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Yes! More fungus amongus: Good news for you mushroom lovers—and would-be mushroom farmers! The Montana Department of Commerce announced last week that the Montana State University mycology lab has teamed up with Garden City Fungi to set up a model system for direct commercialization of mushroom products and technology developed through university research and tested by an established business. In other words, the Bozeman lab and the Nine Mile growing operation are going to show existing businesses and potential mushroom growers how to take their fungi on the road nationwide.

According to the MDC, mushroom farming in Montana is an exciting proposition because production could range from small-scale growing operations, for example just big enough to add income to a family farm, to a full-scale industry. Furthermore, the climate is well suited to commercial mushroom growing because of a generally dry climate and lower levels of pathogens.

The goal of the project, as explained in the MDC press release, is to make mushroom production more efficient through improved growing techniques. Innovative methods will reduce the intervals between fruiting times and provide optimal formulas for substrate, or the mix of spent grains, straw, hardwood sawdust and other organic material in which commercial mushrooms grow. The Department also indicates that other kinds of Montana agricultural—and even industrial wastes—will be tested for their suitability in substrate formulations, which could prove to be a minor boon for established industries currently unaware that they might be sitting on mounds of potential mushroom fertilizer.

Of primary interest for expanding fungus markets is the shiitake, an intensely flavorful specialty mushroom that also happens to be a Garden City Fungi specialty as well as its biggest seller. Folks with long memories (or deep stacks of back issues) might recall an Indy cover story from last spring, in which we paid a visit to the growing outfit, owned by Glen Babcock and Wendy Garrett.

Garden City shiitake begin their journey from spawn to stir-fry in an incubation shed, where a few tablespoons of impregnated rye, white with fuzz, are added to seven-pound plastic bags of sterilized substrate. After 10 days of incubating in a 70-degree shed, the spawn have already begun to seal off their food source by encasing the substrate in a hardened shell of oxidized mycelium, the shiitake’s weblike fruiting body. Roughly three months later, the bags are opened in a fruiting room, where Glen and Wendy eventually pick between 150 and 200 pounds of “first flesh” from each batch of nutrient blocks every Wednesday and Thursday. After three or four rounds of alternating water soakings and fruitings, the blocks are run through a wood-chipper, mixed with fresh substrate, and re-sterilized in an autoclave to start the process all over again.

Garden City Fungi is one of an estimated 300 mushroom farms nationwide, and one of 31 such operations (as of spring 2001) to be certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association. At the time of out interview, Babcock estimated that he and Wendy picked some 1200 pounds of mushrooms every month.

Fresh or dried, shiitake fetch a handsome price. It could add up nicely for Montana growers.

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