Growing mushrooms can be a great way to diversify your wares at your local farmers market and be an additional food source for your family. But raising them does come with special considerations.
John Lawton and his wife, Susan, raise mushrooms at their Possum Bottom Farms in Whitwell, Tennessee. Lawton, a former electrical engineer, feels that it’s his analytical background that allows him to make a success of his business. He was first introduced to mushroom cultivation by a business partner in Charleston, South Carolina, who had started growing mushrooms for restaurants. The idea of raising them on his 70-acre farm quickly took root.
“We tried selling hay. But if I’ve got hay, everybody has hay,” Lawton says. “It was the same way with corn and tomatoes. But I looked around, and nobody was growing mushrooms.”
A Complex Process
It didn’t take long for Lawton to realize that a certain level of difficulty is involved. “It is complex,” Lawton says. “You have to wear many different hats. It is not just the cultivation. It is the lab work and the systems.” But it’s the level of difficulty that Lawton finds attractive.
Lawton says that one aspect of many that set his farm apart is his methods of cultivation. “We grow in climate-controlled conditions,” he says. “Most everyone else is growing at room temperature.”
Lawton describes his climate-controlled conditions as a temperature of between 55 and 60 degrees with 90 percent humidity. “We also control the CO2,” he says. “Some of the mushrooms are sensitive to CO2 because they breathe oxygen and exhale CO2 just like we do. You have to constantly flush the rooms when they are in the fruiting cycle, and you have to constantly flush the rooms to keep the CO2 from building up.”
The benefit of growing in climate-controlled conditions is that he can set the timetable for harvesting, adding that he and Susan set their harvest time for Thursdays and Fridays to be prepared for their Saturday market. Although this process is a more expensive method, it’s well worth the investment in terms of product consistency.
“It’s more expensive to grow this way and, consequently, we have to sell more mushrooms,” he says. “We operate more on a volume level where we sell a little bit cheaper, but we go for a bigger haul.”
Lawton adds that consistency in product quality and amount is what his customers seek. This practice allows him to target the largest markets in Tennessee. “The smaller markets don’t work for us,” he says.
In addition to being raised in climate-controlled conditions, the Lawtons raise their mushroom on blocks. “All of the mushrooms we take to market are farmed,” he says. “We do not do any wild cultivation or wild harvest.”
The Lawtons primarily use social media, mostly Facebook and Instagram, to market their product. They also have a presence on Google and their website, PossumBottomFarms.com.
Initially, the Lawtons wanted to sell their mushrooms to restaurants because they felt this would provide a steady demand as opposed to setting up at local farmer’s markets. But what they soon discovered was exactly the opposite.
“It was much easier to sell large quantities at a farmers market,” he says. But there is a caveat. “The smaller markets don’t work,” he says. “You have to be in a large market.”
He gives examples of the markets he frequents in the Franklin, Murfreesboro and Knoxville, Tennessee, areas, he says, that cater to foodies. Lawton says that the difficulty with selling to restaurants comes mainly from staff changes and the financial stability of the restaurants themselves, which translates to a fluctuating demand.
Learning the Ropes
Raising mushrooms is a tricky business. “It took me about two and a half years to learn,” Lawton says. “That was trial and error and learning on my own,” Lawton, who now also offers consultation services, explains. The industry has a high dropout rate of about 85 percent, so Lawton tailors his consultation services only to those already past the basic mushroom cultivation stage. He cites the high failure rate in raising the mushrooms themselves, which often drives people away.
As well, mushrooms, Lawton says, are a limited market. He advises identifying your market before making your first purchases.
“Make sure you have enough of a market to justify the expense,” he says. It also helps to have a solid business plan. To that end, Lawton has developed a system that he calls full-circle farming.
“When you produce mushrooms at the volume that we do, we produce a lot of compost,” Lawton says. “We get to use that compost. It’s free fertilizer.” Lawton takes agricultural waste products such as sawdust, logs and straw that he then uses to cultivate mushrooms. “We use worms to break that back down into compost that we use to grow vegetables, so it completes the circle,” he says.
For those seeking to learn by experimentation, Lawton advises starting with shiitake logs. “They are the cheapest and easiest because they are done outdoors,” he says. “All you need is a shady spot, some logs, a drill and an inoculation tool.
Lawton explains that the purpose of starting at this level is to learn the mushroom cycle. “Learn how to manipulate the logs,” he says. “There are things that you can do to force it to produce mushrooms.”
Another thing you can do, Lawton says, is to purchase logs from another producer. “The hardest part is producing your blocks in the lab because of all of the blue mold,” Lawton says. “It’s the bane of the mushroom farmer’s existence.” Lawton adds that once the mold gets established it’s incredibly hard to get rid of.
“You have to be clean, clean, clean.”
In countries that grow more mushrooms than the United States, the model is to have a lab that produces the cultures, another that produces the growing medium and another that grows the mushrooms. “We’re getting to that stage where you can buy your blocks and not have to produce them yourself,” he says, “which will save you a lot of time and frustration because your contamination rates can be pretty high if you do not have the right setup.” But a noteworthy drawback of purchasing blocks is their expense. “You would have to sell a significant quantity of mushroom, about 100 to 150 pounds per week, to break even,” he says.
For those seeking to purchase blocks yet learn about raising mushrooms on them on a smaller scale, Lawton recommends using a small hobby-framed greenhouse kit. By adding a little humidity, he says, you can learn the process and raise mushrooms in your garage or basement.
A Scalable Product
Expenses notwithstanding, growing mushrooms on blocks are what Lawton feels makes his system very scalable. Prepared blocks are stored in a cooler at a temperature of 40 degrees. In this manner, they are held for up to two months before they are exposed to oxygen, which starts the fruiting cycle. Ten days to two weeks later, they produce mushrooms.
The process allows the Lawtons to adjust their harvest according to need and to target certain prime market periods like Memorial Day weekend, the Fourth of July, Father’s Day, etc. “It’s a little bit more sophisticated system, but it works pretty well,” he says. But, he adds, for this system, it’s critical to keep backups of important components such as exhaust fans, misting system pumps and air conditioners. Losing even one of these, at this level, could cause losses upwards of $15,000 at a time.
Another option is raising oyster mushrooms on straw. While your selection will be limited, oyster mushrooms do offer the opportunity to raise your product on several different substrates, including wheat straw, cardboard, wood chips and various types of soybean hull pellets.
“They are very healthy for you,” Lawton says. “And they are delicious.”
The Lawtons raise a variety of mushrooms including black pearl king oyster, lion’s mane, golden oyster and shiitake, along with mushroom powders. “Anything we don’t sell fresh gets dried and powered for our culinary products,” John Lawton says. To preserve the nutrition of the fresh mushrooms, the Lawtons dry their product at 104 degrees F.
“If you dry over 120 degrees, the chemistry starts to change and you lose flavor,” he says. One of his favorite aspects of raising mushrooms is educating the public about the nutritional aspects, recipes and flavor pairings of culinary mushrooms.
Before COVID-19, the Lawtons also sold pre-inoculated mushroom-producing logs. “They are a pretty easy way to grow mushrooms in your backyard,” he says. However, the pandemic led to an increased demand for firewood, making the hardwood logs that he sought to create these logs increasingly unavailable. He hopes to begin offering the product again this year.
Lawton says that regardless of the reason for your interest in raising mushrooms, they can be a fun learning opportunity and a profitable enterprise if you’re willing to put in the time and research.
Once you have identified your market and learned about the fruiting cycle and how it can be manipulated, Lawton advises that you’re now ready to do some research and identify someone to study under who teaches mushroom cultivation. Attending seminars on the topic is a great option while at the same time advising against watching YouTube videos.
“You only get about 80 percent of what you need to know from those,” he says. Self-taught learning experiences on a small scale coupled with more formal education, when you are ready for it, lead to lower failure rates.
This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.