Fungi business mushrooming
Farmers near Mancos fill niche
Sam Green/Cortez Journal Travis CUSTER shows the mason jars that are the next step after petri di
Farmers aren’t flocking to the semi-arid region of the Four Corners to produce mushrooms, but on a hilltop south of Mancos, the fungi are fruiting inside a 48-foot refrigerated tractor-trailer.
At San Juan Mycology, cloned mushrooms sprout inside a sterile laboratory. The fungi are kick-started in a petri dish for about two weeks before the crop is transferred to a jar of sterilized wheat grain. The would-be mushrooms are ultimately reassigned onto 5-pound blocks of pressed hardwood sawdust. Each block produces up to three dozen mushrooms, capable of fruiting several times.
“Mushroom cultivation is pretty much looked at like any raw vegetable,” Travis Custer said of government oversight. “The regulations don’t come into play until you start packaging and processing.”
Gabe Deall was quick to interject that he and Custer do employ safeguards in their agricultural methods, including a do-it-yourself steel drum oven they use to sterilize the substrate materials used in raising their mushrooms.
“We want to make sure that we take responsible measures to ensure the yield of our harvest,” Deall said. “We try to keep high standards.”
From a catalogued library of test tubes, San Juan Mycology strives to maintain a consistent product using clones for cultivation inside a tractor-trailer they purchased in Cortez. They are currently producing four types of mushrooms, each requiring different growth parameters. In general, the mushrooms are grown in limited light at about 70 degrees and 85 percent humidity.
“We’re able to operate year-round,” said Deall.
Custer said the company hopes to expand in the future by constructing greenhouses for cultivation, and converting the tractor-trailer into a single-use specified laboratory.
“We don’t use any pesticides or insecticides,” Custer said. “We’re not certified organic, but we do focus on using organic farming techniques.”
With a personal loan from Deall’s father, San Juan Mycology launched with the owners having limited backgrounds in cultivating gourmet fungi. Today, the duo is reaping around 30 pounds of mushrooms every week with hopes to grow the business to as much 100 pounds a week.
“We’re not at full production, so the future is wide open,” Custer said. “Right now, we’re already working six days a week, and it’s just the two us.”
A LOCAL MARKET
“It’s nice to have such a unique business here in town,” said chef Jason Blakenship, owner of Olio in downtown Mancos. “Its kind of an unusual thing, even with the wealth of mushrooms growing wild, to have a couple of guys culturing mushrooms like this.”
A benefit to his restaurant, Blakenship strives to use local ingredients for his menu items, citing the locally grown mushrooms from Mancos were “fantastic.” Recently, his menu included a sauteed mushroom salad and a chicken breast entrée stuffed with mushrooms.
“They supply a beautiful product,” he said.
As a chef, variety allows Blakenship more room to play in the kitchen as he changes his menu weekly, and since discovering local mushrooms from San Juan Mycology, he anticipates having more fungi fun.
“It certainly is helpful to me to have a wealth of local products to choose from,” he said. “The oyster mushrooms they bring me are absolutely gorgeous.”
In addition, San Juan Mycology also cultivates three additional assortments of mushrooms, including lion’s mane, shitake and most recently, pink oysters, a tropical toadstool. Formed by Gabe Deall, 27, and Travis Custer, 26, the company will celebrate its one-year anniversary next month.
“It’s a niche market that nobody else is doing,” Custer said. “We’re really the only people in the area cultivating gourmet mushrooms on a commercial level.”
In addition to limited restaurants, the local mushrooms are also available at the Durango Farmer’s Market and Zuma Natural Foods in Mancos. Due to drought conditions, locally grown produce has declined this summer, said storeowner Cynthia Klumker.
San Juan Mycology mushrooms have helped to offset demand for local produce, which has declined because of drought conditions, said store owner Cynthia Klumker. Describing the mushrooms as “delicious,” she added that it’s unique to have farmers supply customers with recipes at the point of sale. Each box of San Juan Mycology mushrooms includes a recipe.
“The mushrooms are selling really well,” she said. “We’ve already had to call and have them resupply us with mushrooms.”
Zuma Natural Foods employee Maurine Davis said she’s proud that two young local farmers are carrying on the agricultural traditions of the Mancos Valley.
“We want this community to keep growing, and when you have young people interested in their own community, then that’s a big benefit,” she said.
Custer said the Mancos Valley is filled with young farmers like Deall and himself. Both recently opted to join the re-launch of the award-winning Mount Lookout Grange chapter in Mancos.
At a recent organizational meeting, Grange president Arthur Vanderharten said he envisions the agricultural-based association to provide relaxed lines of communication for all farmers in the area. Efforts to revitalize the Grange chapter started in May. A total of 32 have joined the group, including a cattle rancher, teachers, economic developers and ordinary citizens.
“We’ve got our hands in the dirt, building from the ground up,” Vanderharten said.
Instrumental to renewing the Mount Lookout Grange chapter is AmeriCorps member Harrison Topp. He envisions the Grange will one day host lecturers and mini-workshops to meet specific local agricultural needs.
“Part of our push is to make this group relevant,” he said. “We have an opportunity to be a real beacon for the community.”
With plans to order seed in bulk, the Grange is already working to help save farmers time and money. Custer and Deall also hope to obtain support from the Grange as they look into creating a possible pick-up service for their customers. The duo is also exploring future business expansion into mycoremediation, the process of using fungi to degrade or sequester contaminants in the environment.
“You can use mushrooms to biologically clean soil and water at old mining sites,” Custer said. “That would be a pretty cool field to branch into one day.”
Sam Green/Cortez Journal Gabe DEALL waters the sawdust blocks in the grow room.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal A mushroom grows out of a sawdust blocks.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal Mushrooms are ready to take to the Farmers Market to sell.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal Exotic mushrooms start to sprout through holes poked in the plastic arou