Farm finds demand for gourmet mushrooms

Red Fox Farms Fungi produces 200 pounds of oyster mushrooms a week, selling them to consumers and restaurants

STRATHMORE, Alta. — Those who watch carefully can actually see mushrooms emit spores, tiny filaments that look like spider webs floating on a breeze.

The presence of those delicate threads indicates the mushrooms are ready for harvest. It’s a sight regularly welcomed by Janine Aube and Brad Wandzura, the owners and operators of Red Fox Farms Fungi.

With slightly more than a year in business, their gourmet mushrooms have found favour at Calgary-area farmers markets and with chefs at various restaurants in Calgary and Banff.

They produce about 200 pounds each week of oyster mushrooms: elm, pearl, blue, pink, yellow and king, plus chestnut and lion’s mane species. More varieties are planned once a building now under construction is finished — including the intriguingly named chicken-of-the-woods.

The farm grows only tree species of mushrooms so there is no need for manure. The process involves culture division in agar, transfer of mycelium to sterilized wheat and then growth upon rehydrated hardwood sawdust.

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It takes eight to 10 weeks to produce gourmet mushrooms from mycelium to mature mushroom, after which they are picked and provided to customers within 24 hours, said Aube.

What’s a gourmet mushroom? Essentially it’s one that is less available and more delicate to ship than the white button and Portobellos most commonly found in grocery stores.

“Now the people are learning the difference from trying them and seeing how flavourful they can be. In comparison to a white button mushroom … there’s no comparison to the taste of them and they all kind of have a different flavour profile,” she said.

Wandzura said scale is also part of the picture. There are few gourmet mushroom growers in the province and most are relatively small so they rely on freshness and quality rather than volume to gain and retain customers.

“I think we’re able to produce them on a smaller scale, with more focus on what they need for the growing conditions,” he said.

“We’re harvesting them right at the perfect time and packaging them up and delivering them that day to chefs and to home customers. So they’re able to experience something that is direct from farm to their kitchen that’s unmatched by any commercial operations out there. So we are catering to a niche market right now, but hopefully in the future we can broaden people’s palates.”

Wandzura built most of the farm’s mushroom-growing systems himself after consulting other growers and obtaining the materials by online ordering and from Calgary suppliers. A sterilization process is key so only desirable fungus flourishes. That requires attention to air pressure and air filtering in the early stages.

“Sterilization is a huge (issue). There’s no faking being clean in our operation because contamination will show if there were any issues with your process or your sterilization time. So it’s sticking to your procedures each time,” Wandzura said.

Chestnut mushrooms flourish in one of the greenhouses at Red Fox Farms Fungi. The gourmet mushrooms have specific humidity and temperature requirements, which makes them a challenge to produce. | Barb Glen photo

Neither he nor Aube were dedicated mycophiles until fairly recently. Both of them have provincial government jobs but felt the siren song of entrepreneurship.

Aube grew mushrooms on her urban Calgary property but soon ran out of space.

Wandzura also converted his urban Calgary yard to a garden from fence line to fence line.

“I bought this property five years ago. I was living in the city and just was looking for a change,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to live in the country and I’ve always been pretty handy and I’ve always been putting in a lot of effort working for other people fixing up their properties.”

Aube was attracted by thoughts of owning her own business. Now that business is reaching a critical juncture.

“We’re kind of at a point where one of us is going to have to go full time” at the farm, said Aube. Red Fox Farms Fungi is ready to scale up and the particular challenges of mushroom growing require a lot of attention.

In the course of their mycophagy education, Aube and Wandzura have been fascinated by local cows’ love for mushroom detritus in the spent wood blocks they spread on pasture rented to a local producer. Honeybees also flock to the material, putting Aube in mind of a potential revenue stream if honey production increases when bees have access to the spent material.

The farm uses no chemicals in its mushroom production.

“We’re very conscious of making sure that this is a sustainable process as well,” said Aube, and if others can make use of the farm’s waste materials, so much the better.

“We want to make sure that we are efficient. It keeps our chefs’ price down, for their own pricing.… If our cost of production and our efficiency is really dialed in, it keeps our farm to table costs down for the regular consumer. We want this to be accessible. We want people to be able to have good farm food. So we’re trying not to grow so fast that we can’t keep our standards.”

The mushrooms sell for about $20 per pound, depending on variety. Aube said they are popular with vegetarians and vegans because their meaty texture and umami taste sense make them popular as meat substitutes.

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