December 16, 2017
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Maine mushroom growers tapping into a love of fungi

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

This fall, coastal farmers market shoppers snapped up pints of oyster mushrooms, pink-and-cream colored and as delicate as seashells, grown at a micro farm in Unity.

Drivers who meander down the winding roads of Sedgwick often stop upon seeing a sign for the Milkweed Gardens farmstand, which offers shiitake, wine cap and oyster mushrooms for sale along with the more expected seasonal vegetables.

In parts of the state, some growers are cultivating specialty mushrooms year-round in indoor facilities, while others are busy growing mushroom spawn, putting together mushroom-growing kits or making value-added products such as fungi-infused oils, mushroom powders and more. Lately, it seems as if mushroom operations here are popping up like, well, the mushrooms that emerge in the Maine woods after a soaking autumn rain.

“We love mushrooms, and we wanted to see if other people liked them, too,” Lindsey Canino of Milkweed Gardens said this week of her family’s decision to make fungi a focus of their farm. “The response was huge. Everyone loves mushrooms.”

She and husband Teo Canino, a chef, moved to Maine from New York City a few years ago in search of a simpler life. They settled on a largely wooded parcel of land in rural Sedgwick and started planting vegetables and raising animals for meat. The Caninos added mushrooms because it was a way they could harvest something special from their land. They cut oak logs and inoculate them with shiitake mushroom spores and poplar logs for oyster mushroom spores. For the wine cap mushrooms, they mix the spores with wood chips and spread them throughout a garden.

“You put a lot of work in in the spring and then you just monitor them,” Lindsey Canino said of growing mushrooms. “Everybody should grow mushrooms.”

This spring, the Caninos found that their mushrooms were a big financial help. Wet weather led to a huge bloom of fungi they were able to harvest early, before their vegetables were ready. They sell those mushrooms to local restaurants such as Aragosta in Stonington and Arborvine in Blue Hill — places where they sell vegetables and meat, too.

“It bridged a huge gap for us,” she said, adding that the mushrooms also have been a good lure to bring folks into their farmstand. “If you just have a list of vegetables, it’s not enough to make people pull in, but if you have a protein like meat or something they get excited about, like mushrooms, they’re more likely to stop.”

Other Mainers have discovered that there’s a mushroom market here, with shoppers hungry for alternatives to the white button, crimini and portobello mushrooms sold at the grocery store. There’s Mousam Valley Mushrooms in Springvale, Oyster Creek Mushroom Co. in Damariscotta and the Bountiful Mushrooms Farm in Portland. Other states are riding the mushroom wave, too. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of mushroom growers in the country and the value of the crop have increased over the last few years. The 2014-2015 mushroom crop was valued at $1.23 billion, with 354 growers, mostly located in Pennsylvania and California.

Counted among the newer Maine mushroom growers are Suzanne Lametta and husband Patrick Gilmartin, who are just finishing up the end of a busy season at Bramble Hill Farm in Unity. The couple, also transplants from New York, came to Maine from the Hudson Valley two years ago. In New York, they had been farming vegetables for nearly a decade but decided they needed to shift their focus to something else when they found their land in Maine.

“There are a lot of really good vegetable growers in Maine,” Lametta said. “I figured that with mushrooms it’s kind of an untapped market — a niche market.”

It has proved to be a popular niche, she said, with the mere mention of the word “mushroom” helping Bramble Hill Farm get a slot at the busy Belfast Farmers’ Market.

“When I did my interview about applying for the farmers market, I said ‘mushrooms,’ and their eyes lit up,” she recalled. “That’s something they didn’t have. As a new product, it would draw people in and be something people had been asking for.”

Lametta and Gilmartin learned how to grow mushrooms by reading books and doing research. They learned that oyster mushrooms are a fairly easy way to start cultivating fungi, so that’s where they started. In their barn, they have two areas dedicated to the mushrooms, an incubation room and a fruiting room. They buy rye grain that has been inoculated with mushroom spawn and put it on chopped, pasteurized straw that gets packed into 5-gallon buckets with holes drilled all around it. These buckets get placed in the inoculation room, which is kept warm and dark, with no humidification, until they see that white, branching mycelium has covered the straw.

“Then I change the growing environment,” Lametta said. “In the fruiting room, there’s natural light, and I run a humidifier. They need high humidity to continue fruiting. … It’s a matter of waiting for them to reach maturity.”

Both last year and this year, Bramble Hill Farm grew roughly 1,000 pounds of mushrooms, which Lametta and Gilmartin sell at the Belfast Farmers’ Market and the Deer Isle Night Market. They’ve been selling out of their mushrooms, even after raising the price this year to $20 per pound, which Lametta acknowledges is steep.

“After doing my paperwork this year, I realized I needed to increase my price per pound,” she said. “I was not paying myself at all last year, basically.”

At the markets, though, she often sells pint containers of the mushrooms for $5 apiece.

“That’s an affordable amount, and you still get to try the mushrooms,” Lametta said. “They are super delicious. Kind of sweet and a little bit nutty. Right now my favorite thing has been to roast them in a sheet pan, with olive oil, salt and pepper. I think they’re crazy delicious.”

She’s been happy with the reception her mushrooms have been receiving by Mainers.

“I think more and more Americans are aware of the benefits and deliciousness of mushrooms,” Lametta said. “I think for so long it was just the portobellos and button mushrooms at the supermarket. I think a lot of people are willing to try something new. They try them and come back week after week after that.”

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