AUBURN — City officials believe mushrooms — a lot of mushrooms — are a great fit for Auburn.
After a recent trade trip to China alongside a company that has already invested in the city, Mayor Jason Levesque and Economic Development Director Michael Chammings say a large-scale mushroom-growing operation is the project “closest to reality” for Auburn.
It could be as large as 15 acres, with multiple climate-controlled buildings that employ between 150 and 200 people.
“Auburn has the infrastructure, trucking, land, we have the skill set, we’re located perfectly to facilitate large-scale industrial agriculture in Auburn,” Levesque said Thursday.
Chammings said Nianping Wang, president of Mingjing Industry Group Co., is studying the feasibility of such a facility in Auburn. Wang and business partner Fang Cheng Morrow were previously behind the reinvestment in Prospect Hill Golf Course, and have since been exploring options for more projects.
Wang was among the hosts for Levesque and Chammings during their recent two-week trip to China, where they toured mushroom operations, among other industries. In photos shared by the pair, mushrooms appear growing on stacked shelves in hundreds of rows.
“Think really large walk-in coolers,” Levesque said.
Levesque said one objective of the trade trip to China was to “build legitimacy for government approval of foreign investment.” In China, foreign investment is contingent upon approval from the central government.
“(Wang) wanted to show their government that he’s dealing with governments from the state of Maine, which would be using the money toward an agricultural resource,” Chammings said.
Levesque said only about 20 percent of mushrooms consumed in America come from domestic sources, meaning there is a demand for locally produced mushrooms.
They believe Auburn is set up perfectly to host this type of business.
Depending on the type of mushroom, grow cycles can range from two to five weeks, after which they are harvested, processed and shipped. Levesque said Auburn is in the perfect location geographically to ship the mushrooms to local consumers in Maine and beyond.
Chammings said in the Chinese facilities they toured in September, almost 100 percent of the materials used in each grow cycle were recycled. He said it was “extremely clean, with absolutely no smell” in the facility.
Levesque said once built, the vast majority of people driving past the facility would not know what it was.
In recent years, Maine has seen a growing year-round market for locally grown specialty varieties of mushrooms. However, the Auburn venture would likely become the largest industrial mushroom-growing operation in Maine.
Chammings said the project would also be “environmentally friendly and sustainable,” and could place Auburn in a unique position as food production is beginning to shift to more sustainable food sources for health and environmental reasons.
Wang first came to Maine when his daughter was attending Hebron Academy, and according to Morrow last year, it left him with a good impression of the area. They’ve since invested in Prospect Hill while pursuing the mushroom cultivation project.
Chammings said part of the feasibility process is scouting potential locations. Auburn has a lot of options, he said, but the facilities would require land with utility access.
Still standing in the way, however, are frosty relations between the United States and China, which are in the middle of a heightened trade dispute. While the Auburn officials received a warm welcome in China, they said the trade situation was often referred to in conversations.
The mushroom project is not yet a done deal, but Chammings said of Wang, “He does what he says he’s going to do and then some,” based on his word and on the Prospect Hill investment.
The next step, Chammings said, will likely be in February or March, when Wang and an interpreter come to Maine. (Wang is building a home near Prospect Hill.)
“This is a great economic development opportunity because it’s agriculture, which Auburn has a strong history with, but it’s also industrial in scale,” Levesque said. “This is showing the evolution of agriculture.”
Mushrooms grow in rows of stacked shelves recently in a Chinese facility toured by Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque and Economic Development Director Michael Chammings. A Chinese company is studying the feasibility of establishing a similar facility in Auburn. (Submitted photo)
Mushrooms grow in rows of stacked shelves recently in a Chinese facility toured by Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque and Economic Development Director Michael Chammings. The facility is climate-controlled and recycles nearly all materials used in each grow cycle. (Submitted photo)
Mayor postpones library talks on China trip
AUBURN — Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque on Thursday postponed two talks scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 16, at the Auburn Public Library to discuss his recent trade trip to China.
Levesque said the decision was made to postpone the events in order to attend a White House event Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
The invitation-only event is billed as a White House conference with Maine state and local leaders, for “remarks and discussion with key administration officials and policymakers on pertinent issues impacting the state of Maine.”
The library is still working on rescheduling the talks, but they will likely occur the week of Oct. 22.