Nebraska man turns teenage hobby into fungus business to help other farmers
Mushrooms in medicine
As of June 2014, whole mushrooms or mushroom ingredients are being studied in 32 human clinical trials registered with the US National Institutes of Health for their potential effects on a variety of diseases and normal physiological conditions, including vitamin D deficiency, cancer, bone metabolism, glaucoma, immune functions and inflammatory bowel disease.
Mushrooms have long been thought to have medicinal value, especially in traditional Chinese medicine. Modern medicine research has been evaluating mushrooms since the 1960s. Gordon often uses mushrooms that have become non-edible (too tough or too “woody”) to make his own teas and tinctures for medicinal use.
He dries the mushrooms, cuts them up and then powders them to make teas or tinctures, or stores them for later medicinal formulation with water. Often, the same varieties cultured for fresh use or cooking are used for the teas and tinctures when the mushrooms get too old or too tough for fresh use.
Other varieties are grown more for the medicinal formulations, including some oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane and some reishi mushrooms.
Ashley Gordon turned a high school hobby into a paying business five years ago.
He grows mushrooms in a rented building on the outskirts of Grand Island, Neb., and sells them to restaurants, grocery stores and farmers’ markets as far away as Lincoln and Omaha, 150 miles to the east. And he’s setting up a business model for area farmers who would like to generate extra income by growing mushrooms.
“My interest in mushrooms started as a science interest and soon became a hobby when I was in high school,” Gordon said. “Then it got to be almost an obsession and finally a business five years ago.”
His business, Nebraska Mushroom LLC, ships out 75 to 100 pounds of mushrooms every week, mostly to restaurants in Lincoln and Omaha.
“We have a building capacity to produce as much 200 pounds a week, but for now my labor force is just my mother, Cheryl, and myself. It would stretch us to produce that much, he said.
Although Gordon rents the entire building to house his mushroom growing operation, office space and storage, he has designed mushroom growing facilities that can be housed in smaller spaces.
“Say a prospective grower has unused space in his machine shed, shop or an empty grain bin. We have learned how to fit a mushroom growing operation into an unused space and turn it into a money-earning facility,” he said.
Domestic mushroom production topped $1 billion in 2013-2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was the fourth year in a row for record mushroom production — some 899 million pounds were grown, according to the USDA. The United States is second only to China in the amount of mushrooms grown. Pennsylvania accounts for 65 percent of the total volume of mushroom sales in this country and second-ranked California accounts for 12 percent.
“Mushrooms are increasingly popular because people have learned how great a source they are for vitamins and minerals,” Gordon said. “And there is growing evidence world-wide in their value for medicinal purposes.”
One of the reasons he got into mushroom production was to raise varieties that would benefit his own struggle with psoriatic arthritis. Gordon went to Central Community College in Hastings, Neb., where he learned diesel technology. He worked as a diesel mechanic even while going to college. But the arthritis affecting his knees and back kept him studying the medicinal benefits of mushrooms and the varieties best suited for his arthritis. Plus, he increased the amount of mushrooms in his own diet.
Mushrooms are a low-calorie food and can be eaten cooked, raw or as a garnish with a meal. A serving of 3.5 ounces of mushrooms contains approximately 27 calories, and includes more than 20 percent of the daily value of B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid), plus essential minerals such as selenium and copper, more than 10 percent of the required daily value of phosphorus and potassium and practically no sodium.
The business model that Gordon is working to set up gives farmers a way to get into the mushroom business with little more than available indoor space that can be adapted easily for mushroom production. He plans to work with contract growers to set up the space for production, including special lighting, sterile conditions and more.
“My goal is to make it as simple as possible for a farmer or hobby farmer to get into the business,” he said. “For example, once the space is set up, I would bring in the ‘grow bags’ already inoculated with the fungus culture (spawn) and show the grower how to regulate lighting and temperature. All he or she has to do then is maintain the conditions and pick the mushrooms when they emerge—sometimes in as little as 7 to 10 days.”
Growers would harvest the mushrooms and deliver them to Gordon’s operation or some central facility for packing and shipment. Gordon would do the marketing and promotion.
“My objective is to provide farmers with another source of income, to supplement their regular farming operation.”❖