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Can 'shrooms save the planet?



Brandon Pitcher paces the interior of the Riviera Maya, a new Mexican restaurant in Fishers. It's the restaurant's grand opening and he shakes hands with the staff, greets city officials present for the ribbon cutting, admires the building's unique design with the crew members who constructed it, and awaits the arrival of his family — particularly his father, Scott Pitcher, with whom Brandon helped design the building.

The Riviera Maya restaurant is an amalgam of recycled Indiana architecture. The southeast corner contains a Gothic arch doorway removed from the ruins of Kokomo's First Baptist Church, destroyed by a fire in the early 1980s. There is stained glass from a Masonic temple in Warsaw. Mirrored glass arches came from a building in downtown Tipton, the home of the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent, which is where a freezer door — now converted to wall art — came from, as did a mahogany and glass door used in a corridor and a green marble plaque on the hostess desk.

There is wood flooring from a Logansport home, a 150 year-old bar built in the Ohio River Valley and, in the center of the dining area, sits a small fountain containing white marble from St. Mary of the Woods College in Terre Haute.

It's a beautiful sight, the way the pieces come together. "When we first got the building, it was a mess," one of the restaurant's three owners, Felipe Ortiz, says. "[The renovations] turned out real nice. It's not really for us though. It's for the customers."

The Riviera Maya is the latest building created by Kokomo's Fortune Management, a father/son team consisting of Scott and Brandon Pitcher. Incorporated in 1986, Fortune Management has been renovating buildings in Kokomo and around the state by recycling old materials from demolished properties. This began with the town's former city hall, a building destined to become a parking lot. The elder Pitcher purchased the building for $35,000, worked his magic, and now it's a touchstone in the ongoing revitalization of downtown Kokomo, valued at more than $2 million dollars.

The Pitchers' architectural mission is to save materials from abandonment in area landfills, to reuse, and create places that aren't just businesses but an artistic accomplishment communities can be proud of for decades to come.

"We were doing green and sustainable work before they named it," Scott Pitcher says. "Back then I was 'that guy who keeps buying junk buildings.' At that time our goal was not only to save reusable materials but to save entire buildings and entire city blocks."

While Fortune Management focuses on reusing building materials, Brandon Pitcher, 30, is taking things a bit further.

His belief system and education is not much different from a Fortune Management construct: It's a patchwork of ideas from some of the most renowned scientists, architects, and thinkers in the world. Pitcher has traveled nearly 40 countries and throughout most of the United States, learning from experts, watching new processes put to work, and talking to students and communities about how they can help the country take a step towards embracing environmental sustainability.

His efforts garnered him the Green Entrepreneur of the Year award from Rolls Royce and Green Fest Expos, Inc. They also honored Fortune Management with the Indiana Green Business Award for its renovation of Kokomo's Forest Park Shopping Center, featuring The Quarry, a restaurant showcasing the Pitchers' abilities at their best. Most recently, Pitcher was hailed as an Energy Patriot by Senator Richard Lugar.

"Waste material is a resource — it's something we need to pay attention to in Indiana," says Brandon Pitcher. "We need to change the perception of waste. Waste is not really waste."

Nature never wastes

Two hours after the Riviera Maya opening, Brandon Pitcher is standing in front of 25 people in Broad Ripple's Trinity Church basement talking about mushrooms and coffee. "Right now, your coffee only has .2 percent value," he tells the audience. "Ninety-nine point eight percent of your coffee is wasted, thrown away or burned. If we take the same process Starbucks uses to get to that .2 percent, we have the chance to create 500 times more value ... but we aren't going to point fingers at Starbucks, we are going to look at their business model and apply it to the waste."

Pitcher has been brought to the church to give a sustainability presentation on behalf of Green Broad Ripple. He goes on to describe how in Colombia and Africa coffee waste is collected and used to grow mushrooms. "What [scientists] found mushrooms love caffeine. They can grow faster on coffee grounds than they can on forest floors," he says.

The process began in the early '90s and by 2005 it was providing food for 10,000 children and today has the support of CiniCafé, the largest coffee researcher in the world. With a larger production scale, it is believed 30 to 50 million jobs will be created globally due to growing mushrooms on coffee and tea grounds.

Mushrooms from coffee grounds is just one example of bringing new life to waste that Pitcher is excited about. At the Montfort Boys School in Fiji, pig waste is harvested for methane gas, which is then used for electricity. Algae produced from the waste is used to feed fish and livestock, making meat more nutritional for the students at the school.

Pitcher is also fascinated by biomimicry — the concept of designing to replicate acts of nature. For instance, an apartment complex in Zimbabwe was designed to work like a termite mound. The structure doesn't use air conditioning but maintains a temperature of 54 degrees year round.

There are examples in his lecture of major companies working together. In Sweden, a McDonalds, a Ford dealership and a Statoil share a commercial development outfitted with a geothermal heat pump pulling warmth from the earth to heat the businesses. A green roof interacts with an aspirator and heat exchanger to control the air quality. Surrounding bodies of water allow for a water management cycle that treats waste and rainwater.

Even Indiana is getting into the act. In the town of Reynolds, there is the algaewheel, a wastewater treatment system purifying water with algae.

Pitcher believes these projects have the ability to transform the way business is done in Indiana. "Mushrooms are one of the fastest growing specialty crops and coffee is one of the largest traded commodities on the planet," he says. "It only makes sense to use this valuable resource and convert it into something useful for humanity while increasing biodiversity."

If Indiana were to adopt this strategy, he believes it could lead to the production of thousands of jobs. "But maybe the most important thing is we could teach our youth at every school in the state how to do this and provide for their nutrition. There are children who do not eat while at home on the weekends. The growing of edible and nutritious varieties of mushrooms can be a way for these kids to learn how to take care of themselves while learning basic sciences and a variety of skills necessary for modern society."

Being able to use waste in a sustainable manner is "very important to our success as a state in the coming years," Pitcher says. "We no longer have the ability to wait until power changes hands or for some drastic catastrophe to spur us into action. The current model in Indiana is not a very adaptive model. We must work to change this. And we must work on it now. We do not want to become the frog in boiling water."

Two days earlier, Pitcher gave a similar lecture in his hometown of Kokomo. He arrived at Inventrek Technology Park, a Kokomo business helping upstart technology-based companies, to find it locked up and dark. After a call to have the building opened, he looked across the street at the building's empty parking lot and mumbled, "I go all over the world and people will listen to me but no one in this town cares." Fifteen minutes later he was inside presenting to an audience of four as if they were 400.

Four or 25, the numbers, while sometimes frustrating, don't diminish Pitcher's passion. "If you don't expose people to new ideas they won't know what's possible," he says. "Around here our communities haven't been exposed to a lot of these things. So I think people who have been exposed to them have the right to share with others."

Pitcher considers the mighty mushroom. Photo by Stephen Simonetto.
  • Pitcher considers the mighty mushroom. Photo by Stephen Simonetto.

Finding his purpose

Pitcher's definition of sustainability is "when all of our institutions — financial, social, business, and universities — honor and support and cooperate with nature and its inherent ability to sustain life." Pitcher says other definitions do not include other species. "I don't see us surviving on a planet without the rest of life here and without using it to learn of solutions and opportunities."

Pitcher was a voracious learner — a trait that continues today — and his parents always made sure he had books to read. He estimates having a library of around 700 books when he was growing up and preferred science and history over fiction. However, he struggled with school. "I had a hard time understanding what they were trying to teach us," he says. "It wasn't making a lot of sense for my framework of reality." While Pitcher found the classroom lacking, he was able to find encouragement and enthusiasm for his environmental ideas from his friends, a set that included Neal Bennett, a founder of Green Broad Ripple.

Upon graduating in the late '90s from Western High School, located in a rural community called Russiaville just outside of Kokomo, Pitcher began his world journeys with a trip to New Zealand. He found the government and communities there more in tune with nature than what he was familiar with back home in Indiana. Businesses were responsible for a community's resources and could not come in, pollute, and then take off — something Pitcher saw in Kokomo with Continental Steel, a manufacturing plant that had resided in Kokomo since 1914 and, when they went bankrupt in 1986, was found to have heavily polluted its property and the surrounding landscape, including the Wildcat Creek. There were laws that protected New Zealand towns from businesses. He could not figure out why the very same laws didn't exist in the United States.

Pitcher tried college, first at Indiana University-Kokomo, and then Marylhurst University in Oregon and finally IU-Bloomington, but he could never see the big picture, could never put all the pieces together and understand the goal he was working towards. Giving up on a traditional education, he returned to Kokomo and worked for his father.

Working for Fortune Management allowed Pitcher to take time off and travel the world and educate himself on the issues that concerned him, something he did during the bulk of the last decade. In 2001, when he was 21, Pitcher attended a training session at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. He had already attended various conferences, trained and studied under scientists and experts, met authors, but the five day training on Systems Design Economics would put him on his present path for two reasons. First, the training overlapped with September 11th. "I feel this moment in time strengthened a lot of our resolve in working towards making change happen in the US and around the globe," he says.

Second, he discovered ZERI (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives). Founded in the early '90s by Gunter Pauli, one of Pitcher's future mentors, the organization works to expose the world to entrepreneurial opportunities with systems thinking and design by mimicking nature. "To me, the ZERI approach is the one I see having the most potential to truly lead to sustainability," says Pitcher. "Once I was first exposed I was hooked. I could not learn enough. I had to see the projects and meet the people."

ZERI is a loose network of thousands of individuals who collaborate on projects together when needed, according to Pitcher. In 2003, he attended a six month practitioner certification course taught by Pauli and began researching and visiting the organization's sites and projects. As he saw the technologies he began to realize humanity could do better.

"[ZERI] has influenced nearly all my thinking throughout my adult life," Pitcher says. "It has become bothersome to some as I am like a broken record every time they see me — asking questions and promoting ideas."

Pitcher spreads his knowledge of sustainability solutions via lectures. He gave his first at Purdue University when he was just 19. He's spoken all over the state -- from high schools like Ben Davis to local universities to church basements. He's taken his message around the country, even speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and also abroad, most notably at Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences and Tokyo's United Nations University.

"Hopefully, by educating people, it will one day build markets for entrepreneurs to succeed in Indiana. I think Indiana has a big role to play in the global society," he says. Pitcher's efforts are not limited to students and communities, though. He's willing to speak with and help city halls, organizations, and corporations intent on being positive green contributors to the global economy. He even has his own business, Five Kingdoms Development, LLC, dedicated to the task.

"It's funny because when he started you might see an article in a building magazine about green or sustainable principles," says his father, Scott. "Today every magazine — not just building magazines but Time Magazine, Newsweek, every day, every week, every one you pick up talks more and more about things that Brandon studied 10 years ago."

Catching up to the world

Pitcher feels Indiana is ripe to become a player in the green revolution, despite the state's 2007 ranking as the 49th greenest state by Forbes magazine. But it will take a major shift in the way people think. "In America you just flush your toilet and as long as it doesn't clog you don't think about it anymore," he says. "We need to let people know there are products out there and systems out there that can solve our problems and we don't have to be afraid of the world coming to an end because we designed poorly and we toxified ourselves."

For Pitcher, a major concern is America's loss of innovation. While the country has become passive, he points out many places are adopting green technology on a rapid scale and many developing countries are producing the solutions because they do not have the same resources as the United States. "I think we haven't adopted it yet because we still haven't accepted our role in this transition," he says. "This has been a bit of an awakening for the United States. We rode this wave of economic prosperity for quite awhile and I think it's a bit of a sobering experience for us. I think once we learn and adapt to this new global situation we'll strengthen ourselves and get competitive again."

The way to get the country moving in the right direction is through education, Pitcher says. "Leadership is the key. Communities are slow to change — our community is slow to change — but in the United States and in Indiana if it's going to happen on a large scale it's going to require a whole new way of educating ourselves and a whole new economic structure, a tax structure, and things like that," he says. "Its not a hard process — I don't think it will be difficult — but in order to get large scale change we'll have to do some innovative and creative things." He believes not only will these changes be good in the long term but will make the country's economy stronger than ever before.

In the meantime, there are small adjustments people can do on a personal level that will help. Pitcher says using non-toxic laundry detergents or making cleaners on your own can help, as well as eliminating the use of herbicides and pesticides. "Look at food intake — how much meat are you eating?" he says. "I'm not promoting vegetarianism, but meat, the way it's raised today, is very ecologically destructive."

And finally, education. Pitcher says people should not give up on educating themselves and others on the issues and challenges facing the world today, and he is certain an educated people can make a difference.

"By cleaning up our act we'd regenerate jobs and regenerate education," he says. "Do that for a generation or two and think about what kind of culture America would be. We'd have a strong, creative, vibrant culture again — the kind we've fought to create for 200 years."

The green life

Brandon Pitcher is full of ideas. Sometimes it's a matter of finding people who are as enthusiastic about those ideas as he is. In Indianapolis, Pitcher recently met with members of the Earth House Collective and talked with them about showing a film about pesticides and herbicides, "A Chemical Reaction," locally.

There are other ideas as well. Pitcher imagines a children's play he could give to teachers with parts for the students to perform so they could learn about sustainability in a fun manner. He also wants a corresponding play for adults. He's hired an intern whose summer responsibility is to call 2000 pig farmers and talk with them about improving operations, creating jobs, reducing risks, and eliminating all emissions.

Pitcher doesn't see his Energy Patriot award as an honor but an opportunity to share his ideas with more people. He hopes the award will create conversations with other environmentalists and politicians but is worried it won't extend beyond a formal ceremony. What's the point of honoring people if its not going to lead to opportunities to work together, he feels. But it's a good sign politicians are seeking out those interested in sustainability. It wasn't always the case. If you talked to a politician about sustainability you'd get nowhere, Pitcher remembers. Times are changing.


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