Coffee waste is grounds for celebration at a mushroom farm
Andrea Kuhn meets a man who is putting our hot drink obsession to good use in a tasty, ecologically-sound way.
The streets of Exeter throng with shoppers clutching designer bags and cappuccinos, little knowing that in the offices above them a revolutionary concept in farming is taking place – and they are fuelling it.
That's the vision of mushroom farmers Adam Sayner and Eric Jong who run GroCycle. They believe that all the energy that goes into those countless cups of coffee made every day in the high street can be harnessed to grow food.
They have designed a process that uses "spent" coffee grounds, many of which would otherwise end up in landfill, to grow mushrooms. Unused offices in Sidwell Street in Exeter will become home to one of Britain's first urban mushroom farms.
Adam says: "I saw the beauty in the whole process. It's so simple and with so much coffee-waste generated in a city centre it is a perfect match.
"What is even better is that most mushrooms are normally grown entirely on sawdust which has to be sterilised and which is obviously an expensive process and uses more energy. But coffee is sterile for 24 hours as a result of the coffee-making process so it's perfect."
Eric adds: "When you think of all the energy that has gone into growing the crop of coffee, importing it, grinding it and then putting it through a machine, that's quite a lot. This way we are making that energy go further."
In addition, many mushrooms are transported by refrigerated trucks. However, the GroCycle crop of fresh oyster mushrooms will be on the plates of city diners and in the racks of vegetable shops within hours of being picked.
As if this were not enough of a virtuous circle, the pair have also decided that Exeter's first urban farm, which will get underway later this summer, will be run as a not for profit project and offer skills and training to the unemployed.
"Right from the start that was the vision, that we would do some kind of social enterprise," says Adam. " I think there is a lot of strength in doing a social enterprise linking people together. I like the idea of partnership."
They enlisted the support of Matt Bell, chief executive of Exeter Community Initiatives, a charity which has been running projects in Exeter for the last 20 years.
Matt says the charity's projects are designed to empower, connect and educate people who have been homeless or in poverty.
"That's why I grabbed this opportunity immediately," he adds. "We'd already identified that tackling long-term unemployment was a key priority for this year and this was a perfect vehicle to train and skill up those in desperate need of help.
"But at the same time it saves energy, reduces waste, provides food and has a low environmental cost. It's just an all-round brilliant idea."
Like many "good ideas" the strategic planning has taken several years of development. Adam, 29, ran a successful mushroom-growing business in Dartington, selling to restaurants and independent shops, before he met Eric, 36, three years ago.
Together they refined the process of growing the mushrooms with coffee waste they had collected from café's in Plymouth. But the long-term aim was always to grow mushrooms in the city to remove transport costs and minimise fuel use.
Originally from Holland, Eric's background is very different to Adam's. In a former life, he worked in the high-pressure world of international business for what he jokingly describes as "evil corporations" but gradually realised that he wanted something more fulfilling.
A stint WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) with his wife in the Brecon Beacons was instrumental in his decision to work in some form of ethical agriculture. They later moved to Dartington and he began volunteering for Adam. As they worked side by side cultivating and tending the mushrooms they talked endlessly and they realised they shared many ideas and gradually the idea of the urban farm was born.
"I think crucially we had a very different skill set, with my business back ground and Adam's experience of the growing and selling mushrooms. We both knew we wanted to create a different sort of business," adds Eric. "We think this will be the first of its kind but we would like to see this type of urban mushroom farm in every city in Britain."
Together GroCycle and Exeter Community Initiatives have managed to secure a site in Sidwell Street, in Exeter, with the support of Land Securities and The Crown Estate. The first crop of mushrooms is planned for the early autumn.
The project is designed to be sustainable, as the sale of the mushrooms will fund the purchase of new mushroom spawn but the trio hope that people from around the city and beyond will back the project by buying the mushrooms.
"Supporting this project could not only change the way we can farm and the way we are able to grow some foods but it can change lives," adds Matt.
You can pledge your support by liking Exeter Urban Farm on Facebook or giving a donation at www.big.co.uk.
Recipe from Sima and Hannah at The Kitchen Table (thekitchentable.org.uk) in South Devon – great served with game or beef.
150g finely chopped onion
2x cloves of garlic, crushed
100mls chicken stock
400g oyster mushrooms (cut as you like; diced, sliced)
Sweat the onions in some good olive oil on a low heat until translucent, add the garlic then the mushrooms and raise the heat a little and brown them off. Add the brandy, reduce the heat and cook for five minutes or so then add the stock and simmer for 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. The sauce should thicken and reduce.