Turning beer waste into mushrooms, and mushroom waste into feed — that’s what Alex Villeneuve is doing with Ceres Solutions, a farm located in the Treaty 7 region (Olds, AB).
Alex Villeneuve was completing a Chef’s Apprenticeship at NAIT when he decided to take the Brewmaster’s Program at Old’s College. After witnessing the amount of waste that comes from the brewing process while in the program, he knew there had to be a better way. This is when he began to experiment with cultivating mushrooms. His set-up was simple; Ziploc bags, bale twine, plastic buckets, and duct tape were used in the experimentation process.
After a lot of trial-and-error, Alex successfully figured out how to use brewery waste into mushrooms. It’s a new concept that after 6 years of development is 8.8 times more efficient than the average North American mushroom grower.
Photo: Alex Villeneuve of Ceres Solutions. Location: Olds, AB.
Within two months of being in the Brewmaster’s Program, he incorporated Ceres Solutions and began scaling up his operation. Six years later, he produces several hundred pounds of mushrooms on a weekly basis out of Olds, AB and is in the process of moving the operations over to a farm in Crossfield, AB, where he hopes to produce 8,000 pounds of mushrooms with 15-20 full-time employees. He’s fine-tuned his process over the years, but how does it all work? Let’s break it down.
Beer to Mushrooms to Feed
It Starts With Beer
To brew beer, a brewer takes malt grain — primarily barley — and crushes it up to expose its starchy insides. Then, water is added to that mix. Enzymes in the grain convert the starch into sugar and that resulting sugar water eventually becomes beer.
Photo: Alex holds the spent brewer’s grain.
What isn’t well-known is the byproduct of this process — the stuff called spent brewer’s grain. The exterior hull — the really high protein part of the grain — is left behind after the brewing is over. Large breweries (like Big Rock) can sell the spent grain as feed as they produce huge quantities that are very consistent. However, smaller breweries have no use for this byproduct and as a result, it’s often composted or thrown away.
Next, Comes the Sausage Rolls.
At Ceres Solutions, they use a specialty machine to mix spent brewer’s grain, wheat straw, and mycelium (the root structure of all mushrooms) Adding mycelium is “kind of like adding yeast to bread to get it to rise,” explains Alex.
This mix is then spat out into long plastic tubes that resemble giant sausage rolls. The wheat straw is very fibrous, adding a bit of airflow to the mix. These sausage tubes are hung vertically in shipping containers that are monitored by an AI system. 28 days later, they have specialty mushrooms that are ready for market!
Photo: The sausage tubes are hung vertically inside shipping containers.
Then We Have Animal Feed
For most mushroom farmers, this is where it ends. The mix inside of the tubes is often composted and the plastic is thrown out, but it doesn’t have to end this way.
Growing mushrooms results in a substrate that is higher in protein than when it started. The mushroom mycelium helps break down the complex fibres in the grain that animals can’t digest very well. This high-protein, high-value mix that results as a byproduct of the mushroom farm has been certified to be sold as feed at Ceres Solutions.
Through a lot of support from the college, provincial and federal government, Alex has been able to scale up the operation, with the goal of moving the operations entirely to Crossfield by the end of 2021. They currently collect spent grain from Old’s College, where the farm is also located. At this stage, Alex explains that they aren’t producing enough mushrooms to make it worthwhile to sell it as feed so instead, they compost it.
Nearby in Red Deer, AB is a vegetable farm called Steel Pony Farm. You might be familiar with the name as the farm is part of the Young Agrarians (YA) Apprenticeship program. Current YA Apprentice, Annalise, previously met Alex through Old’s College and worked for Ceres Solutions part-time. Their relationship has led to a partnership between the two farms. Throughout this summer, Annalise has been picking up the sausage tubes to empty and add to Steel Pony’s compost pile. The mushroom mixture composts within one to two months and the finished compost is used on the farm, bringing in lots of nutrients and invaluable mycelium networks to the soil. A win-win for both parties!
Photo: Sausage tubes full of mushroom substrate are waiting to be picked up and brought over to Steel Pony Farm.
When Ceres Solutions fully moves to Crossfield, AB, they’ll be partnering with another company that will deliver spent grain from breweries across Calgary to the farm. Once Alex’s mushroom farm is in full operation, the mixture in the tubes will equate to 25,000 pounds of cattle feed per week. Although the feed product was never a revenue generator for the business, Alex made it a priority as it “avoids waste while adding value to their product”. He’s also in the process of changing over the plastic tubes to completely biodegradable tubes made from plant resin.
Localizing at a Global Level
According to Alex, about 15,000 pounds of specialty mushrooms are consumed each week in Alberta. Until now, these mushrooms were all imported, mainly from Asia and British Columbia. Alex plans to localize the sales of these mushrooms, selling to the major food distributors in Alberta. This mushroom farm will act as a blueprint to be replicated for local economies across the globe.
Photo: Shipping containers are used in Alex’s model as they are universal.
“It doesn’t make any sense for us to build this farm, have a mega farm, then ship everything out…it has to be local for it to make sense,” says Alex. It’s modular, scalable, and easily replicated — the shipping containers are standard worldwide, the custom modifications can be made using 3D printers, and the substrate used to grow the mushrooms can be altered to use locally available materials. Alex has tested a variety of materials on a small scale — including agave fibres, coffee, wood, and residue from coconuts — all of which have been successful.
“[We can] take this basic unit and put it anywhere in the world with largely locally available materials. And then add value in three industries wherever we go.” Alex Villeneuve, Ceres Solutions.
Photo: Alex holds blue oyster mushrooms that were grown on the farm.
Advice for New Farmers
When it comes to the next generation of farmers, Alex shares a few key concepts:
- Say “YES” to everything and apply for everything (ie. grants). Although you might not be successful, you might get some really good feedback.
- Really love it. Plain and simple; it starts with a passion.
- Have a good support network. There will always be good and bad years, but it is important to have people around you who can understand and share experiences with you. (*Hint Hint* – Young Agrarians events are a great way to meet people!).
In this article:
- Read more about the Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program
- Follow Annalise’s journey and learn about her day-to-day as a YA Apprentice at Steel Pony Farm
Photos by Michelle Lam, New Farmer Engagement Coordinator, YA.