Mushrooming operation: Organic farmer launches new mushroom venture

THURMONT — For his latest venture, Rick Hood of Summer Creek Farm considered growing mushrooms, and now he’s got lots of them.

Hood, who owns the Thurmont organic farm, has launched a sister business, Monocacy Valley Mushrooms. Back in October, he was approached by mycologist Anita Phillips, who said she would be interested in conducting a fungus-growing study with him, to see if they could grow and sell mushrooms.

The pair did a business study to see if it would be feasible to grow mushrooms, what equipment would be needed, what type of mushrooms they’d grow and how they could market them locally. Hood also talked to local chefs, including the chef at Antrim 1844 in Taneytown, which focuses on seasonal local ingredients.

Once Hood recognized there was a demand, he got to work building a trial lab and started some early production.

“(It was) mainly to see if we could produce them, and we passed that stage,” Hood said.

The lab is a room that is climate-controlled, with the heat at 75 degrees and humidity at 85 percent. Hood and Phillips decided to grow oyster mushrooms because of the ease and availability of substrate, a straw-like substance used to grow mushrooms.

The pair also designed a monitoring system with rolling racks, since the mushrooms grow in hanging bags. They started with small sample bags of substrate to develop their process and test their market. They’re now using larger bags with a limited production and they plan to double their quantities soon.

They pasteurize the substrate and let it cool overnight in the lab. The next day they set the fungus seed and mix it with the substrate inside the sterile bags. The mushrooms grow through the straw, and Hood cuts holes in the bags so the mushrooms can grow through the holes.

It took Hood about three weeks to harvest his first flush of mushrooms. He’s harvested in 10-day increments ever since.

Initially, there were some production issues with keeping the humidity elevated, but Hood and Phillips fixed this by adjusting their yields. The quality of the mushrooms has been good and Antrim’s chef has been happy, Hood said. They sell the mushrooms to restaurants in 7-pound boxes.

The mushrooms are also for sale at the Common Market in Frederick.

When it comes to nutritional benefits of oyster mushrooms, Hood said they are about 30 percent protein, and they may fight inflammation.

“Some people refer to them as a white meat,” Hood said.

Oyster mushrooms should be cooked to 140 degrees, and should never be eaten raw. Hood enjoys sautéing them in olive oil with garlic.

The mushrooms he grows are considered organic, and Hood and Phillips use a bug zapper and fly tapes for insect control, rather than chemicals. Growing mushrooms is an operation that can be done year-round, but Hood says he’ll have to change the variety when the weather gets hotter. Hood plans to grow them 11 months out of the year, shutting down for one month to sanitize everything.

He said the biggest challenge has been keeping the process cost effective. The goal is to harvest 150 pounds per week.

“We’re still learning as we go, but we’re making definite progress,” Hood said.

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