Mushrooms spring to life in Colona
COLONA — In the shadow of the San Juans, near the Cimarron Mountains lies a secret, one that won’t be kept for long because it’s growing so fast.
At nearly 7,000 feet in elevation, despite the snow- drifts and harsh wind, a crop grows year-round and the operation making it happen is at the forefront of sustainable agriculture practices.
On the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but inside a shed at Alpenglow Mushrooms, magic is happening. A year-round exotic mushroom farm, one of only two in the state, lies in the rugged country between Montrose and Ridgway.
Long plastic bags full of straw hang from the ceiling in a warm, moist room. Owner Joel Rayes walks between the bags, called mushroom logs, which look like lines of punching bags.
The 27-year-old Rayes tends his crop carefully, watching the mushrooms spring to life and reach a harvestable size within days, and then the process starts all over again. He has had a passion for mushrooms since he was a teenager and has built this mushroom-growing business from scratch.
On this day, Rayes and his farm manager, Tex Hostetler, are harvesting Grey Dove oyster mushrooms. They carefully use gloved hands to cup the mushrooms that are ready to pick, gently twisting the cluster to free it from the growing medium. This order will likely find its way into risotto, soup or pasta, recipes that show off this variety’s mild nuttiness, and is destined for farm-produce subscribers in Telluride.
Each mushroom has a different flavor profile and texture, something that Rayes has found that most folks haven’t had a chance to experience when they’ve only tasted the boring white button mushrooms sold in most grocery stores. He is thrilled when customers discover the delicacy of a truly fresh oyster mushroom, and realize that they do like mushrooms after years of thinking they hated them.
“It’s like fish, they taste best when they’re fresh,” he said.
Rayes keeps production going all year, growing heat-loving strains of fungus in the hotter summers and cooler-fruiting strains of fungus in the winter, though the temperature and humidity inside the shed are kept pretty consistent. Most days, the inside temperature is around 60 degrees, and the mushrooms enjoy a misty 93 percent humidity.
In the spring, they grow other varieties, such as PoHu oyster mushrooms, a Thai variety that Rayes calls “the halibut of oyster mushrooms,” for its fresh seafood flavor and its meaty, succulent texture. Summer brings Italian oyster mushrooms, which offer a high protein content to vegetarians (up to 25 percent) and have a distinct anise scent. The fresh mushrooms are valued for their high vitamin D content as well as their protein.
Growing mushrooms requires knowledge, attention to detail and care. This is a controlled process that necessitates sanitation, and Rayes is constantly challenged by the other organisms that thrive in the same environment the mushrooms prefer.
“Inevitably, you’re always racing the mold,” he said.
That’s why Alpenglow pasteurizes the straw before inoculating it with the spores of the mushrooms the farm wants to grow. Heating the material to 160 degrees for an hour kills the competitive molds that would take hold if allowed to remain in the straw.
“It kind of gives the mushrooms a clean chance,” Rayes said. The inoculated straw can hang in the bags for nine to 20 days before the mushrooms appear, depending on the type of fungus and the conditions. Each day, new mushrooms are ready to harvest from the tiny holes where they emerged from the bags.
After about a month of producing mushrooms, the growing medium has done its job and is considered spent. This spent substrate is repurposed as compost at local farms, where the agricultural byproduct helps nourish microorganisms in soil and support the next generation of growing foods as a soil amendment. Earthworms love the mycelium, Rayes said.
Not all mushrooms can be cultivated in controlled environments. While oyster mushrooms are a success, other types such as morels and chanterelles require a network of mycelium occurring in nature that requires certain hosts of dead or decaying materials. That makes them accessible only to foragers in their wild environments.
Currently, Rayes harvests up to 200 pounds of mushrooms a week, but has plans to expand production to 1,000 pounds a week by this summer in a partnership with South River Aquaponics in Montrose. Restaurants from Crested Butte to Grand Junction, Telluride to Aspen and everywhere in between are his primary clients, but others have started to show interest in his high-quality mushrooms and he wants to make them more widely available.
Ultimately, Rayes sees a lot of advantages to mushroom farming, even on a small scale.
It’s sustainable farming that uses far less water than other crops grown in conventional agriculture, and it’s a diverse way to provide a delicious alternate protein, he said.
“It takes some of the pressure off other protein suppliers,” he said. “Mushrooms grow so fast, and you can so easily replace the meat in meals with them.”
One of the best things about growing mushrooms is that anyone can do it, Rayes said. Mushroom-growing kits are widely available online and easy to experiment with. Most people have luck with them growing on their kitchen counters. After all, that’s how Rayes got started, growing them in his house for fun.
“I encourage everybody to do this at home,” he said.
ON ANOTHER NOTE…
Mesa County Public Libraries’ “Beyond the Garden” series begins next week with a presentation from yours truly on how to start a flock of backyard chickens. The presentation begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Central Library and will include tips on how to choose the right chickens for your situation, as well as prepare the basic necessities for a flock.