A Kennesaw mushroom? Could be, says KSU prof

Chris Cornelison, KSU assistant professor of microbiology, shows off mushroom blooms growing at the KSU Field Station lab.
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Chris Cornelison, KSU assistant professor of microbiology, shows off mushroom blooms growing at the KSU Field Station lab.

Credit: Kennesaw State University

Many grocery shoppers may not think twice about where that package of white mushrooms in the blue Styrofoam box comes from. But the thought nagged Chris Cornelison.

Since joining Kennesaw State’s microbiology department in 2016, Cornelison has been mulling over questions about mushrooms that he was first asked as a graduate student at Georgia State.

“I began looking into the data of mushroom cultivation in the U.S. and was shocked to learn over 90% of all sold in U.S. markets come from Pennsylvania,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to me because, unlike a lot of crops, mushrooms are so adaptable. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be growing them closer to where they’re consumed.”

Thanks to a recent $25,000 grant from the Georgia Research Alliance, Cornelison’s goal is to get more locals on board with the process he’s developed to grow the fungi in shipping containers.

It turns out those containers are “ideal cultivation modules,” said Cornelison, who has set up prototypes on KSU’s field station a few miles from the main campus.

“We figured if we could grow them in containers, we could move them around to where the market is and optimize the yield rate,” he said. “And in a value-added scenario, we grow them on agricultural waste that has no value.”

The waste that comes in is the woody debris cast off from lumber and cotton mills, and peanut farms. Cornelison’s team, made up of a research scientist, four graduate students, two post docs and about a dozen undergrads, has produced mushrooms in one shipping container outfitted with racks of logged-shaped debris hosts. While they’re still working on estimating the value of mushrooms produced if the container were operational full-time, they do know the overall process is economical.

“When you look at the market value of oyster mushrooms, the yield rates are incredibly favorable,” he said. “Each module can generate a massive return every year. And the module is fairly inexpensive to build out. We’ve created a 20-foot shipping container, but it could expand to a 40-foot for $10,000 or less.

That makes container-grown mushrooms a more viable economic model instead of having them in the ground, he said.

“You could put these containers in a parking lot or your back yard, and people can engage in food production in ways they couldn’t with, say, soybeans or peanuts,” he said. “But if someone wants to start a farm, the capital investment is considerable. One aspect of this is the potential for economic development and outreach to communities that have been marginalized in the past.”'

While container growing may present a viable economic opportunity and provide fresh edibles closer to home, the next question is: How do mushrooms grown on decaying peanut debris taste? So far Cornelison has had no complaints from the local food start-ups who received them or the KSU’s dining hall chefs who used them in veggie burgers. The only negative feedback came from a former grad student’s spouse who was sick of the mushroom glut at home.

“We do see some variation in color and texture, but they are incredibly nutritious and readily preservable,” said Cornelison. “I think we could have a unique Georgia strain like a Vidalia onion; we might have a Kennesaw variety of oyster mushroom with a unique sensory experience.”

Information about the KSU field station and its projects is online at fieldstation.kennesaw.edu.

SEND US YOUR STORIES. Each week we look at programs, projects and successful endeavors at area schools, from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or 770-744-3042.

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