting to address labor shortages.”
Click below for a video of a mushroom picker working on a farm in Canada.
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