Emily Sharood is the sales and marketing director at Mousam Valley Mushrooms, an organic mushroom farm in Springvale that she and her family started in 2011. Today they’re packing 3,000 pounds of mushrooms a week, mostly for the Maine and New England market, but as we found when we called her up to talk shiitakes and lion’s mane, she’s something of an accidental farmer. Read on to find out how Mousam is collaborating with other Maine mushroom farmers to maximize efficiencies and fungi production.

HEAL THYSELF: Sharood was enrolled in a graphic design program at the New England Institute of Art in Boston when she started to help her brother Robert with a permaculture project in his Sanford backyard. He has Crohn’s disease and celiac and a good, very natural, diet is important to him. “His solution was to grow his own food.” The duo came up with a garden that includes peach trees, vegetables and rabbits, as well as ducks and chickens. The soil was decidedly sandy though, and needed a boost. “So we were inoculating with King Stropharia.” That’s a mushroom strain, and in this case, the Sharood siblings were doing it to improve the soil. With a side benefit.

FINE FUNGI: “We were also harvesting the mushrooms, which were a great protein source. And amazingly delicious.” They’d grown up foraging together, so mushrooms were already very much a part of their diet. “Mushrooms have a lot of medicinal and nutritional benefits,” she said, including anti-inflammatory properties that helped Robert control his autoimmune disease. As a crop, mushrooms were a win-win for the whole garden. “The animals loved the soil – the substrate – because it was attracting insects, then the animals got to eat the insects.” Meanwhile, Robert was finishing up a business management degree at St. Joseph’s at the same time Emily was finishing her degree. They both needed a senior project. What if they each used the permaculture garden, developing it into a concept for a sustainable business together? “We said, why not the mushroom? It is zero waste.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Their school projects went well enough that they decided they weren’t done with this organic mushroom business they’d dreamed up. Their father John’s 50th birthday was coming up. He’s spent his whole career as a businessman working at companies like Gloucester Engineering and Thermo Fisher Scientific. He knew business and he knew software. “So on his birthday we presented this mock business as a potential real-life business to him.” Some people buy their dad a V-neck sweater, but the older Sharood was apparently happy with his gift of words and ideas. “He did some market research to see if there was a need for this product.” They reached out to Hannaford and to Whole Foods, would they be interested in buying local mushrooms if they were available?

SELF DETERMINED: By 2012 they were producing mushrooms, albeit in small numbers. Sharood went from college student to business woman in about a minute, taking the role of marketing and sales director. “I mean I have grown up watching my father manage businesses, and I am very self-determined. I have always put my own twist to things just as I did with my degree (blending graphic design with permaculture). There was no mushroom degree that I was aware of at the time.” They applied for a United States Department of Agriculture marketing grant “that allowed Robert to become more of a mycoculturist and begin actually growing mushrooms indoors.” The reason for that? Temperature and light control, as well as clean, safe growing conditions. They started in his basement and tried out various strains, including an elm oyster that Robert had collected on Mount Katahdin, which they dubbed the Katahdin oyster.

NEW DIGS: The family began looking for a new growing facility. With the help of a Maine Technology Institute seed grant, they turned a long-vacant dairy farm in Springvale, plunk in the middle of the Mousam Valley – into a mushroom-growing house. Their father used his engineering connections to come up with software to run it at maximum energy efficiency, using heat exchangers to control the light, humidity and temperature in grow rooms designated for different varieties. Does that mean there is a shiitake room inside the barn? “Yes!” And ones for other specialties, like the lion’s mane (“crab-like texture”), the butter mushroom and the pink “that’s got a salmon-like flavor to it.”

PRIDE OF PLACE: “We keep our grow rooms extremely clean and at the perfect climate control of humidity and temperature, for them to grow as beautifully as possible,” she said. “They almost look like bouquets of flowers.”

WHERE AND HOW: The family sells their mushrooms under the Mousam Valley label through multiple channels. Their six wholesale customers include Hannaford, Whole Foods, Big Y and Albert’s Organics. They also have restaurant customers, like Union in the Press Hotel and Pai Men Miyake, as well as institutions, primarily schools and universities.

SPORE TROUBLE: Six years into strong sales, the company has changed course. The original plan was that Mousam Valley would do it all, vertically integrated from spore (that’s what you call mushroom seed) to distribution. But that entailed a yield problem. “We realized that in the mushroom industry, you want to keep your grow house and production separate because the mushroom body can contaminate the substrate block.” Translate? “The spores act as a food for any sort of contamination or bacteria, which can lead to mold outbreaks.”

COLLABORATION: That’s no big deal on a smallish scale, Sharood said. “But we are moving 3,000 pounds a week, and it was detrimentally affecting our substrate production, so our biological yield was low.” Mousam sought out other mushroom farms in the state. Cap n Stem in Gardiner now produces all the mushroom substrate for Mousam Valley. North Spore produces the spawn – genetic material – in its Westbrook facility for Cap n Stem’s substrate, and the whole “block” ends up at Mousam Valley to be grown out in the barn. “Together, the three farms are working together for not only the state of Maine, but the entire New England area, as well as far south as New Jersey.” That’s not academic.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]ald.com

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