POLAND: An entrepreneur in Poland has transformed a family business into one of the country’s largest producers of both premium-quality mushrooms and the compost used to grow them
by Nigel Griffiths
The small Polish village of Skórzec, some 90km east of Warsaw, is home to the country’s leading producer of closed cup mushrooms as well as the compost substrate used to grow them. The mushrooms are exported across Europe to shops in France, Germany, Italy and the UK.
UNIKOST is a family-run group of businesses managing various stages of the mushroom cycle from the production of a high-nutrition compost base, to nurturing the delicate harvest under controlled temperatures and humidity.
In 2014, UNIKOST celebrated its 20th anniversary and, with business booming, one of its first undertakings was to grow its fleet of Volvo wheel loaders, which has been at the heart of its efficient production process for more than 15 years.
The company invested in the latest Volvo L120H wheel loaders and is now the proud owner of the first of that generation supplied to Poland. In 12 months, the new machine clocked up more than 4,000 hours without experiencing any technical issues. In June 2015, UNIKOST took delivery of a second L120H, and a further two L180H wheel loaders are likely to complete the Volvo fleet.
In March 2015, UNIKOST was given the prestigious Gazele Biznesu award (Business Gazelle) by Poland’s top financial daily newspaper Puls Biznesu in recognition of the firm’s outstanding growth.
A tribute to many years of hard work, it has not been an easy ride for the female entrepreneur who has driven the business since 1994.
“If I had known then the problems I would face, I would probably never have started,” jokes entrepreneur Urszula Sztandera-Kardaszynski. “With my limited experience, the first three years proved a steep learning curve.”
Sztandera-Kardaszynski traveled widely throughout Europe and the United States to learn the tricks of the mushroom trade from the top producers at that time. She introduced the latest composting technology from the Netherlands to manage the basic fermentation of straw and chicken waste from the region’s poultry farms.
After a challenging start-up period, the business started to grow and the company decided to upgrade its handling equipment. In 2000, Sztandera-Kardaszynski bought her first two Volvo L120D wheel loaders. This was both a major investment and a difficult decision for UNIKOST. She remembers weighing up the complex options and, at the end of the day, “having a feeling” about the Volvo machines, believing that intuition helped her make what turned out to be a very sound investment.
“For sure it was a good decision,” she says. “At first I thought it was too big an investment, but afterwards I was happy because these machines brought more efficiency to production, and fewer technical issues and breakdowns.”
Composting is a complex biochemical process which is not easy to control. UNIKOST has its own laboratory where technicians test the compost daily to ensure the correct consistency. The process has a certain smell attached to it – not to everyone’s taste – but Sztandera-Kardaszynski says she has grown used to it over the years, referring to it as “the sweet smell of work”.
The challenge for the Volvo wheel loaders has been to operate successfully in a hostile and corrosive working environment. Every day the machines shift tonnes of fermenting compost – a toxic mix of ammonia and humidity.
Sztandera-Kardaszynski makes sure the machines are thoroughly cleaned each day, and the plant has its own well-equipped workshops for day-to-day maintenance. Fifteen years on, the first two machines are still in good working order after more than 50,000 hours of arduous service.
Fermentation and composting are part of a continuous process requiring the fleet of Volvo machines to operate seven days a week on two- or three-shift rotas. Today, the compost facility employs some 80 staff to meet this demanding schedule, delivering 1,200 tonnes of compost per week.
“Having a large fleet of Volvo wheel loaders has made production more comfortable and helps deliver a quality product with no breakdowns,” says Sztandera-Kardaszynski.
Her husband Leszek Kardaszynski joined the business nearly three years ago as director of logistics and investment. A former senior police officer, he has introduced plenty of discipline into the production processes while helping to direct the acquisition of equipment and the development of the state-of-the-art mushroom growing facility located 10km from the UNIKOST compost facility. Kardaszynski keeps a close eye on the performance of the handling equipment, explaining that the decision to invest in more Volvo wheel loaders was based on UNIKOST’s long and successful experience with the machinery and long-standing cooperation with representatives of Volvo CE.
“The machines are productive and very durable, especially when working non-stop in our climate which is very tough in winter. They have the power to lift and shift the compost seven days a week without any technical issues. Also, the working environment is highly corrosive and filled with ammonia and humidity which is a challenge for any machine.”
The mushroom factory itself – R & J Sztandera established by Urszula Sztandera-Kardaszynski’s sons Robert and Jakub – comprises more than 30 long cultivation halls, providing 30,000m2 of mushroom-growing space. The plant produces approximately 650 tonnes of mushrooms each month and is now one of the largest in Poland.
The third generation of mushroom growers in this family, Robert is the director, based at UNIKOST headquarters, while his younger brother Jakub is president of the mushroom facility, managing its 200 employees. They are continuing a family tradition dating back nearly 40 years to when mushroom production was started by their grandmother, Danuta – still an ever-present adviser to the business.
In controlled conditions of temperature and humidity, the mushroom spores impregnated into the high-quality compost base take around two weeks to transform into perfect white mushrooms, which are then handpicked and sorted ready for shipping to market and ultimately kitchens across Europe.