Is it a farm or is it a factory? ProFood World doesn’t usually spend its pages covering the agricultural side of the business, our industry coverage firmly rooted in the equipment and technologies found on the factory floor. But as the food industry comes to terms with a world in which rising population and climate change present enormous challenges to our food supply, we must also come to terms with what food “production” might look like going forward.
One of the winners of this year’s Manufacturing Innovation Awards (MIA) presents one possible new model. At its new Swersey Silos operation, MyForest Foods grows large beds of mycelium in a vertical farm. There are more standard operational procedures along the way as it shapes and slices and cures those blocks of mycelium into a plant-based bacon alternative, but it is the growth step—precisely manipulated, at industrial scale—that is particularly innovative.
This is not your father’s food production.
Makin’ the bacon
MyForest Foods was established in 2020 as a spin-off from Ecovative, a company established by Eben Bayer (CEO) with fellow Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student Gavin McIntyre (CCO) to commercialize a mycelium-based Styrofoam replacement and other more sustainable products. MyForest Foods uses Ecovative’s AirMycelium technology, a technique that enables the company to make their mycelium products edible.
Whereas Ecovative’s MycoComposite technology products incorporate mycelium grown around a low-cost starter, AirMycelium technology enables the mycelium to grow above the growth medium. In July 2022, MyForest Foods unveiled a vertical mycelium farm that takes full advantage of the AirMycelium technology to make the company’s flagship product, MyBacon—a plant-based bacon alternative.
MyBacon mimics the taste and texture of traditional pork bacon with a minimal list of ingredients: mycelium, salt, sugar, coconut oil, natural flavors, and beet juice for color. The plant-based meat alternative market really got its start in the ground meat realm, such as burgers or sausages. Whole cuts of animal meats—bacon, chicken, steak, etc.—make up 80% of the traditional proteins sold. Plant-based alternatives of those whole cuts, however, are typically done through extrusion, a multi-step process of dehydrating, rehydrating, extruding, and shaping.
MyForest Foods stands that model on its head, creating a whole meat alternative that is grown rather than extruded. The AirMycelium technology takes advantage of mycelium’s natural properties to carefully guide its geometric growth at industrial scale. Manipulating various environmental factors to mimic conditions in a dark forest, where mushrooms are happiest, MyForest is able to grow the mycelium directly onto 100 x 3 ft beds.
Named in honor of Burt Swersey, the RPI professor who pushed his students to pursue meaningful inventions, MIA winner Swersey Silos is MyForest Foods’ new vertical mycelium farm in Green Island, N.Y.
Within that vertical farm, MyForest teases the mycelial fibers with the same kind of refreshing dew they would experience on the forest floor after a cool night. A gentle breeze also simulates the whoosh of the wind through the trees at sunset. By orchestrating the environmental factors carefully, MyForest is able to grow the natural mushroom textures and flavors it is after—in accelerated timeframes (12 to 16 days vs. 12 to 16 weeks). The structures thus grown resemble whole pork bellies, and are exactly the right size to slice off strips of mycelium bacon for further processing at another facility.
“In the AirMycelium process, we’re effectively tricking it. Alright, I’m above the surface. Should I become a mushroom? Or am I underground and keep growing mycelium? And then, oh, I’m above the surface, I guess I’ll start to turn into a mushroom,” Bayer says, explaining the rotation of cycles that coaxes the layers of the product. “This sort of grows like a 3D printer, up and out of that bed—every couple seconds, making a layer that’s imperceptible to the human eye. But it’s basically the cells weaving themselves on top of each other. And based on how we control the environment, they weave in different patterns.”
Using off-the-shelf technology
Though AirMycelium is a novel technology—and MyForest Foods is doing a lot of things that have not been done for traditional food production—the mycelium company is working as much as possible to standardize processes and use standard equipment from other industries, particularly the mushroom industry, where Adam Heinze, MyForest’s director of operations, comes from.
At the R&D stage, MyForest started with smaller growth chambers. “They looked a lot like a standard walk-in refrigerator that you’d see at a restaurant—mostly because they were. Then we decided to get a little fancier,” Heinze says, explaining the company’s move to industrial cooling—though in a similar-sized box—to better control temperature and other environmental parameters. “And then the founders, Gavin and Eben, decided that it would be appropriate to see if we didn’t have to argue and bicker with fermenters, but if we could use off-the-shelf mushroom technology. So we built sort of half a traditional mushroom room.”
This was an R&D platform to help the founders figure out if off-the-shelf mushroom equipment—conveyors, hoppers, etc.—would work for their operations. “A lot of what we’re doing is taking conventional equipment from the mushroom industry and conventional processes from other industries like continuous steam sterilization of solid particles, conveyance of woodchips, and then combining them with unique biology,” Bayer says.
What Heinze describes as “the least interesting thing we do” are essentially mushroom works. For example, MyForest is using standard mushroom head filling equipment—a conveyor system typically used to fill mushroom shelves with compost and casing—to fill the shelves of its vertical farm with mycelium growth material. “The big conveyor pulls up to the front of the shelf, this conveyor rolls out, and that big guy in the back pulls the net at the same speed that that conveyor works,” Heinze says, explaining how the growth mixture populates the shelves in the vertical farm. “I can fill one of these shelves in about four minutes.”
Essentially, Heinze says, MyForest is growing mushrooms in a novel way. “The way we’re able to utilize equipment is that we’re basically just offering different sets of growth conditions to an existing product,” he says. “We are developing a different product, so we’re attempting to domesticate a new product in a shorter period of time.”
On the downstream end of this, however, the operation looks significantly different than a mushroom farm. Unlike the mushrooms, which get picked, the mycelium emerges as a giant slab that then goes to a slicer.
“We’re growing a texture,” Heinze emphasizes. “So then I don’t have to grind everything up, and emulsify it, and add thickeners. We’ve got a texture.”
MyForest Foods is vertically integrated—from woodchips to bacon. At one end of the operation are the two green silos (Swersey Silos) that are iconic at MyForest Foods. They contain the feedstocks—woodchips, typically, but could be another low-cost agricultural byproduct—that will be used to grow the mycelium. “One of the benefits of this process is that we literally use the lowest-grade carbon source you can imagine,” Bayer says. “Most bioprocesses use sugar—high value sugar. We’re using the same woodchips you’d burn in a burner.”
From the silos, the wet woodchip slurry makes its way into the pre-processing plant, where it’s heated, moisturized, and cooled, and then mycelium cells are inoculated into the mix. The woodchips are heated for sterilization and then cooled again to create the right environment for the mycelia to grow. “In the mushroom industry, I believe this is the largest continuous flow sterilizer that there is,” Bayer says.
From there, the mixture is put into several small bags. “You’ve got inoculated, sterilized, cooled woodchips that have been expanded and filled with the mycelium cells of our choice,” Bayer explains. The bags of growth material are sent down a conveyor and over to a palletizing operation, where robots pick them up and place them into baskets stacked on pallets, where they stay to grow.
“When the mycelium grows, it eats the woodchips—it’s like a biological fire,” Bayer explains. “It gives off CO2, it’s burning the woodchips, it starts to get warmer, and it starts converting those woodchips and the protein and the other carbohydrates in there into this mycelial biomass, which becomes the network in the programming that will then become the finished product.”
The robots place the bags into the baskets in such a way that allows the bags room to breathe and to dissipate heat, Bayer adds. “It’s almost like a nuclear pile,” he says. “If you stack them too close together, they actually get so hot they’ll die, or in some cases you make a fire.”
This is essentially a solid-state fermentation process. “Most fermentation occurs in liquid, anaerobically, and this is aerobic,” Bayer says. “Like you, it breathes in air and respirates CO2.”
The bags sit in the baskets for three or four days, giving off heat and growing and colonizing. “The bags basically turn white with mycelium,” Bayer says. “Then they get put into the grow room as soil.” Essentially, a full pallet fills the grow room, Heinze adds.
Ability to scale
“This input material thing is a missing enabling factor in the industry,” Bayer says. “What does it take to make this new mycelia tissue at scale at the appropriate price? It’s not some breakthrough in the lab, it’s absolute physical scale, and that includes the input material.”
To that end, MyForest Foods is doing everything it can to figure out how to make more of everything it’s producing. “This plant now produces at max capacity—something like 10 times what the North American current production infrastructure is—and it’s the largest in the world of its type,” Bayer says. “So this is an enabling piece of infrastructure that will enable other farms like MyForest Foods to grow the same crops.”
With Swersey Silos operating at full capacity, MyForest Foods is projected to serve MyBacon to more than 1 million consumers by 2024. The company aims to scale production over the next 18 months to full volume, Bayer says, focusing on further scaling up through a network of other producers. “Ultimately, we will grow the next circle out from this through working with other farmers and processors. We’re bringing all the unique pieces together to prove that this is possible. And then the next cycle is: How do you scale this as fast as possible in our manufacturing ecosystem,” he says. “We’re unique in that we built something that’s really amazing. Our goal now is to take this and push it into an ecosystem that exists.”
The economics are very good for the solid-state fermentation process that MyForest uses, according to Bayer. “Mushroom farming is farming—an order of magnitude lower cost than liquid fermentation in terms of capital efficiency,” he says. “If you look at this larger, broader landscape that we’re part of, whether it’s food or leather or anything, most people are trying to do stuff in big steel tanks—like whiskey or beer—and that actually doesn’t scale very well outside of anything in food."
The best way to scale to the levels that MyForest ultimately wants is through co-manufacturers, Bayer emphasizes, noting that the company has proven out its initial concept of integrated manufacturing sufficiently that it can begin to use co-mans. “So we’re moving to more of a pre-processing step where we’re doing basically a pasteurization step at the end to set the ingredients,” he says. “Then we can either take that to one of our two processing locations or to a co-man.”