Cultivating business

From cremini to truffles, local fungus farmers are cashing in on the mushroom craze

What kind of ’shrooms did you say those were? A member of the Mushroom Adventures crew offers the company’s wares at the farmers’ market.

What kind of ’shrooms did you say those were? A member of the Mushroom Adventures crew offers the company’s wares at the farmers’ market.

PHOTO courtesy of mushroom adventures

For years, Don Simoni experienced a thrill in walking through the woods of Sonoma County and the Sierra foothills, hunting among the old-growth trees for wild mushrooms.

But with increasing frequency, Simoni found himself traipsing in the footsteps of other hunters who had gotten there first. This backwoods rat race began to frustrate him, and by the early 1990s, the fun of hunting ’shrooms had withered and gone.

“I was tired of picking mushrooms behind other people,” Simoni recalled.

In 1991, with the specific aim of producing porcini in his own home, he began to experiment with mushroom cultivation. To ensure that the growing substrate was viable, he first grew oyster mushrooms, which was easily done. Although his porcini endeavor failed, Simoni saw money to be made as fungi gained credibility among the leaders of California’s culinary renaissance.

So he founded Mushroom Adventures, and today Simoni and his partner Nina Lysenko grow roughly 300 pounds of mushrooms per week in an insulated warehouse on their property in Marysville. Each Saturday, Lysenko stands among piles of portobellos, cremini, oysters and shiitakes at the Sunrise Mall Certified Farmers’ Market. The fresh mushrooms run just $4 to $6 per pound.

Shoppers won’t, however, find chanterelles or porcini at Mushroom Adventures’ market stall, for the farmers’ market management dictates that on-site produce must be actually produced by the farmer.

“If chanterelles came up on my property on their own, I could sell them,” Simoni hypothesized.

But they don’t, nor have humans solved the riddle of how to cultivate chanterelles or porcini. Such fungi are mycorrhizal, meaning they only appear in the close vicinity of particular species of trees, whose roots provide essential sustenance to the underground fungal organism, or mycelium. We can easily send men to the moon, but artificially duplicating this seemingly simple symbiotic relationship between tree and fungus remains a feat beyond modern science.

Simoni remembers 30 years ago, when Americans ate few mushrooms beyond the ubiquitous brown cremini. Then, on a fungus farm in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, a genetic mutation occurred which produced “albino” cremini. The gene was isolated, and white button mushrooms became the industry staple. Brown cremini still had their place, though, and some farmers began allowing theirs to mature—opening up like umbrellas into the familiar shape of the portobello. These mushrooms, like oysters and shiitakes and unlike mycorrhizal mushrooms, are saprophytic and can be easily coaxed from dead wood or compost piles.

But if a comfortable living can be made from selling white button mushrooms, then a lavish fortune might be made from growing truffles, and some local farmers are trying. Near Nevada City, Bob and Anne Lohmann planted several hundred hazelnut saplings in 2003, the trees’ roots inoculated with the mycelium of the famously fragrant underground mushroom—specifically, the French black, or Périgord, truffle. The Lohmanns, whose trees are now six years old, expect to see truffles any season now.

This growing American industry holds particular relevance today, as French production dwindles. A century ago, the nation produced 1,000 tons per year. Most recently, French soil turned out a scant 20 tons. Reasons for the head-spinning crash are unclear.

This summer, Simoni plans to experiment with growing maitake mushrooms and the lion’s mane fungus, a delicious, white beardlike clump that grows in the wild from damaged or dead wood and tastes, some say, like shrimp or crab cakes. How the bizarre creature will sell remains unknown, but clearly Simoni’s business horizons are expanding. Though his oyster, cremini and portobello mushrooms may lack the mystique of forest-found chanterelles and porcini, culinary mushroom madness is growing fast, and Simoni, the Lohmanns and other fungus farmers are riding high on the crest of the same climbing wave.