In 2023, mushroom farming remains a labour-intensive and repetitive process.
That makes it a field ripe for technological disruption, believes Sean O’Connor, who serves as chief executive officer of 4ag Robotics.
Based in Salmon Arm, the freshly funded and recently rebranded 4ag Robotics (pronounced “forage”) builds high-precision solutions, which incorporate complex computer vision and AI, for harvesting, processing, and packing mushrooms.
“We believe that we can build a globally successful robotics company, based right here in Salmon Arm,” O’Connor stated in November.
Labour shortages in the mushroom industry are crippling production capabilities, according to Laura Phelps of the American Mushroom Institute, and it’s no wonder—the conditions of mushroom harvesting render an environment that is “hardly conducive to human work,” to borrow the words of 4ag Robotics.
And yet demand for fresh, edible mushrooms is at an all-time high—and continues to grow each year, the BC company says.
Moreover, Canada produces nearly half a million tonnes of fresh mushrooms per year, making the nation the fifth largest producer in the world. And with the globe’s second-biggest producer, the US, touching borders, O’Connor observes an extensive local market to tap.
4ag Robotics has thus developed a fully autonomous, vision-guided mushroom-harvesting robot to innovate mushroom production in North America.
The robot attaches to a farm’s existing shelving, the company notes, so there’s no need for changes to farm infrastructure. They are also transportable and can move between growing rooms when needed.
To date, 4ag has completed proof of concept deployments on multiple farms.
“Both performed well, achieving the goal of 95% successful pick rate,” the company stated. The next step is to demonstrate complete autonomous operation of the harvesting system including thinning, opening the bunches, stem trimming, packaging, and transporting out of the growing room.
To help achieve this ambitious next step, 4ag this month received funding from Innovate BC and the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program through the BC Fast Pilot initiative.
“Innovate BC’s grant capital is a pivotal milestone in our journey at 4AG,” O’Connor stated. “We are dedicated to empowering mushroom producers to grow sustainably through innovative robotic solutions, and this funding is a testament to the faith placed in our mission.”