The word “farm” conjures up images of sunny rolling hills, green with rows of fresh vegetables. But visiting a mushroom farm is more like stepping into the Twilight Zone – literally. At Urban Choice Mushrooms, the farmland is a shadowy warehouse outside Richmond; the plant rows are shelves of plastic bags; and the produce ranges in color from bluish grey to vivid yellow. Not a speck of green in sight.
This is modern mushroom farming.
Jake Greenbaum gives a tour of the Urban Choice mushrooms warehouse, starting with the walk-in cooler. The stainless steel shelves that fill the room are stacked with plastic mushroom bags filled with a custom blended growing medium. The mushrooms are coaxed out by florescent grow lights, and coddled by an even 60-degree temperature and steady humidity level that hovers above 70%.
In the wild, mushrooms spring from rotting logs, so Jake’s growing medium is a mix of hardwood sawdust, cottonseed hulls and lime (the chemical, not the green fruit). His mushrooms grow to harvest size in about 10 days, and each bag produces at least two mushroom crops.
“This really isn’t what I thought I would end up doing,” Jake says. “I was going to business school at VCU and trying to figure out what I had a passion for.”
At the time, Jake says he was growing some shiitake and a few other mushrooms at home, in the bedroom. As the home experiment expanded, Jake realized that mushroom farming was his passion. “I knew I liked building stuff and growing things. At some point I was like, Ok, this is what I’m going to do,” he says.
The Urban Choice mushroom farm has long ago outgrown the bedroom. Next to the walk-in cooler where the mushrooms grow is the mixing area with supplies and a big green mixing hopper used to blend the growing medium.
Behind the mixing area is the clean room, complete with scrubber filters and sealed doors. How many farms have a clean room?
“People think you grow mushrooms from spores,” Jake says. “but that’s not how it works. We use mycelium. It’s live cultures, so it’s sort of like a yeast.”
In order to keep other yeasts, or other mushrooms, from growing in the bags (or contaminate them), Jake has to sterilize the growing medium. Thus the clean room.
After mixing the medium and packing it into individual gallon-sized plastic bags, called “blocks,” Jake adds water and then steams batches of the blocks in the clean room. The steaming sterilizes the medium, which can then be inoculated with the mycelium.
Urban Choice grows blue and yellow oyster mushrooms. The yellows are a vivid sunny color that pops out among the soft bluish grey of the blue oysters. King oysters (also known as king trumpets) are a soft greyish brown, with a meaty texture and fat, tasty stem.
Lion’s mane is a distinctive white mushroom that bulges out of the blocks in soft lumps. It’s covered in the fine white “fur” that sparked its name, and makes it easily recognizable in the wild. Oddly, it has a mild flavor that is often compared to lobster or crab. To preserve its delicate taste, chefs usually slice this chunky mushroom into steaks or chunks and simply sear it in butter.
Jake is busy growing Urban Mushrooms but he’s also helping others get started with their own mushroom dreams.
“People want to grow mushrooms but they don’t have any idea what it takes,” he says. “I can facilitate that and help them make it profitable.” Jake sells his grow blocks to people new to mushroom farming, and also lends some of them growing space in his warehouse.
“A warehouse is a really easy place to start,” Jake says. “It’s always the right temperature.” Many of the small growers he supports sell their mushrooms at local farmer’s markets.
Between providing mushrooms to area restaurants, supporting small growers, and selling his custom growing medium, Jake is stepping out of the Twilight Zone and fast becoming the region’s mushroom king. We expect to see a lot more mushroom choices from Urban Choice in the coming years.