Back in the good ole days, being a kid on school holidays meant roaming the neighbourhood with the local gang, trying to stave off boredom and keeping out of Mum’s hair. Tell any mother that you are bored and before you know it there are chores being dished out. So we kept out of the way and did our best to entertain ourselves.
Sometimes our brave wanderings would take us beyond the second last house on the street and one day we found ourselves in a cow paddock, knee deep in soggy grass and cow pats. I think it was my brother Steve who discovered a huge mushroom peeking out from one of those disks of poop. We struck mushroom gold and in our excitement we ran around gathering as many of the delectable beauties as we could. And then we realised we had nothing to carry them in so we raced home with as many as we could, to grab a container and retrieve the rest.
When proudly presenting the mushrooms to our dear indulgent mother we expected to be wrapped in parental praise for our clever find. Instead we were berated and lectured about the dangers of mushrooms and the folly of just randomly picking fungi of an unknown variety.
It didn’t take us long to move through being a disappointment to our mother because she gleefully announced that these were in fact dinky-di mushrooms of the eating kind and then she sent us on our merry way armed with a bunch of paper bags and instructions to bring home a bounty. Happy days indeed.
Nowadays, I doubt there would be too many opportunities for a bunch of suburban kids to fossick for mycelium treasure down the end of their street. Those forays would be more likely to pick up some proper nasties, and besides, mushrooms are now mostly farmed commercially in controlled environments.
How many people do you know run a mushroom farm? Or have even been to a mushroom farm? Up until recently we would say zero to both, but in a stroke of genius, number one son Adam married a beautiful Denver girl, Jacque. Jacque’s sister Liz and her husband Michael operate a mushroom farm just outside of Denver. Their business has the totally cool name of “Mile High Fungi“, and for those not familiar with Denver the name references the one mile altitude of much of Colorado.
It also sounds much more poetic than “1.6 Kilometer High Fungi”, don’t you agree?
The abbreviated background to their story goes something like this. One morning back in 2014, Liz woke up with a brilliant idea and said to Michael, hey lets grow mushrooms for a living. He said sure, why not.
Both Liz and Michael studied sustainable agriculture at university and they’ve always had an interest in mycology. So they set to learning all they could about creating the perfect growing environment for mushrooms and before long they had run out of growing space they had created in the spare bedroom of their suburban Denver home.
After their expansion into the second spare room they eventually had to move their growing production into shipping containers in the backyard. The Denver council had other ideas about that and they soon had to come up with a better solution if they wanted to keep this business going.
A 30 acre piece of bushy land they discovered just outside of Denver would be the perfect plot to build a 220 square meter growing and production shed. And with a cute nod to their address, Goosberry Lane, they named their property “The Goose”.
Along this journey, Liz and Michael’s mushroom farming skills were being tested and improved, they became early morning regulars at local farmers’ markets and they had chefs vying for favour to get the pick of the produce for their discerning restaurant clientele.
Fast forward to 2018 and what we found on our recent visit was incredible. These two inventive and industrious young people have created a fully functioning, professional operation where they grow around 12 varieties of mushrooms, including 5 types of oyster mushrooms, in 3 specially designed sterile and climate controlled “growing rooms”.
According to Liz and Michael, mushrooms are not so easy to grow and there is a lot of science in what they do to finally be able to harvest healthy batches of mushrooms for sale.
The mushrooms require just the right amount of light and moisture – up to 90% humidity, and they are not like normal plants, in that they don’t photosynthesize. Mushrooms actually breathe and produce carbon dioxide just like animals. That’s why we should never store mushrooms in plastic – only in breathable packaging like a paper bag.
It is really important to be meticulous with sterilisation of the rooms and each room is thoroughly cleaned weekly before new growing blocks can be introduced. We saw this in action, and it is indeed an arduous process, but so important because contamination can mean a huge loss of income for their business if they cannot sell the produce.
You probably won’t find most of these mushroom varieties in a supermarket because they require such delicate handling.
Instead you’re most likely to find keen growers at a local farmers’ market somewhere in the world. Which is what we did. On a bright clear Sunday morning we headed to Denver’s Old Pearl St Farmers Market and made our way straight to Liz and Michael’s stall. I’m really glad we got there early because they quickly sold out.
As well as buying a bag of mixed mushrooms we also picked up some fresh hand made potato gnocchi and goats cheese ravioli from a neighbouring stall and headed home (we were house sitting in Boulder) for a nosh up lunch. We had never tasted mushrooms like them – silky smooth and creamy.
Amid the busy-ness of mushroom growing and looking after the property, Liz and Michael are also building their home on a prime site of the land, mostly by themselves though with occasional help from friends and family and professionals brought in when required. In fact when we stayed with them Dave was up the ladder with hammer in hand and next day felt the strain of not having done physical building work for a long time. Liz’s Dad and Stepmum, Ned and Janet, had been staying onsite to help out for a few months and their contribution gave a massive boost to the construction progress.
Adding to the mix is the recently adopted donkey Matilda, who is expecting her 7th baby any time soon. Each one of Matilda’s previous offspring was moved on to other homes, and Liz has told her that this time she will get to keep her baby forever and that makes everyone delighted.
When she first arrived at the farm Matilda took no time in asserting her greater power over Lira, who has learned to adapt and keep out of Matilda’s way. Mostly she does but sometimes she forgets and ends up with a kick or a head butt.
Future projects include researching the production of fungi for medicinal use, something Liz is especially interested in pursuing.
Liz and Michael have great enthusiasm and vision for their future, to develop their business and farm into much more than it is now, with plans to expand their orchards and bee hives. Everything organic of course.
There’s no doubt they would succeed in whatever they choose to do, they are just that kind of couple.
We will definitely return to Colorado and look forward to catching up again with Liz and Michael and their growing menagerie. In the meantime we’ll follow along closely as they climb the slippery slope of being farming entrepreneurs.
And as we continue with our traveling and house sitting we will look out more closely for markets selling fungi.