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Scottville — "No longer wild, but far from tame."

That's how the owners of Mycopia Mushrooms describe the unusual crop they're growing in an exquisitely quiet, sterile environment in this northern Michigan town near Ludington.

Tens of thousands of pounds of the certified-organic, spore-bearing fungi are being grown in a laboratory that simulates their natural surroundings. 

The business is located near key byproducts used for producing mushrooms — wood chips, leaf compost and sawdust from the nearby lumber industry — and fresh water. There are virtually unlimited amounts of all close by.

The company harvests, packages and ships 30,000 pounds of mushrooms each week, says general manager Gary Mills. The former bean storage plant is an industrial site in Scottville.

Mills was running a Scottville-based mushroom company — Diversified Natural Products —  when he met David Law of Gourmet Mushrooms in California at a trade show in 2006. Shortly after their meeting, Law realized that Mill could be a strong competitor for his company.

“We got along well and both agreed there was room to grow and a future in high-quality mushrooms,” said Mills. So Law bought Mills' company in 2013. Mycopia Mushrooms, a division of Gourmet Mushrooms, was born.

With 80 employees, Mills oversees the production of certified organic and kosher specialty mushrooms headed for high-end restaurants and retailers across the United States.

The facility grows several varieties: Alba and Brown Clamshell, Velvet Pioppini, Nebrodini Bianco, Trumpet Royale and strains of Sparassis and Lion's Mane. Morels, notoriously finicky in a laboratory environment, are being test-grown.

The best-seller is Maitake Frondosa, known as “hen of the woods.”  It has a fresh, forest aroma.

Mushrooms at Mycopia begin their growth in a lab that is spotless and organized. Depending on the variety of mushroom, they take seven to 15 weeks to mature.

“We go from dirty (the entrance room where biomass — wood, bark, soybean husks are delivered) to the cleaner bottle rooms, where they are sterilized and filled, to super-clean such as the lab that creates the first steps of making a mushroom and the rooms where the mushrooms will grow and mature," Mills said. "It’s quite remarkable.” 

At most stations, workers' shoes must be placed in solvent to remove contaminants from the soles. The company has quality-control inspectors who watch all aspects of the operations to ensure the company keeps its certified-organic label.

Natasha Worden, 33, works in the sterile laboratory, carefully preparing spores.“I have worked all over the world and love working here,” said Worden, a plant physiologist with doctorate in botany. Her lab stores proprietary cultures of many strains of mushrooms.

Around the facility, paper bags and plastic jars are stacked everywhere, each filled with substrata of bio-materials consisting of sterile wood pulp, soybean hulls and other material, all of which are certified to be clean. The jars are sterilized in a huge heating unit. The vessels are then cooled, then transported to a sterile room, which will be inoculated with mushroom spawn.

Another building has growing rooms for bottle incubation and cultivation. Each room is controlled for humidity, temperature and light. An earthy smell of fungus and moisture permeates each space.

When harvesting takes place, the fresh mushrooms are snapped off their jar tops and placed in bags for shipping. The biomass in each bottle or bag is recycled locally by farmers and vineyards.

Chefs and top restaurants make up 80% of sales; the rest are sold retail.

It's a labor of love for Mills. The mycologist with a doctorate in botany was working at Michigan State University and using fungi in studies when he realized they had unique and powerful properties and became intrigued. He entered the mushroom business in 2004.

His goal now is raising the level of mushrooms eaten per person in the U.S. from 3 pounds to 6 before he leaves fungi-making. 

"When we can reach the goal of six pounds of mushrooms consumed by Americans, I’ll feel happy and go," he said. "I’ll be fishing a lot.” 

John Russell is a photojournalist and freelance writer from Traverse City.

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