We’ve all seen times when mushrooms have gotten a bad rap. Maybe they’re growing on piles of dog poop in our yard, which doesn’t particularly make them appetizing. Then there’s the “fun” mushrooms … psychedelics anyone? … that comes with its own set of connotations. But as it becomes more and more popular (and dare I say, necessary) to grow your own food, mushroom cultivation is increasing for the home growers and the commercial growers alike.
Regardless of your perception of mushrooms, they have a long, storied history in culture and medicine. The first mushrooms were probably consumed in prehistory — thousands of years ago!
At the time, cultivation of was not possible. Rather, they were foraged and gathered in prehistoric hunter and gatherer societies. Eastern culture, like those found in modern day China and Japan, utilized mushrooms for their medicinal properties. The Egyptians believed mushrooms were plants of immortality — only pharaohs were allowed to eat them. Roman culture held similar beliefs. Among the highest-valued mushrooms is the truffle, which grows in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of oak trees. It has only been cultivated since the 1970s.
Medicinally speaking, mushrooms can be a good source of vitamin D, depending on the cultivation practices of the grower, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Additionally, components of mushrooms are believed to act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and help combat cancer. Cultures have used mushrooms for their medicinal properties for centuries.
But why grow them? What is it about mushroom cultivation that is so attractive to growers? Do mushroom growing operations deserve a place among traditional agriculture? I spoke with Krysta Froberg of Happy Mountain Mushrooms to learn more.
AGDAILY: Can you give a brief overview of your business operation?
Froberg: Happy Mountain Mushrooms is a gourmet mushroom farm located in Spokane, Washington. We cultivate 10 varieties of mushrooms year round, changing the varieties with the season. Our mushrooms are grown indoors using climate control, though we plan to do some fun things outside once we get our new property set up. We’ve been cultivating and selling mushrooms for about three years now at farmers markets, online retail, grocery stores, and to restaurants in the greater Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area.
AGDAILY: Why did you choose mushrooms?
Froberg: I think like most people — mushrooms chose me! My first job out of college was at the world’s largest medicinal mushroom biotech company. I studied microbiology in college, so I was looking for a laboratory job — not necessarily in mushroom cultivation. But I found this company, Aloha Medicinals, somewhat close to where I was living at the time. … I wrote them a letter asking if they had any openings in their lab, and they hired me a week later. I ended up managing the tissue culture and spawn lab, and then transitioning into the quality and regulatory side of things.
I got so involved in medicinal mushrooms and research while I was there, I knew I was in this for the rest of my life. They are the most powerful and magical organisms on planet Earth. I ended up moving back to Spokane with my partner for his job and knew I wanted to keep growing mushrooms. We bought our first property pretty much based solely on the potential for starting a mushroom farm there. And here we are a few years later, with Happy Mountain!
AGDAILY: What’s the hardest part of running a business like yours?
Froberg: The hardest part about growing mushrooms is that if the smallest thing is off with your prep, or in your lab work — you won’t know the extent of the effects until about [two] weeks later. And at that point, you are already behind. It’s hard to recover from a loss such as equipment malfunction, substrate issues, or contamination.
AGDAILY: Is it true that mushrooms only grow in poop?
Froberg: Agaricus mushrooms — yes! These are your cremini, portabella, buttons that you buy at the grocery store. They do grow in poop! It’s sterilized poop, but it is still definitely poop. We grow all of our mushrooms on a saw dust mixture — no poop!
AGDAILY: What’s the most common misconception of growing mushrooms, in your opinion?
Froberg: That they are grown in poop! No, really. That and that they all grow in the dark (which some do). But our mushrooms like sunlight!
AGDAILY: What’s your favorite mushroom and why? What’s the easiest one to grow? The hardest?
Froberg: My favorite mushrooms to eat is Pioppino. It’s so delicious and it’s the perfect texture. The smell is absolutely incredibly when it’s freshly harvested — like earthy, spicy black pepper. The easiest to grow is going to be one of the oyster mushrooms, probably a white or blue oyster. But that is a tough question — really depends a lot on your specific strain and your conditions of growing, your climate, etc. The hardest would be maitake — we have been working on getting these guys perfected, but it takes a lot of trial and error.
AGDAILY: Which varieties of mushrooms do you grow?
Froberg: We grow about six variety of oysters, pioppino, chestnut, lion’s mane, shiitake, some reishi, and working on maitake.
AGDAILY: Have you ever grown a variety and decided against growing it? If so, why?
Froberg: Not specifically. But there are some varieties we don’t waste our time with just because the yield is lower, or there just isn’t a demand for them.
The pink oysters are a love/hate relationship. They are so beautiful, and taste so delicious. They sell really well at farmers markets. But their shelf life is insanely short, like a couple of days and their spore load will totally ruin your equipment if you don’t get them harvested in time.
AGDAILY: What does it take to get started growing mushrooms both on a commercial scale?
Froberg: This question is hard and it is something I get asked all the time. I always have trouble answering it. It really depends on your goals — if you want to have a small setup, where you are producing maybe 20 pounds a week of fresh mushrooms, then there are some low tech, “cheaper” options, like growing oyster mushrooms on straw columns or bags. You do need space, no matter what your goals are.
We have a dedicated 950-square-foot facility, and we are completely out of space, playing Tetris daily to move things around. We’re in the process of expanding right now, to around an 1,800-square-foot facility. It also does take some capital, and quite a bit of time.
If you want to get on any sort of regular schedule of production, transfers, harvest, deliveries — it’s hard to do as a side hustle. But if you want to just grow some mushrooms and sell at the market, then you can make it work on a part time basis for sure. If you are trying to do straw, you can get away with less capital, just the grow room equipment really. If you are looking to do sawdust, you’ll also need filter bags, a flow hood, and some sort of sterilizing equipment. Lastly, it’s good to have experience with sterile techniques. The biggest battle for mushrooms farms is contamination and where a lot of mushroom farms fail. As I mentioned before, if you lose a batch you can get super far behind.
AGDAILY: Is it worth simply growing your own at home?
Froberg: Yes, absolutely! Especially if it is for yourself, your family, or your friends. There are a lot of set-ups you can do at home. Bins, greenhouses, an extra room in your basement. There are great resources for growing in beds outside, or on logs in your yard. We sell wholesale ready to fruit blocks to people who want to just have enough to eat off of, or make extracts from. They just keep them going in their house or in a small grow tent with a store-bought humidifier.
AGDAILY: Do you think mushroom growing operations have a place in more traditional agriculture?
Froberg: I do. I think that other crops could have the potential to support the financial burden of growing mushrooms, and it might be good income in the winter in areas where you are not producing veggies. I would say the biggest challenge there beyond cost is time and dedication. Personally, I can’t even keep my own garden anymore because I have no time to deal with it on top of running the mushroom farm. I’m more of a believer in doing one thing and doing it well, but there is also something to be said for diversity in a business plan!
And there you have it. Mushrooms have a wide variety of culinary and medicinal uses. Like anything, the startup costs can be prohibitive, but a little creativity and vision can get you going in your mushroom growing operation pretty quickly. You can add a little mushroom growing operation to your backyard garden at little to no cost or you can always find a local producer to purchase a kit that will include substrate already inoculated with your chosen mushroom variety. For me, I think I’ll leave the mushroom growing to the professionals.
Brianna Scott is a veteran farmer who lives in Eastern Washington while earning her Master’s of Science in Agriculture from Washington State University. She is active in the veteran ag community and raises poultry and livestock while growing a large market garden.