Meet Eliah Thanhauser, a Maine native who, along with his friends and fellow College of the Atlantic graduates Jon Carver and Matt McInnis, started Maine’s first winter CSA (community supported agriculture) for mushrooms. Their Portland-based North Spore mushroom company also sells on the wholesale market and offers teas and tinctures made from foraged wild, medicinal mushrooms. We called Thanhauser up to talk about the company’s origins, its unique relationship with Amato’s and how often he eats mushrooms.

FIRST FUNGUS: There are CSAs for almost everything edible these days. Is North Spore really the first winter mushroom CSA in Maine? “As far as I know,” Thanhauser said. “I would almost guarantee that.” In the summer, the trio hopes to add a foraged mushroom CSA, but for now, from January to March participants who pay for a full share ($250) get a pound of cultivated mushrooms every week and a mushroom cookbook. Half-shares get you a half-pound for $150 and a cookbook. (Late starts are OK, too.) They’ve already got about 15 people signed up, including well known bookstore owner Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Biddeford. In turn, Lindgren supplied North Spore with a small library of mushroom-related cookery books. These come in handy when Thanhauser is sampling his own wares.

SPEAKING OF: How often does a mushroom farmer eat mushrooms, anyway? Often. “I’ll come home and be like, I didn’t have time to go to the store,” Thanhauser said. “But there’s always mushrooms.” Mushrooms with pasta is a staple. But, “the last few weeks I haven’t been able to eat as many because we can’t keep up with our demand.”

PICK SOME, GROW SOME: Thanhauser and his partners are primarily cultivators, growing oyster mushrooms in a building right on the Portland-Westbrook town line, but they are also devoted foragers. He grew up in Monroe and has been searching the woods for mushrooms since high school. At College of the Atlantic, he met McInnis during freshman year (“I definitely remember playing guitar with him”) and Carver in his second year. Both McInnis and Carver took mycology classes at the college, and Carver went on to the University of Wisconsin to get a master’s degree in biology with an emphasis on mycology.

EXPANSION: North Spore has been in business about six months. “We’re still figuring things out,” Thanhauser said. (Like how to be profitable.) They’ve been growing about 100 pounds of mushrooms a week. North Spore sells to about 15 restaurants and is now delivering wholesale to grocery stores as far flung as the Belfast Co-op, the Natural Living Center in Bangor, Good Tern Natural Foods Co-op in Rockland and Morning Glory in Brunswick. They also go to the Saco indoor farmers market, which gives them a chance to interact with customers. “Education is actually a big part of our mission,” Thanhauser said. For themselves, as well: “It’s a lot of learning happening really fast, but the fact that we can’t supply enough mushrooms to our market made us realize we should try to grow more mushrooms.” They just signed a lease on a second building in their current location, essentially an empty 600-square-foot room with cinderblock walls and no windows, which will become a large “fruiting” room for the mushrooms.

OYSTERS ONLY: At this point, North Spore cultivates only oyster mushrooms. That’s because the three want to stick to a cold pasteurization method that uses less energy when they’re preparing the substrate – what the mushrooms grow in, in this case, straw – and oyster mushrooms grow well in that medium. But there are eight types of oyster mushrooms grown by North Spore in those CSA buckets, including blue, yellow, pink and white oysters. A second Maine grower provides Lion’s Mane, shiitakes and other varieties to round out the CSA.


LOCATION, LOCATION: Portland was always the obvious destination for the trio. For one thing, after a whirl through California with McInnis and a stint working at a farm on Mount Desert Island, Thanhauser wanted to live in Portland. For another, the city seemed like a natural location with a built-in customer base, particularly all those restaurants that like to feature local products. There was already competition in the marketplace, but one company started in 2012 by a pair of friends, Bountiful Mushrooms Farm, was going out of business as North Spore was going into it. “We ended up getting most of their clientele sort of unintentionally,” Thanhauser said. He would cold-call a restaurant and be told, ‘Well, we were buying from Bountiful.’ Then they’d say, ‘But we haven’t heard from them lately, so sure, we’ll try your mushrooms.’ ” There’s always that element of establishing trust where mushrooms are concerned, but Carver’s degree didn’t hurt. “They know they can trust us,” Thanhauser said.

RECYCLING: What distinguishes North Spore from its competitors? (Besides the CSA, of course.) They re-use food buckets to grow the mushrooms instead of a more traditional plastic bag set-up, in which the mushroom spawn is inoculated into straw or another substrate in a bag, then allowed to fruit through holes punched into it. The plastic bags get tossed afterward, but the North Spore gang wanted to grow in something longer lasting. “We get them from like, Maine Mead Works and Amato’s, and they’ve already had honey or tomato sauce or pickles in them,” Thanhauser said. Delicious as that sounds, it is not a flavoring trick; the buckets are sterilized before use and between each growth cycle.

BUCKET LIST: One wonders what the people at Amato’s say when they see the North Spore guys pulling up again. “For a while there, every day … we’d be driving around to whatever there are, six Amato’s in the Portland area, and saying, ‘Do you have any buckets?’ ” North Spore has a stockpile now, Thanhauser said, but given the coming expansion, the three might be making more Amato’s runs in the near future.

ONLY PASSION: Is he nuts for mushrooms specifically? “I want to be doing a positive thing for the community and doing it sustainably,” Thanhauser said. “For Jon (Carver), it’s definitely mushrooms. For me, it’s great that it is mushrooms, but I would still be happy if it was something else.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.