Local mushroom growers supply area restaurants and stores with specialty fungi

Rot’s Bounty — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The word “mushroom” often elicits a rather standard image to the average consumer’s mind: a circular, white, umbrella-like capped fungi with a stubby trunk. However, businesses in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor aim to expand consumer knowledge about and access to mushrooms through introducing locally-grown, gourmet mushrooms to markets.

Certain varieties, such as oyster mushrooms, are
fragile and have the potential to be ruined in the transition from the original growing facility to consumers.

Iowa City-based grower Michael Mahoney’s passion for growing mushrooms began as a side hobby about 10 years ago. In 2012, he attempted to turn this fun aside into a business. Though this original project was unsuccessful, Mahoney took some time to learn from a farmer in Columbus Junction and later converted his garage into a climate-controlled facility ideal for growing mushrooms.

Mahoney officially established his LLC, Rot’s Bounty, in 2019 with the help of a close friend. He then began selling to local customers while receiving assistance for deliveries from his six-year-old daughter, Sadie. Later on, restaurants like Bread Garden Market, Marquee Pizza and Bluebird Diner also began purchasing his products, allowing him to grow.

“It was quite overwhelming at first, having to balance all the different aspects of cultivating on a schedule to meet demand with the pressures of finding new customers,” Mahoney said. “Fortunately, local business owners were very receptive and encouraging and really wanted to help.”

Mushrooms start as spores, tiny cells that can reproduce without sexual interaction. In the mushroom industry, these spores generally form with a culture on a Petri dish. Gourmet mushroom growers like Mahoney typically use materials like grain, wood chips or liquids to begin germinating the spores by transferring the mycelium onto one of these substrates.

Once the mycelium propagates onto the substance of choice, the grower then transfers them onto another sterilized, supplemented growing medium like sawdust or hardwood. From there, the mycelium that grew through the growing medium is exposed to air, which causes the fungi to transition from the vegetative stage to the fruiting stage.

Like Rot’s Bounty, Cedar Rapids-based company Midwest Mushrooms got their start recently. Co-owner James Patton first got involved with mushroom growing two years ago due to his background in microbiology. He had heard from a friend that their uncles were trying to start a mushroom growing business and became intrigued.

“I just kind of showed up at their shop just to nerd out, and that was basically my introduction,” Patton said. “We grew from what was basically us tinkering in a tent to a full-size facility capable of 600 pounds a week.”

The company began selling last January and has since sold to local restaurants, colleges, grocery stores and retirement homes. Patton credits his business’ success thus far to the quantity and quality of the products they’re putting out.

“We wanted to make sure we were consistent with our product before we ever started selling to customers on a regular basis,” he said. “Now we’re able to do a volume that I don’t think other places can match. It’s consistently better looking because it’s not only fresher, but we also make sure to only sell the best to customers.”

Granted, the roads to success for both companies have not been without difficulties. Because mushrooms need specific growing conditions to yield the best results, it took some time to perfect their respective products.

Mahoney experienced challenges in reconciling mushrooms’ needs for a cool environment and continuous fresh air with temperature changes throughout the year, saying, “There were definitely a lot of changes that I needed to make both to the air conditioning and ventilation systems for the grow room.”

“Mushroom growing is definitely not easy … However, it is definitely a very rewarding and creative process.”

Midwest Mushrooms also found that they needed to improve growing conditions, as well as planters that the mushrooms were grown in. Factors like humidity, fresh air, consistent temperatures were all considered in the “balancing act” as he attempted to perfect products and “basically replicate Seattle weather.”

James Patton, Midwest Mushrooms — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“It was a year of trial and error and just doing as much research as I possibly could,” Patton said. “A lot of [online resources] get people halfway. Then there’s a lot of minutiae that the grower has to figure out on their own, which is part of the reason why it took us a year before we felt ready to start selling to customers.”

Both Rot’s Bounty and Midwest Mushrooms have indoor facilities, meaning that they can sell year-round. Rot’s Bounty sells king oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms and chestnut and shiitake on demand, while Midwest Mushrooms primarily grows oyster, shiitake, lion’s mane, king trumpet and chestnut mushrooms, among others. Midwest Mushrooms also sells bags ready to fruit, meaning that if individuals wanted to grow their own mushrooms, they can put a slit in the bag and have their own “home-grown” mushrooms in a week or two.

Mahoney and Patton both believe that while locally-sourced mushrooms are often sold at a higher price point, the end products are superior to cheaper mushrooms from out-of-state. This is due to mass production practices used at these farms involving more external chemicals and a lower focus on quality, which Mahoney says “doesn’t have the degree of quality control that I’m able to give to the process.”

Furthermore, certain varieties, such as oyster mushrooms, are fragile and have the potential to be ruined in the transition from the original growing facility to consumers. As a result, local growers can better provide high-quality mushrooms to consumers.

“Most of my clients live within a mile or two of where the mushrooms are grown,” Mahoney said. “Oyster mushrooms, in particular, do not handle shipping very well, so I’m able to deliver a very fresh product straight to a restaurant or a grocery store that has normally been harvested on the same day as it is put before a customer.”

Though button mushrooms are currently the most commonly sold mushroom in the United States, Patton says locally-grown mushrooms are richer in nutrients, not as bland in flavor and less “styrofoam-y” than store-bought, button mushrooms.

“Regular button mushrooms all grow on compost, which then introduces another safety concern,” he added. “It’s just a wide variety of vitamins and proteins in wood-loving varieties versus a relatively kind of empty button mushroom.”

Because the mushroom market is currently not very large in the midwest, Mahoney and Patton both believe that there is potential to expand their respective businesses in the future. The North American mushroom market size is expected to increase over the next few years as demand for fresher foods rises, according to Fortune Business Insights.

Though Midwest Mushrooms solely distributes to Cedar Rapids at the moment and would like to expand to Iowa City, they are in no rush to grow rapidly. Patton says, “We’re looking to branch out, but at this point, we haven’t had to. Eventually, we’d like to get onto more store shelves as well as other institutions but right now, we’re just trying to match our growth in a sustainable way.”

Rot’s Bounty, meanwhile, hopes to expand to a larger grow room and have employees in the future. He encourages potential consumers to purchase their mushrooms from local businesses like his own, noting he’s able to help support his family from mushroom sales.

“Mushroom growing is definitely not easy,” Mahoney said. “Anyone that tries to sell it as such is usually trying to sell you on something or the other. However, it is definitely a very rewarding and creative process.”

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