Nebraska man’s mushroom growing hobby becomes a business
June 30, 2017
They look like sculptures: mushrooms with exotic names like Lion's Mane and Blue Oyster. And they flourish inside a nondescript warehouse located near the airport in Grand Island, Neb. Nebraska Mushroom is an indoor farm where unusual varieties of the fungi are pampered and fussed over from colonization to harvest.
Ash Gordon is the mushroom man.
"The varieties we grow are different than what you normally find at the grocery store," said Gordon, the founder of Nebraska Mushroom. "They have different flavors and textures. Everybody can find a mushroom they like because there are so many options."
Growing up in Nebraska, Gordon spent time as a boy foraging for mushrooms along the Platte River near his Grand Island home. He even bought a mushroom field guide from the Audubon Society to bolster his hobby.
As an adult, Gordon worked as a kidney dialysis technician. Then, at age 27, he developed arthritis that was painful and debilitating. Research into the healing properties of mushrooms led him to include more mushrooms in his diet through tinctures, extracts and teas. With other lifestyle changes, his arthritis symptoms eased and his mushroom hobby grew into a business.
For Gordon, growing mushrooms is both a science and an art. He follows strict procedures to colonize and produce a mushroom, lessons learned by reading books and studying information found on the internet. The art of growing mushrooms has developed through trial and error.
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"There's a lot of science in it but I would say the art is in manipulating the conditions so that the mushroom knows it's time to fruit, and then will produce for us," Gordon said.
The process begins with mycelium, a culture of mushroom tissue stored in a tube called a slant. A pea-sized piece of mycelium is transferred to a petri dish to colonize. The resulting mushroom culture is mixed with sterilized grain and eventually transferred to bags of sawdust.
One pea-sized piece of mycelium makes about eight grain jars. One jar translates into five master bags and each master bag expands into 30 bags of substrate, where the mushrooms begin to fruit.
The bags are moved to greenhouse-like structures where they begin to react to their environment in different ways. The grow rooms are warm and humid, but the air conditioning runs year round. Even in the winter, Gordon said the mushrooms generate so much heat as they grow they can actually start to cook if the temperature gets too high.
The growing process varies according to the mushroom. Gordon cuts holes in the bags of Oyster mushrooms, allowing them to recognize the fresh air and begin to grow out of the bags. Shitakes go through a more dramatic fruiting process.
"The Shitake mushrooms go through a popcorn stage where they really bubble up and blister. They break through the bags and turn completely brown," Gordon said. "The Oysters stay white the whole time."
Mushrooms also have different personalities: They can be small and delicate or troublesome and finicky. For example, Gordon keeps close watch on a particular strain of Shitake mushroom because if he overfeeds it, the mushroom starts to make mutants. If the bag isn't flipped over, the mushrooms start growing down, under the racks. In general, Gordon said, the mushroom "can be a pain sometimes."
AFTER THE HARVEST
After harvesting the mushrooms, Gordon packages the crop for sale at farmer's markets, grocery stores and co-ops. He also supplies a few restaurants with his fresh mushrooms.
Summer is the busiest time for Gordon. The mushrooms grow so fast, he goes through periods where he is constantly harvesting. Late nights in the greenhouse are followed by early mornings at the farmer's market. In spite of the long hours, Gordon enjoys introducing consumers to mushrooms. He sees a strong future for mushroom farming because consumers are more interested in buying fresh food and they want to know more about where their food comes from and how it's grown.
"The best part is people's reactions," he said. "They don't realize how many types of edible mushrooms there are, the different colors and textures. I like talking to the public and educating people about the mushrooms and how to use them."
Gordon never stops learning and thinking about what's next. He produces and sells mushroom extracts and dried mushrooms. Leftover mushroom substrate is dumped in a pile where, over time, a rich compost develops that can be used to improve the quality of soil for vegetable gardens. Gordon wants to expand his business to include creating products that will help other farmers get into the mushroom business, from providing information to selling mushroom cultures.
"People are interested but maybe they don't have the space or the time or the knowledge," Gordon said. "I'd like to give people more affordable, easier options to help them get started." ❖
— Mary Jane Bruce is a freelance reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @mjstweets.