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Cover Story: R&R Cultivation Featured in Minnesota Agriculture

Cover Story: R&R Cultivation Featured in Minnesota Agriculture

R&R Cultivation was honored to be on the front cover of Minnesota Agriculture (Minnesota Farmers Union) Magazine in June 2022. Read the full story by Janet Kubat Willette below!

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By Janet Kubat Willette

Nick Robinson didn't dream of being a farmer, instead a series of events led him to growing mushrooms in a Twin Cities suburb.

Robinson graduated from Irondale High School in New Brighton and attended Winona State. He left college to enter the workforce and he excelled in sales and marketing, consistently meeting or exceeding sales goals.

Then he had an epiphany. He enjoyed his work, but he was working more to buy more, and he was tired of the cycle. 

It became important for him to do something that made him happy. He moved to China for three years and started working in the education sector, but again found himself seeking meaningful work, something that made a difference.

Robinson decided he wanted to be involved in producing something the world needed- thus food production. He settled upon mushrooms for a variety of reasons, including the absence of a large, organic mushroom grower in the Twin Cities.

In 2018, he started R&R Cultivation in his basement. R&R Cultivation specializes in growing 12 species of organic, gourmet mushrooms.

“We're trying to build a business from other people's waste products," said Robinson, whose business partner is Lance Ramm.

One of those waste products is wheat midds, also known as wheat middlings. They are a byproduct of wheat milling. Another is soyhulls, a byproduct of processing soybeans for oil or meal. They also use sawdust.

The three ingredients are mixed in different concentrations for each of the 12 species of mushrooms grown at R&R Cultivation. After the ingredients are mixed, the bag is folded into a block and placed in an autoclave. After it is removed from the autoclave, the l O-pound block is cooled then inoculated, sealed and placed on a rack for colonization to occur. The bag is filled with everything the fungi needs to produce a mushroom.

Throughout the grow building, racks are filled with blocks in various states of colonization. As time passes, a white material appears in the blocks, which is called mycelium. Mycelium begins the process of growing a mushroom. When this happens, the blocks are moved into cooler grow rooms where fruiting occurs.

Each mushroom species has a different maturity, but the indoor production environment allows production to occur year-round. Shiitake mushrooms, for example, sit on the shelf to 14 weeks. Each day, the entire process from inoculation to harvest and packaging occurs. A 25-ton heating and cooling system makes sure the air is where it needs to be to keep production on track year-round.

R&R Cultivation sells eight species of mushrooms across the Twin Cities metropolitan area through food cooperatives, Lunds & Byerlys and Hy-Vee. They need to increase production before going into the restaurant market.

The mushroom fruit is harvested twice before the spent blocks are removed. Robinson is looking for a farmer who wants to exchange wheat midds for the organic fertilizer provided by the spent blocks.

Data-driven Mushroom Production

Robinson works with a soybean farmer in lowa to purchase his soyhulls. Whereas that farmer plants once, harvests once and sells once each growing season, that process happens each week- times 12- at R&R Cultivation. Each mushroom is planted, harvested and sold weekly. 

He sources his wheat midds from a Twin Cities company and has a local sawdust supplier. If he had any doubts about having a local supply chain, those doubts were erased with the COVID-19-induced global supply chain disruptions.

It would be easier if they weren't certified organic producers, but that certification is important to Robinson and Ramm. The certification ensures that their products can be traced back to where they originated. Careful notes are taken each day for traceability, to meet certification requirements and to aid in the ongoing improvement of their production process.

In his second-floor office, Robinson manages the chaos of the business with huge spreadsheets spread across his big screen. He can drill down in the numbers to make data-informed decisions, determine costs and see where issues may be occurring.

In weekly meetings with team leads, they discuss what went well and what needs to change in order for production to move more smoothly. The constant feedback is used to refine and make the production process better.

His relationship with his numbers helps his relationship with his lender, a key component of success for any growing business.

R&R Cultivation's Sustainability Focus 

Before starting R&R Cultivation, neither Robinson nor Ramm had any previous agricultural experience, but they had a desire to do something beneficial and worthwhile.

Ramm, in particular, was insistent upon sustainability in their business venture. He's the reason their packaging is l 00 percent compostable. It costs more, Robinson said, but if more companies switch their packaging to compostable products, the costs will go down.

Another part of their sustainability focus is their pay scale. Employees are paid a minimum of $15 per hour. Robinson and Ramm met with their employees to discuss what a livable wage is and settled on about $3,000 a month take home pay. That's about $875 per week or $21.92 per hour. They're moving in that direction.

"I feel a huge responsibility to provide for the people who work for me," Robinson said.

Another goal is to bring down the cost of producing organic mushrooms, so he can sell his mushrooms at the same price as conventional mushrooms.

Robinson wants to support other local producers to grow a strong agricultural community. That's why he joined Minnesota Farmers Union. It's about building his network and helping others.

"How can I dial in and help?" he asked. "It is hard starting an ag business."

Robinson also wants to build a new system. Big business, he said, is about siphoning wealth away from local communities to shareholders and CEOS. His goal is to take and use what he needs and then give back. He wants R&R Cultivation to be a model of where he wants the world to go; a values-based company that makes money.

“I want to create systems of change. This is one of the most fulfilling things I've done in my entire life," Robinson said. "This is going to be amazing."

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