Maine’s funky fungi: ‘We’ve been able to sell as many mushrooms as we’ve been able to grow’

Posted May 06, 2014, at 12:32 p.m.
Last modified May 06, 2014, at 7:22 p.m.

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SPRINGVALE, Maine — It looks like a stage set for CSI.

Employees in white lab coats, hairnets, face masks and booties walk down a sanitized hallway. A gloved hand opens a door and vapor fills the room. Gingerly, the team examines translucent bags packed with mysterious substances.

The discovery they make, however, is far from gruesome. Instead of forensic evidence they seek signs of life — mushroom life.

Inside a former dairy barn, the Farming Fungi company re-creates the rich ecology of a Maine forest. In chambers where air, humidity, temperature and light are controlled, specialty mushrooms fruit daily in ideal conditions from organic wood. The result is colorful, fleshy and tasty Mousam Valley Mushrooms that are the superfood of the moment.

As Asian cuisine comes into prominence, chefs are going gaga for exotic mushrooms. And for competitive eaters, the funkier the fungi the better. From Mousam Valley Mushrooms in Springvale to Bountiful Mushrooms Farm in Portland to Oyster Creek Mushroom Co. in Damariscotta, fungivores across the state clamor for more.

“From the beginning, we’ve been able to sell as many mushrooms as we’ve been able to grow,” said John Sharood, Mousam Valley Mushrooms’ chief financial officer.

As Maine’s appetite for specialty mushrooms increases and the state seeks to regulate commercial foragers, indoor mushroom manufacturers such as Mousam Valley Mushrooms are taking advantage of a developing market.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the $1.11 billion U.S. mushroom crop increased 1 percent during the 2012-2013 season from the previous year, while the number of growers increased by 17 to 298 during the same period.

In the specialty market, oyster mushrooms have increased from 1,041,000 pounds in 1987 to 8,196,000 pounds in 2011, according to the USDA.

“It’s a new industry that’s only taken off nationwide in the last 15 years on a commercial scale,” said Sharood. “Maine is new to the game. We are pioneering the market together.”

Each grower takes a different approach. At Mousam Valley, a rigorous reconstruction of a natural ecology in specific conditions is used to foster particular mushroom growth.

“Wood-grown mushrooms is our focus because Maine has a huge supply of wood. It’s harder than growing on straw, but straw doesn’t give the best flavors,” said Sharood, whose son Robert Sharood was experimenting with mushroom farming and convinced his father to give it a shot.

Business has picked up considerably in the year their Italian, pink and elm oyster mushrooms have been on the market. Through technology developed with the help of Maine Technology Institute, the company can do a total recall of a mushroom’s genealogy if need be.

“By using the pack date on the bottom of the package we can get granular. Every minute we can tell you what climate it was in,” said Hannah Nichols, Mousam Valley’s operations manager. “Right down to the petri dish that was used to inoculate the millet and who handled it.”

Through two $25,000 grants from MTI, custom software gives them 24-hour control over the process.

“Only big mushroom companies have this technology,” said John Sharood. “The key here is the lot traceability. Large grocery chains have had issues with contaminated produce and meat getting out into the public and hurting the public.”

It sounds elaborate for a family-run company of seven until you learn of John Sharood’s background in industrial software.

“I understand this, Bob understands mushrooms,” said John Sharood, who also is chief operating officer for supply chain software company Vecco International.

And customers at places such as New Morning Natural Foods in Kennebunk, where these organic Seussian ‘shrooms are delivered weekly, understand that fancy oyster mushrooms are a culinary refinement.

“Baby bellas, white crimini, they are everywhere. These are unique, tasty and different,” said store manager Jeremiah Ouellette. “People love the mushrooms. I think they are awesome. They are going to grow more and more.”

At Whole Foods Market in Portland, they are sold by the pound. Shoppers “are plowing through all the mushroom we can give them,” said Nichols.

To meet that demand the company is increasing production in May and June. “Our long-term goal is to ramp up to thousands per week” of mushroom production, said John Sharood.

To scale up from the hundreds they now produce weekly, they are on a hiring spree. Sharood anticipates adding an employee a month for the next year to become a 20-person company.

Grocers, eager to sell the latest trend food, are ready.

At Hannaford Bros. Co. in Kennebunk, Scarborough and Forest Avenue in Portland, the product, sold in a compostable box, is being tossed into carts rapidly. The price is between $3.29 and $3.99 for 4 ounces and typically sell for $11.99 to $14.99 per pound in bulk.

“We expect to expand that distribution in southern Maine and New Hampshire,” said Hannaford spokesperson Eric Blom. “The mushrooms have been selling well and gaining traction.”

Still a startup, Mousam Valley Mushrooms’ path to success is not well-trod in this state.

Shiitake mushroom farmer Toshio Hashimoto started farming fungi in 1978. Years later he moved to Rumford, and in the late ’80s his shiitakes were avidly sought by wholesale mushroom brokers. The Japan native learned to grow indoors and had regular clients in Boston.

“Back then there was no market in Maine,” he said. “Gradually people started to know.”

Growing spores in oak logs in his greenhouse is “a very labor-intensive operation,” he said.

Now 64, he has scaled down, selling only to local markets and making an annual splash at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, where he deep-fries shiitakes for festivalgoers. At the same time, mushroom interest is blooming. He is working on making starter kits and teaches workshops around the world.

“Over 40 years I’ve been growing here. I give pretty good advice. People need to learn from experience, not just a book,” he said.

For two years Bountiful Mushrooms Farm has gained experience as “cultivators of gourmet mushrooms,” selling to top Portland restaurants such as Street and Co. and Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room. Lately it has started to expand to Kennebunkport and Boston.

In a climate-controlled warehouse they grow a variety of mushrooms — lion’s mane, shittake and oyster mushrooms on sterilized sawdust.

“It’s not the easiest farming type to do,” said Scott Payson, general manager.

But it’s lucrative.

“We are passively looking for a larger space at some point to produce five times as much,” he said. “We believe we can find enough customers.”

Though nascent, indoor mushroom growers are creating employment in a state that sorely needs it. As foodie culture grows, so will they.

“It’s exciting to be invested in a company that has staying power and is bringing jobs to Maine,” said Nichols. “We are starting a new industry that has longevity, we are not starting a paper mill.”