Profitably Growing Mushrooms on a Small Farm (FSFS210)

Introduction

Today we’re talking to John Findlay, who raises mushrooms on his farm in Ontario, Canada. He raises them locally to sell to farmer’s markets and chefs. He’s had a lot of success, and in this episode, he’s going to share what his journey has been like. From expenses to techniques, and even a discussion on what it would be like as a vegetable farmer to add mushrooms onto their operation, this far-ranging conversation will give you a full introduction to what it might look like to start growing mushrooms on your farm in 2020.

 

When you were starting, what were some of the resources you learned from? (7:20)

I connected with Brian Callow of What the Fungus and went to his place in B.C., and he broke it down for me. He explained is 12×20 greenhouse would be $7k to put up and, if done right could gross $30k in the first year. He has YouTube videos that explain a lot of what he does.

 

With that knowledge, how did you get started? (9:00)

My big thing was, if I’m going to do it, then I need to do it right. I set up an education packet for myself. Paul Stamets had a four-day course in B.C., and Brian Callow had a one-week one-on-one mentorship program. I didn’t want to show up at either of their places, not knowing nothing about nothing, and through YouTube ads, I found a link to an online course ‘Growth Cycle’ and went through the course after work for six months.

 

When you were looking into growing mushrooms as a business, was the goal to make enough to earn a living? How did the transition into mushroom farming play out from your full-time job? (12:35)

That was the end goal after hearing the numbers from Brian. When I first started fruiting mushrooms, I went crazy inoculating a massive amount of bags, mostly because I heard when you get started, there is a significant potential for contamination. I didn’t have that at all, and by my 3-4th week, I was harvesting 75lbs. I barely had enough time to harvest them, let alone sell them. 

Preparing myself for it was a huge task. I was lucky it was a delivery job so I could break up the day to harvest and care for my mushrooms throughout the day. It was 16 hour days for a year or so. I knew at the end of the day that I’d be able to leave the delivery job, I just wanted to make sure I had my expenses covered. Eventually, I was tired of that and realized I could make the transition. I was lucky that I bought a cheap house and the rest of my money could be invested in the mushroom business.

 

If mushrooms are your sole income on the farm, how many pounds should you be producing a week? (18:20)

I’m finding I can sell mushrooms on average for $20/lb at the market and $12/lb to chefs and down to $10/lb at grocery stores (Canadian dollars). I found that for my business and lifestyle, I needed $800/wk, so that averages to 50lbs a week of mushrooms. I can grow that in a 20×20 foot structure. The material cost per lb is about $2, and the labor is quick, roughly 15 mins, so perhaps $5 if you count labor. 

 

How did retail sales go initially? What did you do to stand out? (21:10)

Everyone was excited about them because I had a quality of mushroom. Pricing was important. If I put $20/lb on mushrooms, my stand would likely be full at the end of the day. So I put out pint and quart containers and mark them as $5 and $10. 

Variety also attracted customers. My first year, I grew eight types, but most of them were oysters, so a rainbow of oysters. Now I’m growing up to 30 varieties. I’ll start with one petri dish, go up to 2-grain jars, intro four spawn bags, and that will turn into 16 ten pound fruit bags. I can only fit 1000 bags in my small space, between my lab and my incubation space, so I grow only about ten varieties at a time. All the varieties grow together well. A lot of people like when I mix the mushrooms in the containers.

 

What are the main mushrooms you’d want to grow for the market? (26:00)

My oyster mushrooms are popular, and people go after them. Some people are knowledgable who go after the shitake, the lions-mane, even one chef who always wants chestnut mushrooms. 

I was surprised how popular the oyster mushrooms are. I’ll mix two colors in a pint and up to 4 in a quart. I don’t mix the varieties themselves, however.

 

What was it like breaking into selling to chefs? (28:25)

I put a post up on social media and tagged five restaurants that said they were interested in local produce. I got a response back from 2 of them. One stopped talking to me when I mentioned my price, and the other I got on board. The next chef I met was buying a full basket of mushrooms at the health-food store, I gave him my business card, and I even had some samples in the truck which turned him into a customer.

 

What are the prices chefs are getting their mushrooms from food distributors, and what is it about your mushrooms that make them stand out from them? (32:00)

From what I hear, the food distributors sell their mushrooms at $8/lb. Oyster mushrooms are good for about 4-7 days at best. I like to sell my product the same day it’s picked, or one day later at the latest. Harvesting them gently is important, so they don’t fray or crack, which accelerates decomposition. Harvesting at peak time is also important.

 

What are your thoughts on a veg farm starting with mushrooms as an add on? (34:30)

It depends on how big your operation is; it is another serious product to take on. If you have the start-up capital, you can invest in the operation, but the most critical aspect is if you have a market you can sell to. If there was someone else selling mushrooms at my farmers market, I’d have to likely bring my prices down to compete with them, which would mean I’d have to increase my production. I don’t know if I’d be able to afford to do that if it were the case.

 

Is growing mushrooms more technical than growing vegetables? (36:20)

What you can do if you are just starting as a vegetable farmer to try out mushrooms is to buy the bags of mushrooms that are ready to fruit. They wouldn’t need a lab or incubation space, just a fruiting room. The thing is, the bags cost more. When I started, I spent $25k before I grew my first mushroom. A grow bag is roughly $20, and you can produce about 2lbs per bag.

 

What does the day to day management of your 1k+ fruiting bags entail? (39:30)

I’m often filling up bags to cook a batch. I can fit 300lbs of the substrate in my 85gallon barrel at a time, and that will cook for 20hrs. It has to cool down for two days. Then I can innoculate it. Usually, spawn bags I can fill up 25 to 10lb bags depending on the variety I’m growing. So 100-200 bags a week are going through my room.

Depending on the strain and the size of the bag will condition how long it would fruit. I was always trying to line up when certain varieties will fruit, so it was aligned with the market. Some varieties come up somewhat randomly across time. You get an initial flush with as much as 2lbs and the second flush 1lb. It’s not worth keeping it for a third flush. I have to track the bags timing carefully.

The window for perfect picking time is within a half-day window. I spend about an hour each day harvesting, but I’m continually checking them for harvestability. If you leave them too long, they will spore, and the room will be coated in millions of spores. I’m always doing extra bags to make up for what doesn’t come up on time.

 

Where did that first $25k go when you got started? (46:40)

About a third was education. The rest of it was spent on tools and the grow room. Everyone who is growing mushrooms is doing it a little differently. The best thing for you to do is find people who are doing it the way you can do it. For someone in veg who is looking to just add on a fruiting room, they can get a 10X15 space, some fridges, and a counter space to work on.

 

What’s the best way to store a mushroom? (49:00)

Trim the mushrooms, so there is no more substrate on them. I have hard mesh containers and place wax paper on the bottom of them. I set the mushrooms inside and then put a damp towel firmly over the top so that it doesn’t touch and ruin the mushrooms.

 

Conclusion

While more technical and costly to invest in upfront than veg, mushrooms can offer growers a potentially open market if there isn’t another producer in your region. If you want to learn more from John, you can find him on the web on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube at Findlay’s Fungus. If you are interested in hearing more about the topic of growing mushrooms on the podcast, you can reach out to me @DiegoFooter on Instagram and let me know your thoughts. 

 

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