February 2

Mushroom farms are cropping up all over Maine

Several indoor fungi farms have sprouted to meet a growing year-round demand for locally grown specialty varieties.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In a building attached to the back of Ernie’s Pool and Darts on Forest Avenue, three friends are trying to fill a niche that’s been missing in Portland’s local food movement.

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Devin Stehlin holds containers of incubating shiitake and lion’s mane mushrooms at Bountiful Mushrooms Farm.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Bountiful Mushrooms Farm co-owner Khanh Le explains the process of converting wheat straw into a medium in which to grow oyster mushrooms: The straw is chopped up, soaked in water and then dried and pasteurized before adding the mushroom spawn.

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Khanh Le was the first of them to notice it.

After moving to Portland for its reputed food scene, he realized restaurant menus and farmers markets rarely carried local mushrooms. A financier by trade, he saw a potential venture.

It turns out he wasn’t the only one with that thought.

Within the past year or two, Le and his crew, a family in Springvale, old high school classmates in Warren and forager friends in New Hampshire have all started indoor mushroom farms after discovering an unfulfilled demand for locally grown specialty varieties that are available year-round.

Last month, a Portland architect received a special exemption from the Westbrook Planning Board to grow culinary mushrooms in a former flea market building at Prides Corner.

Although foragers have long supplied wild Maine mushrooms to Portland restaurants and retailers, the fungi are only available from spring to fall and, even then, are subject to the weather. The fickle fungi also have a short shelf life, so quality is lost when they come from away.

In climate-controlled buildings, mushrooms can grow anywhere all year, though it’s more expensive in colder weather – possibly the reason few in Maine have embarked on it until now.

Candice Heydon is the exception.

“When I started selling shiitake and growing it, people couldn’t pronounce the word,” said Heydon, owner of the Oyster Creek Mushroom Co. in Damariscotta.

That was 25 years ago, when she was clearing land to build a house and found out the University of Maine Cooperative Extension was offering a class on growing Asian mushrooms on oak – the very type of trees she was cutting down.

After taking the class, the longtime waitress and cook decided she was sick of working for other people and would start her own business growing mushrooms.

“I was the only one for a while,” said Heydon, who annually sells about 40,000 pounds of mushrooms, which she grows herself and buys from other farms and foragers.

Will Manahan and Jon Vickerman, a boat-builder and cook who met at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, are among her newest sources.

Last year was the first full year in operation for their Pleasant Mountain Mushroom Farm, which produces between 30 and 50 pounds of Italian oyster mushrooms a week, Manahan said.

That’s enough to supply a couple of farmers markets and a few area eateries, including Rockland’s renowned farm-to-table restaurant, Primo.

“Whatever we grow we have no problem getting rid of,” Manahan said.

They hope to expand beyond his mother’s land in Warren and eventually work on the farm full time.

In Portland, Le and his friend Scott Payson’s Bountiful Mushrooms Farm is already supporting one full-time employee, mushroom-growing guru Devin Stehlin. Le and Payson have kept their day jobs.

Payson said the business has just started breaking even, and the owners expect to start recouping some of their investment later this year.

He said they probably could have gotten the farm up and running for under $100,000 – if they’d known what they were doing. Instead, he said, there’s been “a lot of trial and error.”

The urban farm is now producing 300 to 600 pounds a week of shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms, which sell for $8 to $12 per pound. The growing process, in which they mix mushroom spawn in plastic bags of either sawdust or straw and place them in humid tents, takes between two weeks and two months, depending on the variety.

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Additional Photos

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Bountiful Mushrooms Farm co-owner Khanh Le shows the space where the farm’s mushrooms are incubated.

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Bountiful Mushrooms Farm general manager and co-owner Scott Payson heads off to make deliveries of newly picked mushrooms to area restaurants. Tuesday, January, 21, 2014. John Ewing/staff Photographer.

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Bountiful Mushrooms Farm’s Scott Payson shows some golden oyster mushrooms growing in a warm and humid tent at the facility. Tuesday, January, 21, 2014. John Ewing/staff Photographer.

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A cluster of golden oyster mushrooms grows at Bountiful Mushrooms Farm in Portland.

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Bountiful Mushrooms Farm raises several varieties of mushrooms in its indoor facility on Forest Avenue in Portland. These are shiitake mushrooms grown at the farm. Tuesday, January, 21, 2014. John Ewing/staff Photographer.

 


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