Bay View Grows Mushrooms

Bay View Grows Mushrooms

Three urban farmers are growing mushrooms in an old industrial building on Milwaukee’s south side, using coffee grounds from local coffee shops as mushroom food, and selling the finished fungi to restaurants.

Grow Local, a natural-foods business from Neenah in the Fox Valley has the 6,000 square-foot mushroom operation in the old W.B. Bottle Co. building at 822 E. Bay St. in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood.

Grow Local owners Steve Catlin, Calvin Andersen and Alex Fehrenbach share the building with other businesses, including a furniture store and a carpentry shop. They grow about 100 pounds of mushrooms a week for restaurants, with plans to boost that to 500 pounds a week over the next year.

By Rick Barrett

“We are in full production mode, but we are still investing more in this space, building out our system and network,” Catlin said.

Mushrooms get their nutrition by metabolizing nonliving organic matter. The Grow Local mushrooms’ food includes coffee grounds from Stone Creek and Kickapoo coffee shops.

The fungi are grown in a big, open room that’s essentially a humidity and light-controlled greenhouse.

Catlin developed a system for growing the gourmet mushrooms, including the shiitake and oyster varieties, that uses coffee grounds, sawdust and wood chips as the substrate.

Mushrooms don’t require as much light as vegetables, making them a good fit with indoor urban farming.

“I am kind of an evangelist for getting people to grow mushrooms. You can grow them on your own if you can maintain a semimoist mulch bed,” Catlin said.

Catlin is a 2011 Marquette University graduate, with a degree in psychology and philosophy. Andersen and Fehrenbach are University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates with degrees in biological systems engineering and geography.

Their business produces greens, herbs and fish in Neenah, and the mushrooms in Milwaukee.

Most of Grow Local’s products are sold in the Fox Valley, but it also sells to some Milwaukee-area restaurants. The business aims to develop a direct-to-consumer market that would partner with other farmers and would provide customers with information on how their food was produced.

Catlin said he wants to offer people year-round the experience they get at farmers markets.  "You look the farmer in the eye, and that person tells you the reasons why their product is good,” Catlin said.

The Bay View neighborhood — with its young, health-conscious residents — could be a prime location for that.

“One of our niches is year-round production of chemical-free products,” Catlin said. “There are a lot of organic farmers quietly doing an awesome job.”

The trio wrote their business plan while they were in college. They started with the 2,000-square-foot greenhouse in Neenah, using a system in which the waste produced by farmed fish supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically. The Neenah location also has a herb garden.

The large, open space in the former bottling plant in Bay View was perfect for growing mushrooms.

“And we don’t see this as our last space, for sure,” Catlin said.

Milwaukee has been a leader in urban farming, whether it’s growing mushrooms indoors or fruits and vegetables on vacant lots.

“We were getting excited about all of the changes in local foods in Wisconsin, especially in Milwaukee. We were inspired by Will Allen and some other farms in the area,” Catlin said.

Allen is the founder and CEO of Growing Power, a nonprofit focused on urban farming and creating sustainable food systems. He started with 3 acres of land on Milwaukee’s north side in 1993 and now has locations in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and other places throughout the world.

“We have the largest urban farm in the world, but we need more folks who really want to scale it up,” Allen said.

“There are going to be people who do this on a small scale, and that’s great … but we need to scale up to the point where we can grow some jobs and put people to work,” he said.

Allen, named one of the 100 World’s Most Influential People by Time Magazine, believes that urban farming can help address poverty and related social issues.

“The answer to end poverty and violence is to give people living-wage jobs, and this is an industry that can do that. We don’t see other industries moving into troubled communities,” Allen said.

Growing Power has trained mushroom farmers from all over the world. It also has greenhouses for year-round production of fruits and vegetables in cold climates.

Increasingly, consumers have sought locally-grown foods.

“The market is there. The problem is there’s not enough production. We have to grow some farmers,” Allen said.

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