Cultivating mushrooms can significantly enhance your offerings at the local farmers market and provide an additional nutritional option for your household. However, it’s essential to acknowledge the unique challenges involved in this process.
John and Susan Lawton have transformed their Possum Bottom Farms in Whitwell, Tennessee, into a thriving mushroom cultivation hub. John, who transitioned from electrical engineering to farming, credits his analytical skills for his success in this niche market.
His journey into mushroom farming began after a colleague in Charleston, South Carolina, introduced him to the idea. They initially experimented with various crops but soon realized mushrooms offered a unique and less competitive market opportunity.
Their decision to focus on mushroom cultivation on their 70-acre land was motivated by the desire to stand out in a saturated market of common crops like hay, corn, and tomatoes.
Complexities and Innovations in Climate-Controlled Mushroom Cultivation
Lawton quickly understood the complexities involved in mushroom farming. “It’s intricate,” he admits, noting the necessity of juggling various roles from cultivation to lab work and managing systems. Yet, it’s this very complexity that he finds appealing.
One distinguishing feature of Lawton’s farm is his unique cultivation techniques.
He emphasizes the importance of climate control, maintaining an environment of 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 90% humidity, which is quite different from the typical room temperature conditions used by others.
“We’re also vigilant about CO2 levels,” Lawton explains, noting the importance of oxygen for the mushrooms and the need to regularly ventilate the growing area to prevent CO2 buildup during the critical fruiting cycle.
Growing in such controlled conditions allows Lawton to schedule harvests precisely, aiming for Thursdays and Fridays to prepare for weekend markets. While this method does incur higher costs, the investment pays off in the form of consistent, high-quality produce.
“It’s pricier, but it allows us to sell in greater volume,” he observes, choosing to balance a slightly lower price point with the goal of a larger overall sale.
This commitment to consistency and volume draws customers, allowing Lawton to focus on larger markets within Tennessee and avoid smaller ones that don’t align with his business model.
Strategic Shifts in Mushroom Farming and Marketing
Beyond their pioneering climate-controlled techniques, the Lawtons have adopted a block-raising approach for their mushrooms, ensuring all produce brought to the market is cultivated rather than wild-harvested.
They leverage social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram and their website, PossumBottomFarms.com, to connect with customers and promote their products.
Originally, the Lawtons aimed to supply their mushrooms to restaurants, anticipating a more consistent demand than farmer’s markets.
However, their experience revealed a different reality. John Lawton found it more feasible to sell in bulk at larger farmer’s markets, noting the limited success at smaller venues.
He highlights the bustling markets in Franklin, Murfreesboro, and Knoxville, Tennessee, which attract culinary enthusiasts, as his mainstay.
Lawton points out that the unpredictability in restaurant sales often stems from staff turnover and variable financial health, leading to inconsistent orders.
This insight led them to pivot their strategy towards direct consumer sales in larger markets, where they found a more reliable and lucrative audience for their carefully cultivated mushrooms.
Mastering Mushroom Cultivation: Strategies and Challenges
Mushroom cultivation presents a considerable challenge that took Lawton about two and a half years to master through self-directed trial and error.
Today, he offers specialized consultation services, but only to those who have surpassed the initial stages of mushroom farming, due to the industry’s high attrition rate of approximately 85%.
He attributes this to the complexities of successfully growing mushrooms.
Lawton emphasizes the importance of market research before investment and the necessity of a robust business plan.
He practices what he terms ‘full-circle farming’, a sustainable approach where he uses agricultural byproducts like sawdust and straw to grow mushrooms, and then employs worms to convert the used substrates into nutrient-rich compost for vegetable cultivation, thus completing the agricultural cycle.
Lawton suggests starting with shiitake logs for beginners eager to delve into mushroom farming due to their simplicity and low cost. He outlines the basics: a shady area, logs, a drill, and an inoculation tool.
He says that understanding the mushroom growth cycle is crucial, as is learning techniques to promote mushroom production.
Lawton also discusses the challenges of producing spawn blocks in a lab, citing blue mold as a significant issue for mushroom farmers. He emphasizes the need for immaculate cleanliness to prevent contamination.
The process is segmented into specialized labs for cultures, growing mediums, and actual cultivation in more advanced mushroom-growing countries.
While buying pre-made blocks saves time and reduces contamination risks, it’s an expensive option requiring the sale of a substantial quantity of mushrooms to be cost-effective.
For enthusiasts looking to experiment on a smaller scale, Lawton suggests using a hobby greenhouse kit in a garage or basement, adding a touch of humidity to simulate ideal growing conditions.
This method, he notes, offers a practical learning experience in the intricate world of mushroom farming.
Optimizing Mushroom Production: Scalability and Alternative Methods
Lawton believes that his block-based mushroom growing approach significantly enhances scalability despite the costs.
These prepared blocks are kept in a chiller at 40 degrees, where they can be preserved for as long as two months before being activated by oxygen to begin the fruiting phase. Within ten days to a fortnight, they yield mushrooms.
This technique enables the Lawtons to synchronize their harvests with peak market times, such as major holidays and special occasions. “It’s a more refined system, but it’s quite effective,” he notes.
However, he emphasizes the necessity of having duplicates for key equipment like exhaust fans, misting pumps, and air conditioners, as a failure in any of these could lead to substantial losses, sometimes exceeding $15,000.
Alternatively, Lawton mentions cultivating oyster mushrooms on straw as a viable option. Although this method limits variety, it offers flexibility with different growing mediums like wheat straw, cardboard, wood chips, and soybean hull pellets.
Lawton praises the health benefits and savory taste of oyster mushrooms, highlighting their nutritionally and gastronomically appeal.
Education, Production, and Market Strategies
The Lawtons cultivate various mushrooms, including black pearl king oyster, lion’s mane, golden oyster, and shiitake, as well as producing mushroom powders.
John Lawton explains, “Unsold fresh mushrooms are dehydrated and ground into powder for our culinary line.” They dry their mushrooms at 104 degrees F to retain the nutrients, as higher temperatures can alter the flavor profile.
One of John’s passions is educating others about mushrooms’ nutritional benefits and various uses in cooking. Before the pandemic, they even provided pre-inoculated logs for easy home cultivation.
However, the increased demand for firewood during COVID-19 has made the necessary hardwood scarce, though they hope to resume this offering soon.
Lawton believes mushroom cultivation offers both an educational journey and potential profit for those dedicated to learning and research. He suggests identifying your market and understanding the mushroom life cycle before seeking a mentor in the field.
He recommends attending workshops rather than relying solely on online resources, as direct learning can significantly reduce the likelihood of failure.
“Videos can be informative, but they often miss out on crucial 20% of knowledge,” he adds, advocating for a blend of hands-on and formal education to truly thrive in mushroom farming.