A new business is mushrooming in St. Johnsbury. Literally.
At Mushroom King, a new venture at the former site of a lumber kiln, shiitake, oyster and reishi mushrooms are sprouting. The farmers, Bob and Lisa Brown, hope to sell the thousands of pounds of exotic fungi to local restaurants and to a produce distributor.
Inside a nondescript, corrugated steel building on Route 5, it feels and smells like a springtime forest. Fans circulate warm, humid, earthy air.
Bob Brown explains how mushrooms begin their lives in plastic bags big enough to hold a loaf of bread. They're stacked on metal shelves in the grow room.
“We start with a liquid mycelium, which is spawn – it comes in a needle. We usually start with a bag about this size, and this is rye grain that we sterilize, and the bag has a filter patch. It can only breathe out," he says. "Not even water vapor can get in, and it has an injection port, so once ... we seal it and sterilize it in a pressure cooker, it’s completely sterile in there. We take our spawn and inject it in there."
In just a few days, brown gives way to white as the fungus feeds on the rye. The spawn is moved eventually to bags of pasteurized straw, to get more oxygen. They end up in bigger bags that hang vertically in another room. Bluish-white oyster mushrooms blossom on the outside of each bag like lacy corsages. From spawn to market, the growing season for each batch is only about a month. The rye and straw are agricultural by-products and the used mushroom medium becomes, in turn, excellent fertilizer.
“It starts out that we use your trash. We grow a great, nutritious product and when we’re done making trash out of it there’s still another use,” Brown says.
Fancy mushrooms like these — we’re not talking about those chalky white buttons you find sliced up in salad bars — can grace a gourmet plate. Or they can be used as medicine, as Bob Brown’s wife Lisa knows first-hand. The couple got started as mycologists foraging for the chaga mushroom.
“I got breast cancer and the chaga mushroom is extremely high in antioxidants. Bob started … hunting chaga mushrooms and starting to make me teas and tinctures to take,” she recalls, smiling at him.
Of course, mushrooms were not her only treatment, but Lisa Brown says she is now in complete remission from her disease. The couple made the leap from hobbyists to professional growers with a cash infusion from Community Capital of Vermont, a small business lender. The Browns are hard workers and also positive thinkers. At peak capacity, they believe they will be one of the largest specialty mushroom farms in Vermont, selling up to 1,000 pounds of mushrooms per week. Fellow chefs have told them they cannot get enough of these delicacies fast enough, and speedy delivery, says Bob Brown, will be the key to their success.
“So if you are getting mushrooms from us locally here, and they’re not coming from the wholesaler, they were picked probably twenty minutes ago when you received them. You just can’t get them fresher than that,” he notes.
The wholesaler he’s pinning his hopes on is Black River Produce, which is planning a site visit soon.
Brown insists on plucking a few flowery oyster mushrooms from their hanging bag and handing them over.
They eventually land in a reporter's frying pan, sizzling in olive oil with a little garlic on what turns out to be a fine day to do journalistic research in the Northeast Kingdom.