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US (IA): Award-winning innovation in growing mushrooms

In its second year of existence, the Controlled Environments Club is already making an impact and gaining national attention.

Earlier this fall, club members received honorable mention accolades and $5,000 to put toward their project in the 2023 Wilbur-Ellis Innovation Award competition. The event challenges teams of college students throughout the U.S. and Canada to devise innovative ideas to provide food for the world’s growing population.

The club proposed to grow mushrooms in portable, highly controlled environments, such as container farms. They feel this growing system would be particularly useful in Iowa’s urban areas that have less land for growing produce.

The team consists of students from various majors, including some from Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They focus on designing and constructing vertical farms and hydroponics systems to grow plants from the ground up. In the process, they bring together engineering, computer science, and horticulture disciplines.

“It’s been interesting to pick other students’ brains about their areas of expertise while working on this project,” said Meadow Edwards, a junior in horticulture. “It’s just a huge learning experience.”

She and fellow club member Sam Burns, a junior in electrical engineering, are taking the same hydroponic crop production course, gaining insight to bring back to the club.

In coming up with their idea, the club looked at food deserts in the Des Moines area and brainstormed ways to grow and provide fresh produce in those locations.

“Transportation is an issue in food deserts, so we wanted to select an item that would positively contribute to these populations’ overall nutrition,” Burns said. “Mushrooms are a great protein source – better than other plant protein sources.”

During the past year, club members have been growing basil hydroponically in the basement of Bessey Hall on campus. Coming up with a way to grow mushrooms in a system that didn’t involve much space or even soil was a new challenge.

“We’re still learning how to grow different types of mushrooms hydroponically, which, in our case, involves growing them in bags filled with woodchips,” Burns said.

The woodchips act as a substrate, a material in which plants live or grow. The woodchips are a surplus of the ISU Horticulture Research Station’s supply and were not needed.

“It’s better for the environment because you’re not wasting water or spraying chemicals,” McKenna Murphy, senior in environmental science and agronomy, said of the alternative method of growing the mushrooms.

The next steps for the club include making a timeline and budget to get started growing the mushrooms.

“There are a lot of steps that go into it,” said Noah Mack, junior in computer engineering. “It’s like a spiderweb of steps, not one thing after another.”

They also need to determine where they are going to distribute the mushrooms. One possibility could be donating them to SHOP, the on-campus food pantry. Another could be organizations within the local community that assist food-insecure populations. Included with the mushrooms would be recipe cards to serve as inspiration when including the mushrooms in meals.

The student would also like to create “how to” videos that demonstrate the process of growing plants hydroponically and can even be done in a student’s dorm room or apartment.

“We want to show how easy it is to learn how to do something, such as growing mushrooms, and that the process is easy to do,” Edwards said.

Suzanne Slack, assistant professor of horticulture and advisor to the club, is proud of the students’ success in the national competition and their progress since starting the student organization.

“They’re really motivated and have done a lot of research for this project,” Slack said. “I’m very proud of them and excited to see their continued success.”


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