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Multi-million facility mushrooms in Opasatika.

Opasatika Mushroom farm's history is not that much different from many start-up enterprises where trial, error, education and investment combine to eventually germinate a successful, multi-million dollar facility.

You have to be the best to compete with the best, says Alain Guindon, manager of the Opasatika Mushroom farm. It is this mind-set that has given Guindon, his son Marc, Laurier Guillemette, and Father Adrien Noel the impetus to stand back, reassess their situation and set it right.

These four men sit on the board of directors of the farm, and have put hundreds of volunteer hours into the operation to see its success.

Originally the farm was a gymnasium, brought to Opasatika from a nearby former NORAD army base. In 1998, efforts were made to grow and produce mushrooms.

Noel, a former contractor before entering the priesthood, wanted to give back to the community and help create employment. In the mid '90s, he invested some funds to help a previous group begin production at the farm, says Marc. Unfortunately, the business suffered difficulties and eventually closed.

Shortly after, Excel Forest Products (later owned by Tembec) bought the building and used it to kiln-dry wood.

Unsatisfied with its quick defeat, Noel bought the farm back in 2002 and invested more money to correct the problems encountered earlier. With the combined volunteer skills of Guillemette (a retired agronomist from Agriculture Canada), Alain, (retired from the Spruce Falls mill), and Marc, a high school teacher with a degree in biochemistry, the farm is now a multi-million-dollar facility.

"If you were to build this today, it would cost $3.2 million," says Alain, well aware of its value.

Currently, the operation has a $45,000 computer system to control temperature, humidity and C[O.sub.2] levels for optimal production, a 125 kilowatt backup generator, a 50-horse power boiler and 353 square metres of mushroom beds.

Loading equipment for compost has been modified for greater efficiency and the farm now uses synthetic compost, instead of making its own.

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"The trend is that you have to be proficient, not just in making compost, but in growing compost," Alain says, convinced it is better to concentrate on growing mushrooms, than making compost.

He explains the yield from synthetic compost ranges between 30 and 40 kilograms per square metre, compared to homemade compost, which yields between 12 and 25 kg/sq. m. Marc adds it is difficult to be consistent when making your own compost, and the benefits of purchasing synthetic compost outweigh the old artisan method.

"If you purchase your own compost from professional compost suppliers, it costs 30 per cent less than if you tried to make it yourself," Marc says. As well, there is a greater selection of raw products (sheep, horse and poultry manure) in the compost and bulk production offers more stability, so it is less susceptible to pests and bacteria.

"The beauty of synthetic compost is that you load on the first day, and on the 20th, 21st, or 22nd day you are picking, versus the old method when it was almost three months," Alain adds.

Consequently, consistent production is possible in the four growing rooms, satisfying "just-in-time" deliveries for stores.

An additional investment made by the three men (Guillemette, Marc and Alain) is education. They took a course at Ridgetown College, a satellite campus of the University of Guelph, and Alain worked on-site at a mushroom farm in southern Ontario to become well-versed in the art of mushroom growing.

By October 2005, the farm was back on-line, growing and producing 1-3/4-inch to two-inch white caps called Champignons de Paris in five-pound boxes sold to local vendors twice a week for about five months. However, the steep ascent on the learning curve during that time helped Alain realize they needed a consistent market for their product.

"We had to understand our market and be able to recommission the farm in order to make sure everything worked well," he says.

They learned there were three classes of mushrooms, "Select" being the first pick, or number ones, which were 30 per cent of the crop. But they needed to sell their number two and three picks.

"In order to make the farm economically viable, you have to unload all your mushrooms," Alain says, "so we were looking at the restaurant, pizza, and Chinese food markets."

During the farm's brief hiatus, Alain made a deal with SYSCO, a food distribution service that originated in Texas, to sell the number two and three picks.

Now, the company is back in production (June 15) selling its first pick to local vendors, with SYSCO picking up second and third picks twice a week. By July of this year, the company had four full-time employees and approximately 20 to 25 part-time workers, selling about 2,200 pounds per week, with the aim to sell 5,000 to 6,000 lbs./wk.

Once the farm is in full production, Alain anticipates it will employ 30 people and produce about 400,000 pounds of mushrooms.

By ADELLE LARMOUR

Northern Ontario Business
COPYRIGHT 2006 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
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Title Annotation:NEWS; Opastika Mushroom farm
Author:Larmour, Adelle
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Company overview
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Words:844
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