Foodies find mushroom fascination begins early for some
Visualize a tousle-haired boy exploring the edges and ox-bows of the Platte River near his home in Grand Island, Nebraska. As he meanders along the river and through the riparian forest and wet meadows, he spots birds, listens to their bird song, and below his feet notices the white, brown, and pink mushrooms peeking through the matted leaves and grasses under the great cottonwood trees.
The boy was Ash Gordon, and he acquired his passion for mushrooms at a young age. “Hiking along the river, I came across random mushrooms,” Gordon said. “ I bought a Jr. Audubon Society Mushroom Field Guide and studied how to identify the edible mushrooms, and it changed my life.”
Gordon’s foraging years eventually led to his career as a mushroom farmer, but not before he pursued other interests. Although mushrooms interested him as a hobby, Gordon chose healthcare as his primary career. “ I worked as a bio technician in kidney dialysis,” Gordon said. “The experiences in health care – preparing sterile environments, cleaning, caring, and fine-tuning delicate machines prepared me for a career cultivating mushrooms.”
Medicinal mushrooms and a career change
Then at age 27 Gordon developed a debilitating and painful arthritis. “The arthritis came and went sporadically,” he said. “I researched ways to take control of the disease and help myself.”
Through his research Gordon learned that mushrooms were sources of anti-inflammatory chemicals . He included mushrooms in his diet and made mushroom extracts and tinctures. He drank mushroom-infused teas, and along with other changes in his lifestyle, his bouts with arthritis lessened.
What began as a hobby turned into something more, and by 2011, Gordon was growing mushrooms to sell. Cultivating mushrooms is a notoriously hard path to follow because step-by-step growing information isn’t available. “First I read the few books available on the topic and researched the Internet,” Gordon said. “Then I experimented with growing mushrooms, and I often failed. I learned by doing.”
Farming wild edible mushrooms requires attention to growing conditions and patience. “Mushrooms need more care than anything I can think of,” he said. “Their growing conditions must be ideal or they sit, wait, and lie dormant until the exact moment when the ideal conditions come together, and then they act. In a controlled medium, mushrooms are not as dependent on the one moment in nature when moisture and temperature coincide for growth to occur. They adapt and grow more slowly.”
Fascination turns to farming
Oyster mushrooms gave Gordon his start in mushroom farming. He calls it, “a forgiving mushroom.” The oyster variety grows quickly and Gordon say they are friendly for the grower. They pop up in different colors — pink, yellow, brown, and white. Then he developed additional skills to grow the shitake mushroom, followed with lions mane, bear’s head tooth, brown bear and other wild, edible Nebraska mushroom varieties.
The mushrooms grow in a sterile and organic medium meaning no chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides. Gordon grows mushrooms in a mixture of hard wood sawdust that he acquires from O’Neill wood resources. Mushrooms will grow in straw, shredded corn stalk, soy bean stalks and other organic cellulose matter. One day, Gordon pictures organic Nebraska corn stalks creating the growing material for Nebraska-grown mushrooms. He sterilizes the medium, mixes the sawdust with water and adds bran as a food for growth.
He works in a sterile, clean environment to prevent wild fungus spores from infecting the medium. “The medium can easily become infected with micro spores that can’t be seen, and they outgrow the mushroom spores, eat their food, and the mushrooms die,” he said. Mushroom growers use flow hoods to filter the wild spores and fungus. Gordon works in a stream of air to eliminate spores from landing in the medium.
He buys edible mushroom spores from a spawn lab to get a clean culture. He then inoculates the growing medium with the culture.
Mushrooms grow well in high humidity, cooler temperatures, and moist compost. “Mushrooms love light – 12-hour light cycles,” Gordon said. “When the environment suits them, the mushrooms will take advantage and all will do ok.”
Profit potential of mushroom production
- 1 pound of substrate produces 1 pound mushrooms
- Mushrooms earn $6 – $30/pound, depending on the variety
Gordon sells his fresh wild culinary mushrooms at the Old Cheney Road Farmer’s Market in Lincoln, and to restaurants in Omaha, Lincoln, and Kearney. His mushrooms can be found on the menus at The Grey Plume, The Boiler Room, Hub Café, and SOZO restaurants. The demand for wild culinary mushrooms is growing and has become so high for Gordon that he can no longer supply mushrooms to the Nebraska Food Co-op customers or Hy-Vee stores.
But Gordon’s got a plan for growth. It involves starting mushroom farms and helping other people grow mushrooms. “I will do the lab work, distribute, market and sell the mushrooms.” he said. “The farmers will grow them, and potentially, increase the profit margin for their other farming operations.” Currently, Gordon is opening three farms in Nebraska – two in Lincoln and one in Columbus.
The investment for farmers involves a building, basic equipment and time. Gordon will handle the initial care of the fungus culture because tiny mistakes can cost a lot. The farmers will focus on caring for the crop.
Growers will decide which mushrooms to grow. “Oysters do well and are versatile for cooking styles,” Gordon said. “Shitake are more people friendly. They require less care and have a longer shelf life.”
He dreams of Nebraska gaining recognition as the mushroom-producing state. “I dream of what is next, and how to get to the next place,” he said. “I want Nebraska-grown varieties of wild mushroom sold in local grocery stores, and a local mushroom grower for every town in Nebraska.”
Gordon was kind enough to share his favorite wild mushroom preps with us at Nebraska Rural Living
His #1 favorite: Saute fresh mushrooms in butter or reconstitute wild, dried mushrooms and then fry.
Grill the mushrooms.
Below is a video by inspired young filmmaker Caylin McCormick, from Holdrege, Neb., on how to make mushroom pizza from dried wild mushrooms. Dried wild mushrooms are available over the Internet or in your favorite grocery store.