If I had a dime for every time someone asked me one of two questions: 1) can you teach me how to start a business growing mushrooms and 2) do you make a lot of money….I would probably make more money than I ever would running the business, lol!!! No seriously though, I get these and similar questions almost daily. I appreciate people’s shared enthusiasm for the incredible edible mushroom but I feel it would be beneficial for me to write an article on this topic for two reasons 1) I can just tell people to read the article when they ask me one of those questions and 2) it really is good info for people to have who are seriously considering starting a mushroom farm. You wanna go into starting any business with “your eyes wide open”.
So, you want to start a mushroom business? Do you think it is a get rich quick scheme? If yes, move along to something else. Although when people see the retail price of mushrooms at the farmers market, I can understand that it is easy to assume that it is a very profitable business but they are not aware of the costs that go into the product. In addition, you cannot start a business with nothing. Even though starting a mushroom farm requires less upfront investment than say starting a restaurant, it still does require a substantial outlay of cash.
That reminds me of this interaction I had with a person at the local farmers market. I would have called her a customer but she did not purchase anything. Now I will back up one second and say that I absolutely love selling at the farmers market. Indeed, it is one of my favorite aspects of this business: providing a quality product to the local community and educating them about it. Many people have never had the types of mushrooms that I sell and/or did not know how to properly prepare the mushrooms that they purchased at the market until they stopped by my table. I love getting people hooked on shrooms (the legal kind of course)! Now, having said that, I have only ever had two non-ideal interactions with patrons at the market. One was a family who would not make their child stop touching the mushrooms (they didn’t even buy any, lol) and the other was this one woman. This lady stopped in front of my table and looked down her nose at my products. I am not joking. Seriously, she had her head tilted back and looked down her nose at my shrooms as they were not worthy of her presence. When I greeted her and asked how she was doing, she simply replied in a disdainful tone, “Must be easy growing mushrooms. So you make a lot of money selling these or what”. It was more of a statement than a question. I replied and told her that no, it is not easy. In fact, it is the hardest I have ever worked and no, I have not made one cent yet. She looked at me like, “yeah right”. I elaborated and told her that although she probably witnessed me receiving money in hand during sales, I was not actually making money yet. I told her that once I paid my savings account back for the amount I had to invest to start the business plus when my profit outweighed my expenses, then yes, I would be making money. As far as the work involved, I did not provide much more detail than to tell her that I put in a minimum of 12 hour days every day and I am still behind most days. I also told her that I lost 10 pounds in the first two weeks because there is a lot of physical labor involved. She huffed and left to, I assume, harangue another vendor.
The reason why I tell you that story is because no, this is not a get rich quick scheme and there is a lot of work involved. Going from hobby to commercial is like night and day. It truly is a life changer. In some ways good and in others, a trade off. The pros: you are your own boss, your business is what you make it, you can wear whatever you want, you can set your own hours, you are investing in yourself, growing mushrooms is fascinating (to me at least)….. I could go on but that was just a quick list. Cons: this is not a huge money making business (as much as so many mistakenly believe) unless you go big (and that takes a lot of investment), it takes more investment than you might think, it is a lot of physical labor, it is an immense commitment/lifestyle change….. Again, I could add a few more but I think that is sufficient. I do want to expand upon each of those points though.
Profitability. Yes, I believe that in the right market, a mushroom business could thrive but you have to be able to invest and take a risk. You can start a business in your home provided you have the space and the know-how to do it safely so that you do not destroy your home with mold that grows due to the high humidity levels needed or sicken your family with the high spore load that some mushrooms such as oysters release constantly. You can create a space in a barn or a shed or even construct something. Again, that takes money. Unless you already have a very large space to convert for your purposes, you will find that it is self-limiting. Trust me, I could use a much larger space right now. I could grow so many more mushrooms if I had the additional space but that takes money…a lot more money. It is all a balancing act. Make money and reinvest it in your business so that eventually you can hopefully afford to move to or build a larger facility. Did you hear me mention anything about profit in there? Nope, you sure didn’t because I have to reinvest every cent I make. Now, if you grow mushrooms on a very small scale and sell them without much investment, you might make a little bit of money here and there but you will very quickly come to the realization that it is not worth your time unless you expand the size of your operation.
Ah, “time”. That concept that I wish I had more of, no I need more of! Heck, I really do not even have time to be writing this article!!! : ) It just means that I will be getting started on packing buckets and making sawdust bags a lot later. That means I probably will not get to bed until midnight, but hey that’s nothing new. Growing mushrooms on a commercial scale is very time consuming. Truly, it is like having a baby. You can never leave a mushroom business unless you leave it in the capable trained hands of another. Conditions such as humidity, CO2, and temperature must be monitored constantly. Luckily all of that can be managed in an automated manner. Buckets and bags must be constantly inspected for several reasons: readiness for harvest, transition from the colonization room to the fruiting chamber, and presence of contamination. Mushrooms are very fascinating in that some varieties such as oysters can mature very quickly and require several inspections a day to determine need for harvest. Miss that window and now you have product that has matured to the point to where it is either not sellable or now has a reduced shelf life. Now, if you have to manage all of these parameters, please tell me how you go away for the weekend and leave the farm unattended? You don’t because you can’t. Do it and you’ll come back to a big mess and lose a lot of money. That is the biggest complaint for me right now, not being able to travel with my family. Yes, I can go away for the weekend and have our son take care of the shrooms but if I want to travel as a family of four, that is not an option. Until this business has grown to a point that I can hire someone to manage it in my absence, there are no family trips to the beach or mountains for the week in the foreseeable future. Heck, we cannot even go away for the weekend as a family now. So that is one biggie that you really need to think about before you start a business because to be blunt, “you will be a slave to it”. Oh, and we have not even discussed the other obligations such as filling orders and delivering them. Yup, who is gonna do that in your absence? It’s not like they have mushroom business sitters out there like they do baby or petsitters.
Physical labor. It always cracks me up when people are shocked to discover that making mushrooms involves lots of hard work. Many think you just sprinkle some seeds on some dirt, put it in the dark, and leave it. Yes, I have had several people describe their idea of mushroom farming to me in that manner. WRONG! Growing mushrooms involves slogging heavy bales of organic wheat straw and putting it through the chipper shredder. I just love being covered in straw dust. Do you detect any sarcasm? There are 56 lb bags of organic rye grain to be lifted and carried. Mixing spawn and pasteurized straw and then packing it into a bucket will make you sweat, even in cold weather. Now imagine not one bucket but many…as much as 120. Yup, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. After packing, buckets weigh 16 lbs on average. Imagine slogging those babies around everyday. No, it’s not just packing them and storing them to allow the mycelium to colonize it. It also involves moving them around from the colonization room to the fruiting room everyday. Yes, without fail, the bucket that you need to move will be on the bottom of the stack of six. Oh yes, and when the buckets have run through as many flushes as are feasable, now it is time to clean those suckers. That means getting the lid off (which is no easy feat) and then reaching in and removing the spent substrate and tossing it onto the compost pile. Next you have to thoroughly clean the buckets. This involves a lot of scrubbing. Now yes, you might be thinking, “why don’t you just use those big plastic bags”. Yes, I could do that but I prefer the bucket method. One day when I have time, I will write an article explaining why. For now I will just say that even those big plastic bags are heavy and involve labor to pack and move them around. You gotta empty them too. Since I converted this hobby to a business in July, I have lost 16 lbs. Uhhhh, a family member brought me some Ensure the other day. Do you think they might be hinting at something?
I haven’t even touched on the other time-consuming activities such as the lab work, making spawn, the constant cleaning, and the facets of actually selling your product. Again, one day when I get the time I will write and article discussing the aspects of lab work and making spawn, but for now I will just focus on an overview of what it involves to run a mushroom farm. Selling the product is a biggie. As much as you are proud of the mushrooms that you grow and assume that there will be people lined up to buy them, that is not always the case. Yes, my business started because there were chefs and a buyer that became aware of the shrooms that I was growing as a hobby and they wanted them, but that doesn’t mean that I have not had to pursue chefs myself. Chefs are interesting. Some are very down to earth and some are prima donnas. On that note, you have to be a people person and know how to handle different personality types. Some chefs will respond to your initial invite to see your product for the first time and some you have to pursue. You cannot be shy. You have to be assertive but pleasant. Same goes for weekly orders. Some chefs are awesome and either contact you for their order or respond to your text, call, or email in a timely manner. Others you have to chase. Yes, it is easy to throw your hands up and say, “screw it, if they want the mushrooms they’ll just have to contact me”. Yeah, you can do that but then you have unsold product and have possibly damaged that potentially profitable relationship.
Your weekends will no longer be yours if you elect to go the farmers market route. (They are no longer yours anyway because mushroom farming is a 7 day a week obligation). Again, you have to be a people person too. I would not sell 1/3rd of the mushrooms that I do if I did not engage people and spend the time educating them. This is why I cannot have more than one market location. It takes both my husband I to manage the number of people that come by our table. We synchronistically educate some while we handle the purchases for others. If it was only one of us, we would lose sales as people give up and walk away, tired of waiting. If you think the answer is less talk, more sales, you are wrong. Less talk equals far less sales. So if you plan to have multiple markets, then you better find people to man your booth that share the same passion and enthusiasm for your product that you do. They better be a people person that is able to initiate conversation and rope in that person who was looking at your table like, “what the heck is that”, as they walk by, giving it a wide berth. I can’t tell you how many sales I have made engaging the hesitant, yet curious onlooker. Many are now loyal customers! : )
That brings me to the final point that I want to make. You must have a passion for the business or it will never work. I still get excited every time I see mycelium successfully spreading on a plate of agar or in a grain jar or bag. It brings me great joy to look in my fruiting room to see all those beautiful mushies growing. I still marvel at the beauty of each of the types of mushrooms that I grow. I love seeing the satisfied looks on chefs faces when they see my product. I love indoctrinating new members to the “mushroom lovers” population via education at the farmers market.
On the contrary, I am a type A personality and some aspects of this business drive me batty. Mushrooms do not always do what you expect. You can do everything right and still get a crappy grow. Mushrooms are like teenage girls: they are unpredictable. You might expect them to pin in 3 weeks, yet they might take 4. The unpredictability can definitely throw a monkey wrench in the process of you determining what you will have available for sale. Excuse my language but, “shit happens”. Sometimes contamination occurs and you lose product or buckets set to be expected product. Contamination could wipe out your entire grow. Yeah. it’s not a lot of fun telling a chef that you will not be able to come through on your order because of x,y, or z that happened. But, it will happen. That is the nature of farming. You just hope they understand and continue to buy from you. Oh yes, I want to mention that time and time again I have noted that chefs are initially excited about your product and state they are going to consistently buy a certain amount. Therefore you set your grows to accommodate that. I have learned that they usually end up ordering half of what they originally state when they are on the initial high of seeing your quality product for the first time. Yep, it’s no fun having to toss product that is crap or chefs did not buy or you could not sell at the market. Weather cancels markets, sometimes chefs order less than stated or skip and order, and there are other factors that can play into the mix. You can get a certified kitchen and process the extra product (dried, powdered, jerky, etc..) and sell it but that is a topic for another article that I do not have time to write, lol.
So to conclude, running a mushroom business: 1) is a lot of work, both physically and time -wise 2) is a 24/7 commitment and prevents you from traveling unless you have an employee or volunteer to man it in your absence 3) requires more financial investment than one might think and demands more if one ever plans to make it into a larger operation and 4) is not a highly profitable business unless run on a very large scale. Bottom line, unless you are running a large volume operation selling to buyers where you will never have to connect with people, you will need to be a people person to do well in this business. You don’t just jump into a large scale operation like that either without a pretty large outlay of cash either. Plus, you gotta have the know how and that is not learned overnight. Lastly, you must have a passion for what you do or surely, the combo of the hard work, personal sacrifices, and things that can and will go wrong will burn you out quicker than anything. Don’t think for a second that I have not had a few hissy fits along the way but what keeps me going is my love for what I do and will continue to do: provide a top quality product and thoroughly enjoy the looks on the faces of satisfied customers. : )
So, you want to start a business growing and selling mushrooms……..do you still? It’s not for everyone but if after reading this article you are still just as eager, then I encourage you to pursue your dream. I will say this though, as much as I would love to advise and help those that continually reach out to me, sadly I am in no position to do so. I am so busy myself. Seriously though, time is money and no one is going to give you the amount of time it takes to teach you what you need to know for free. Therefore, if you are serious about starting a business, know that it is going to take a lot of time and research on your part. No one is going to spoon feed you this info, at least not for free. There are farms that do host classes that are specific to starting a mushroom business. Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain is one example. Of course, before you even consider starting a business, you better make sure you even know how to grow mushrooms. If you do not even have that knowledge, then you better get it and make sure you truly do enjoy the process. Join the Mushroom Growing group on Facebook. I cannot tell you how much I learned and continue to learn from that group. Again, take classes. Local farms and community colleges offer them.
Well, I am way behind on my chores now but I hope you feel this article was helpful. Off to pack buckets and make sawdust bags, and harvest, and clean, and………. : )