Pilot story and photos by Bill Lundquist
PISTOL RIVER "I must be a mushroom," goes the old workplace joke, "they keep me in the dark and feed me crap."
That's definitely not how mushrooms are treated at the Pistol River Mushroom farm.
When those on Hospitality Tours visited the farm Wednesday, they found high tech equipment and facilities as sterile as a hospital's operating room.
It has to be that way, said owner Brian Hewgill. He has to create conditions conducive to fungus growth, but must keep out other fungi and molds that could destroy his crop of shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms.
Hewgill sells about 350 pounds of mushrooms a week on the South Coast and in the Rogue Valley.
The profitable part of the business, however, is his line of dried mushrooms and mushroom seasoning products.
Hewgill didn't start out to be a mushroom farmer. He lived in Pistol River, but worked as a contractor in Eugene.
He was looking for a business he could run in Pistol River when he noticed some of his friends were making thousands of dollars picking wild mushrooms on weekends.
Hewgill figured if there was that much money in picking mushrooms, there must be even more in growing them.
He lived in a residential area, however, and didn't want to create the kind of smells that come with growing white button mushrooms in compost. His operation needs no loud machinery.
"I honed in on mushrooms that were easy to grow and provided health benefits," said Hewgill. "Shiitake mushrooms boost the immune system."
He also grows oyster and lion's mane mushrooms for fine restaurants. The Pistol River Mushroom Farm brand is now featured on some menus.
Hewgill explained at the start of the tour that fungi and molds are concentrated from ground level to 21 feet in the air.
His challenge is to grow one type of fungus while fighting the others off. He uses no pesticides, but sterilizes all equipment and workplace surfaces with a light bleach and water mixture.
The first step in growing mushrooms, said Hewgill, is to create a mixture they can grow in.
He bought an old bakery ribbon mixer to blend a mixture of 80 percent tanoak chips from South Coast Lumber, 10 percent millet and 10 percent wheat bran.
The dry blend is mixed with water and put in special plastic bags that breathe through small HEPA filters.
Each bag is folded, not sealed, and placed on one of four rack carts. The carts, carrying a total of 600 bags of mixture, are then wheeled into a large autoclave that originally was used in canning tuna.
Essentially a large pressure cooker, the autoclave sterilizes the mixture at 250 degrees and 14 and a half pounds of pressure for four and a half hours.
A machine then cools the mixture by blowing HEPA filtered air into the autoclave for two days.
All 600 mixture bags are then wheeled on carts from the autoclave to a HEPA filtered inoculator room.
Hewgill designed a simple machine that allows him to inject one shot of rye "berries" into each bag and then seal it.
The rye berries already have white mycelium growing on them. The spiderweb-like filaments are actually the roots of the mushrooms.
It takes three people about three hours to seed all 600 bags. A perforated wall behind the machine blows HEPA filtered air out, keeping unwanted fungi and molds away from the briefly-opened bags. Workers wear smocks and gloves sterilized with a 70 percent alcohol solution.
The bags are then placed on racks in a warehouse. The growing mycelium breathe through the bags' HEPA filters.
They also give off heat, so fans are used to keep the air moving so the temperature remains in the high 70s.
Hewgill said the mushrooms think they are growing on oak logs, but the process takes only three months, instead of the 18 months it would take in the wild.
The warehouse holds 6,000 bags. Every two weeks, 600 new bags go in, and every week 300 come out. When the bags have turned from white to brown, they are ready for the next step.
The blocks of mixture are then moved to a a greenhouse where the humidity is kept at a constant 92-95 percent.
The bags are removed and the blocks are placed on racks in what Hewgill calls the "fruiting stage." Put simply, the mushrooms pop out from the blocks of roots and mixture.
In nature, said Hewgill, mushroom mycelium can survive in the ground for hundreds of years. When conditions are just right, they "fruit" and put out mushrooms.
The bags remain on the oyster mushroom blocks. Slots are cut in the bags so only a few large mushrooms emerge from them.
Each fruiting block puts out up to three pounds of mushrooms. Hewgill said production has diminished at all mushroom farms across the West recently for some unknown reason.
Ironically, Hewgill's high tech, sterile facility barely breaks even growing fresh mushrooms. He had to take out a $100,000 second mortgage to build it.
He makes most of his money by buying dried mushrooms wholesale from Europe and China and packaging and retailing them.
It costs Hewgill a lot more to grow his own shiitake mushrooms and dry them than it does to buy them from China.
The Chinese, he said, grow shiitake mushrooms the old-fashioned way, on logs, in the backyards of village homes.
"There's no way I can compete with the Chinese, with their cheaper labor," he said.
They briefly tried to take over the fresh shiitake mushroom market in this country too, said Hewgill, by shipping them in formaldehyde. They stayed fresh-looking for weeks, but fortunately, he said, the flavor was not great.
Pistol River Mushroom Farm products are available in many area stores, or at the farm's retail shop at 24940 Pistol River Loop off U.S. Highway 101. Call (541) 247-9195 for information.