AI mushroom research sprouts $400k fellowship
Australia’s lucrative exotic mushroom industry is set to benefit from the latest in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, as part of a new project aimed at improving efficiency and overall harvest yield while also reducing waste.
Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) researcher Dr Wei Zhang received $420,000 in an Australian Research Council (ARC) Early Career Industry Fellowship announced last week. The program aims to build relationships between academics and industry which can translate research into commercialised outcomes.
Working closely with agribusiness Clever Mushroom, Dr Zhang plans to develop and build a portable system that, using AI and internet-of-things (IoT) technology, can improve mushroom cultivation at the company’s rural farm.
Harnessing existing data from mushroom cultivators, Dr Zhang wants to design a system that can learn new agricultural techniques, assess ripeness, and set the best environment for growing the edible and medicinal fungi.
This would improve resource efficiency and harvest yield while reducing waste for industry partners and horticultural producers.
“Mushroom growers face a big problem which is the waste in harvesting and transportation. It requires freshness and it’s easy to get mould,” Dr Zhang says.
“The project we propose is particularly for solving problems happening in Clever Mushroom, a small but growing company.”
Founded in 2020, Clever Mushroom uses agritech in the growing of a wide variety of exotic mushrooms at their farm in the New South Wales Tablelands, including lion’s mane, black pearl, pink oyster, and coral tooth varietals.
The farming business, founded by Dr Queen Nguyen and Dr Trung Vo, uses smart sensors, data analytics, robotics, and AI to create better growing environments for their mushrooms, which are then shipped globally.
The mushroom industry is worth about $430 million to Australia’s economy with about 72 per cent of households picking up some on their regular shop, according to the Australian Horticulture Statistics Handbook.
While white cup mushrooms remain the favourite for Australian households, chefs are turning to the exotic varietals when designing the menus of their restaurants.
In an interview with the AFR last year, chef Clinton McIver said he had added a lion’s mane-based dish to the $120 ‘sensory’ menu of his Melbourne diner Amaru for the first time.
It wasn't just the shapely appearance that attracted him, but the mushroom’s flavour and meaty texture.
“It has this beautiful umami savoury flavour,” McIver said.
“We brush the whole lion’s mane in a koji oil, barbecue it, rip it into bite-sized pieces and fold through a savoury porridge of cracked freekeh.”
Exotic mushroom varieties such lion’s mane sell for up to $100 a kilogram.