Mushroom farm enjoys success at site near Fort Collins
FORT COLLINS – The white buildings are inconspicuous, about like any other buildings on farms throughout northern Colorado, except under closer inspection, you’ll notice some are former sea freight containers.
But these buildings contain bags, most of them filled with hardwood sawdust, and in the bags mushrooms are growing. Thousands upon thousands of mushrooms, from oyster to shiitake, from lion’s mane to portabella and smaller amounts of button mushrooms, maitake, and cinnamon cap.
It’s the home of Hazel Dell Mushrooms, one of only two mushroom farms in Colorado, according to Jim Hammond, who has been growing mushrooms at the site since 1996 on a former farm about half a mile west of Interstate 25 at the Windsor exit.
Right after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, armed with a degree in entomology, Hammond got an interview with Dole, thinking he would get involved with the pineapple industry.
“As it turned out, I interviewed with the director of mushroom operations,” Hammond recalled with a laugh. And that, he said, led to a career growing mushrooms, working first with Dole – after getting a business degree from the University of Michigan – then striking out on his own after first “messing around growing mushrooms in my garage at home,” then starting a mushroom farm in Watsonville, Calif., in 1980, not far from Carmel. He worked with Dole from 1977-80.
He moved to Fort Collins to be closer to family in 1992 and continued to operate the California mushroom farm until 2004, when he sold it to one of his former customers. In the meantime, he bought the 10-acre plot of a farm just off I-25 and started Hazel Dell Mushrooms, buying the old sea freight containers in Denver, and refurbishing and improving existing outbuildings on the farm, some of which were once used as migrant housing.
Growing mushrooms, Hammond said, involves a lot more than just keeping them in the dark and covering them with manure. In fact, he said, the mushrooms he grows actually need some light as they grow.
All varieties of mushrooms grown at Hazel Dell, with the exception of the portabellas, are grown in bags containing hardwood sawdust Hammond said he gets from furniture- and cabinet-making companies in Mead, Timnath and Fort Collins. The sawdust, he said, is mainly oak and maple.
“There aren’t many oak and maple trees that grow in Colorado,” he said.
The process of growing mushrooms at Hazel Dell – which takes three to 13 weeks depending on the variety – starts with a specially made plastic bag filled with sawdust. It is mixed with water and wheat bran. Each bag is then steam sterilized and inoculated with mycelium, or the fungus of a particular variety. After sterilization, which takes four to five hours, the bags are moved to a cooling room overnight. Then the bags are moved to incubation rooms – the old outbuildings and sea containers – where they are placed on racks, three or four layers high.
Hammond said the incubation rooms are kept at 75 degrees with high humidity, mimicking how they would grow in nature.
The mycelium – mushroom fungus – permeates the sawdust, turning the bag into a white cottony look and binds the sawdust together. At that point, again depending on the variety, the top halves of the bags are removed and the blocks of sawdust are moved to a well-lighted harvest room that is kept about 60 degrees. That change in environment stimulates the mushroom growth, which can take one to two weeks.
At that point, Hazel Dell workers – the farm employs 11 people – hand harvest the mushrooms, which are packaged in 5-pound boxes or 4-ounce trays. The are sold, again depending on the variety, for $6-$10 a pound.
The operation is organically certified by the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Hammond said his mushrooms go to restaurants in Windsor, Fort Collins, Boulder, Longmont and the Denver area, as well as to Whole Foods outlets.
“I also sell to wholesellers in Denver who market them on to other restaurants,” he said.
He said there will be three or four customers a day who stop by the farm to buy product.
“Every variety of mushroom have textures of taste, and each one of them is different,” Hammond said. They are also very nutritious and healthy, he added.
“They’ve been used in Asian medicine for centuries. They have a lot of healing attributes,” he said. They are also good for high blood pressure and cholesterol, he added.
At any one time, there will be 75,000 bags growing mushrooms in the buildings that cover about 1 acre at the operation, with 5,000 of those in the harvest rooms. Hazel Dell harvests up to 1,500 bags a day, five to six days a week, Hammond said.
The sawdust is used twice, then taken to compost piles at the farm. The compost is sold to area gardeners, but is also used to grow the portabella mushrooms.
“They don’t grow in sawdust. We use the compost and put about an inch of peat moss on top of it in the bags,” Hammond said.
Nothing, he said, goes to waste in the operation.
“We recycle everything,” Hammond said.