With glasses fogging over from the 90 percent humidity and only a headlamp to steer through the darkness, clearly seeing Julie Hanscome’s work at hand might be difficult — and discussions with local ag experts might be needed to fully put it into perspective.
In addition to growing food, Hanscome is giving Weld County’s ag industry — already known nationally for its size and diversity — something it doesn’t already have: a mushroom farmer.
In recent months, Hanscome has been operating out of four semi trailers in her large shed south of Kersey, Colo., monitoring and harvesting white buttons and brown criminis — grown indoors for three to four weeks in the dark and under constant 60- to 75-degree temperatures and 85 to 95 percent humidity, thanks to thermostats, humidifiers and other climate-controlling equipment.
In the dairy business for 25 years, Hanscome said she got to a point where the physical demands of her 600-milking cow operation became too much — as did the economic ups and downs of it, including the “Great Dairy Recession” of 2009 — and she wanted her second life in the ag world to be less labor-intensive and one with future growth potential.
She chose wisely, according to experts.
In a time of increasing demand for “locally grown” and “farm fresh,” and as the increasing number of vegetarians, vegans and “Meatless Monday” consumers look for alternative sources of substance and texture, mushrooms have seen “substantial and consistent growth,” ag economists say.
Dawn Thilmany — an ag economist at Colorado State University whose work focuses on local, organic and niche sectors of ag — said information on the mushroom industry is limited, particularly on specialty mushrooms.
But she did share figures that show from 1994 to 2011, mushroom sales saw a 34 percent increase in value of sales.
“And with the trends that are in place today, it’s certainly an area of agriculture with potential,” she added.
Starting the endeavor in September, Hanscome’s operation — Eagle Tree Mushrooms — is already selling to a handful of restaurants in the Greeley, Colo., and Fort Collins, Colo., areas, and has been a hit at the Greeley Winter Farmers Market, organizers of the local market say.
“That’s what really steered me in this direction,” Hanscome said. “There seems to be a lot of demand out there.”
While there’s growth potential for mushrooms, there are few farmers in Colorado supplying the product, and none in Weld County — the 8th-most ag-productive county in the U.S., which ranges from dairy to beef to sheep to feed crops to vegetables and other ag products.
There is one large grower in neighboring Larimer County — Hazel Dell Mushrooms near Fort Collins, which produces Shiitake, Oysters, Lion’s Mane, King Oyster and Cinnamon Cap mushrooms.
But Hanscome said her operation grows and will continue to grow different varieties than Hazel Dell.
In the grocery store, there’s a good chance the mushrooms weren’t grown anywhere near Weld County, or in Colorado. With regard to common Agaricus mushrooms (better known as white button mushrooms), Pennsylvania accounts for about 65 percent of the total volume of sales in the United States, and second-ranked California contributes about 15 percent, according to reports from the National Agricultural Statistic Service.
Pennsylvania is the center of the U.S. mushroom industry, and Hanscome said that’s where she’s getting the spores and other materials she uses to grow full mushrooms. However, she noted she’s wanting to do the process from start to finish herself down the road, and grow her operation to where it’s using the entire 9,600-square-foot facility she’s only using a corner of right now.
“I’m really optimistic for the future,” she said, noting that, with activity for outdoor farmers markets about to kick into full swing, she’s planning to sell at farmers markets in Weld, Larimer and Boulder counties.
She’s talking with more restaurants and would like to eventually sell in grocery stores — the latter of which requires more compliance with federal and state regulations, and more time and money.
While the new business is showing potential, she said it’s still taking some getting used to.
“We’re still figuring some of this out as we go,” said Hanscome, who noted that in September the flood hit the home of the person who was supposed to insulate the building where she’s growing her mushrooms, all of which followed her heart attack in April. “But all in all, things are going good.”
She also said the family farm — now going in a new direction — feels a little different these days, since she sold the family’s cows to a large dairy that recently moved in from out of state.
“It’s the first time as an adult I haven’t had livestock in my life,” she said, referring to the dairy business she long operated with her husband, who died of cancer in 2006. “I miss it some, but I also forget the pressure that goes along with having livestock ... and having to be outside with them in the freezing cold.
“This is a little more laid back. I get now why people enjoy an office.” ❖