The Mushroom Lady

 

Written by Heide Brandes in the March 2013 Issue

Heather Popowski

Envision a mushroom farm and the image of a dark container full of chocolate-colored dirt with bulbous, spongy mushrooms popping out with their bright white caps and frilly gills comes to mind.

The reality is much different. Imagine instead large bags filled with a special mix of sawdust lined on shelves. The environment is dimly lit and the mushrooms are shaped more like furry softballs or tentacled masses. Picture all of this inside a retooled box truck sitting in the backyard of a pleasantly-suburban Edmond home.

Oklahoma Mushroom of Edmond is sprouting the newest of Oklahoma’s specialty mushroom farms–the so-called “Blue Rose” of vegetable farming. But mushroom farming isn’t like your typical farm. It’s part science, part magic, part imagination and a big part of knowledge to make a mushroom farm both viable and profitable. “The mushroom farm opportunity presented itself last year,” said Heather Popowsky, owner of Neighborhood Gardener and the Oklahoma Mushroom farm. “The couple who started it ended their partnership and was looking to sell. This isn’t your typical soil farm—this is something completely different and we are aiming to produce 200 pounds of mushrooms a week.”

Popowsky works her farm with former chef Robert Wehrle, who acts as the farm manager. The farm currently grows Shitake mushrooms, Lion’s Mane, White Elm and soon Almond Portabellos. “We are currently selling mushrooms to restaurants in the area like Local in Norman, the Coach House, Bellini’s, LaBaguette, Picasso Café and West,” said Popowsky. “We will also do the farmers markets and markets like Urban Agrarian and Native Roots.”

The goal is to grow and sell the spongy delicacies to restaurants and stores, though home gourmets can also purchase direct. Variety is the key. No button mushrooms here–these are the crown jewel mushrooms.

Science & Nature

Wehrle and Popowsky were introduced through Matthew Birch at Urban Agrarian market, and a partnership of fungus was born. Wehrle had a farm in Tuttle where he grew natural, local produce and has always had a passion for mushrooms. As a former chef, he cooked in Germany and in Oklahoma City before creating his organic garden. “I’ve always been fascinated by mushrooms,” he said. “But, leave growing them to experts. Unless you can positively identify a mushroom, don’t pick it and don’t eat it.”

MushroomsFor Wehrle, the mushrooms he manages are the delicious, lovely and friendly kind. But what grows so perfectly in nature requires exact science in a controlled environment. “There’s no such thing as a typical day growing mushrooms,” he said. “I start at 8 a.m. every day and make the bags.”

Bags? At Oklahoma Mushroom, special sawdust and organic rice bran are placed in special bags that are then autoclaved to 255 degrees to sterilize the base. Using HEPA filters, the bags are cooled and then grain spawn is added and the mycelium (where all mushrooms come from) are injected. Soon, after sitting in dark, climate controlled environments, blisters start to form in the dirt where the mushrooms will eventually sprout. “Once they sprout, the mushrooms will double in size every 24 hours,” said Wehrle. “We get our source substrate from Prague, Oklahoma, the mycelium spawn from Northwest Microbiological. We build the bags, we sterilize, we inoculate with the liquid mycelium, we incubate and then we harvest.”

Popowsky, who purchased the farm with the help of her former husband and local chef Ryan Parrott, owns 70 percent interest in the farm along with her cousin, Jay Thomas. She still maintains her gardening and landscaping business of Neighborhood Gardener, but mushrooms are the apple of her eye right now. “I love mushrooms, but I never thought about growing them until the opportunity presented itself,” she said. “Because we just started in October, we’re only selling to a few places because it takes some time to grow and get to our production goals. Our goals are to grow and sell to as many restaurants and stores as possible. You won’t ever taste anything as good as these mushrooms.”

4 Comments

Deborah May Says:
March 7th, 2013 at 3:02 pm
Great article. I'm very excited to hear about such healthy, locally sourced food! Really good writing, too!

Brian Bogosian Says:
October 1st, 2013 at 1:07 pm
Heather what are you holding in your hands in the photograph?

mark Says:
November 8th, 2013 at 4:08 pm
I was looking to grow mushrooms but sounds like it's not as easy as I thought. very good hope you the best.LIFE IS GOOD TODAY!

Ruth E Says:
January 13th, 2015 at 12:09 pm
Very interesting--what do you do with the residue(in the bags) after the mushrooms are harvested?
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