Smart Farmer: Mushrooms get a vitamin-rich makeover

Making mushrooms a healthy, circular protein

“We imitate nature,” says Rob Banken of Banken Champignons. With his brother Jurgen, Rob manages the family mushroom business founded in the 1960s by their father, Henk. Today, they advance new, nutrition-driven possibilities for the humble mushroom.

“To grow mushrooms, you need knowledge of nature,” says Rob Banken, who runs his family operation out of Gelderland, in the Netherlands. “In order to raise them, you have to create an artificial, autumnal environment. You can only achieve success by combining the right growing medium, an optimally conditioned environment, and a passion for your product.”

The Banken cultivation medium consists of a special mixture of fibrous horse manure, chicken manure, straw and plaster. Mixed in the right proportions, these ingredients generate a fresh compost. “By pasteurizing the compost, we make it suitable for mushroom cultivation,” says Banken.

Mushrooms on the move

Banken Champignons grows, processes and packages mushrooms for both Dutch and export markets. The company sells to 25 countries and has an annual turnover of around €100 million.

“We have our own cultivation locations and a group of growers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Poland who deliver exclusively to us,” says Banken. “About 70 to 80 percent of our cultivated and wild mushrooms find their way to supermarkets. The remaining 30 percent go to food service companies like restaurants and caterers, healthcare institutions and specialist shops.”

Mushrooms are natural products with a limited shelf life. That means an exceptionally high turnover rate is necessary for timely delivery to customers, explains Banken. “The logistics have to be perfect. We have two ultra-modern distribution centers in the Netherlands and Poland, from which we can deliver our mushrooms fast.”

“The logistics have to be perfect”

- Rob Banken, Banken Champignons

Protein-rich burgers

In addition to cultivated and wild mushrooms, Banken Champignons also brings meal components and its Fresh Ready to (H)eat range to the market, including stuffed mushrooms, BBQ sticks and the vegetarian Champburger.

“The Champburger is new in our range and consists of more than 80 percent mushrooms,” says Banken. Developing new products takes considerable time. He adds: “We pay a lot of attention to research and development, which we do in collaboration with Wageningen University, as well as with colleges and other parties in the chain, such as companies specializing in canned and frozen products. Together, we combine our knowledge and skills to develop new products.”

An example is the vitamin D mushroom. Banken explains that mushrooms naturally contain ergosterol, which is converted into vitamin D under the influence of sunlight. “By mimicking this natural process, we stimulate the production of vitamin D in our mushrooms,” he says.

Short and healthy chains

Banken Champignons is involved in the Gezonde Korte Ketens (Short and Healthy Chains) project, an initiative of the Diverzio Foundation, which promotes healthy and sustainable food for healthcare institutions. Founded in 2011, Diverzio develops, finances and directs sustainability programs in healthcare and agriculture across much of the Netherlands.

“How can farmers and market gardeners connect to local healthcare institutions with their products? That’s what this project is all about,” explains Banken. “Farmers and market gardeners deliver super fresh products that help foster the health of people within these institutions. Rabobank supports these local projects and we supply our mushrooms to healthcare organizations in the Nijmegen region.”

Mushroom men: Founder Henk Banken with sons Rob (left) and Jurgen (right).

“The compost we use is recycled for growing fruit”

- Rob Banken, Banken Champignons

No waste: Circular ’shrooms

Sustainability is an important part of mushroom cultivation, Banken emphasizes. “We make a healthy, commercial product from waste – horse and chicken manure,” he points out. “The waste left behind after cultivation still contains many valuable nutrients for fruit growing, and can be used as a soil improver. Used compost from mushroom companies is very popular.”

The mushroom itself can also be optimally used, he adds: “Whether fresh, dried, preserved, powdered or as a flavoring, it always finds its way to the consumer. There’s no waste here at all.”

During Dutch Agri Food Week, Diverzio launches their “Sustainable and Healthy at the Table” program in partnership with Rabobank ’s-Hertogenbosch and others. Things kick off on October 10 at Reinier van Arkel, the oldest psychiatric institution in the Netherlands. For more information visit the Dutch Agri Food Week website.