Today was a short and sweet visit with John De Lorenzo, co-founder of Desert Pearl Mushrooms. John originally locked arms with fellow University of Arizona alumnus Jorge Sepulveda, Trevor Mock, and Kris Savage to grow and sell delectable culinary and medicinal mushrooms to southern Arizona. During our quick visit, we covered the ins and outs of their streamlined operation:
Danielle: What’s your role here at Desert Pearl Mushrooms?
John: I’m one of the co-owners and partners of Desert Pearl Mushroom. I am from a little trio of members. We are an alumni startup from the University of Arizona:
• My specialty is Chemistry.
• My partner Chris is a Mechanical Engineer.
• And we’ve got another partner, Jorge Sepulveda, a Controlled Environmental Agriculturalist.
What is your favorite part about this business?
Oh, my favorite part, I would say interfacing with a lot of our local culinary experts. We partner with a few different restaurants. Some of them are formal. Some of them change their menus from time to time or seasonally. Tucson is a top culinary destination. I think it’s one of the cities of gastronomy once or twice, According to UNESCO, so we have a lot of talented chefs here. Meeting them through the sales and distribution process has been super fascinating. We also started selling at farmer’s markets, kind of at the pandemic’s height, to bolster sales and meet a bunch of our consumers. Tons of consumers enjoy our products. So that’s been a huge Pro, I think to get some feedback about what varieties people like, what qualities they like about the mushrooms, what they’d like to see. So our product has kind of developed with consumer feedback, mostly from farmers’ markets and chefs directly.
Very cool. So why did you start farming mushrooms?
Well, farming mushrooms was kind of a byproduct of trying to boost our carbon dioxide levels in our greenhouse. We actually started as an aquaponics farm between 2016 and 2018. We began cultivating tilapia-raising microgreens, and we built several iterations of a greenhouse in our partner’s, Jorge’s, backyard. And we were looking for alternative methods to lower co2 production in the greenhouse. And mushrooms came up as a recommendation from one of our former professors. So, we quickly found out that growing mushrooms was way easier than cultivating fish, especially here in the desert. Of course, you need to control some of the environment a little bit for both, but mushrooms are more forgiving. And we were able to move our operations from a backyard greenhouse to an indoor controlled lighting temperature humidity facility.
When you first started back in 2018, you averaged about five pounds a week and worked out of your garage. How did you scale up from a hobby business to the present?
Yeah. So, in 2018 when it was still a little backyard hobby business. We didn’t consistently have five pounds of mushrooms. So it was great one day we had 10 pounds and saw how much we could sell it for at the farmer’s markets and thought we were going to be rich.
But reproducing that has been a little bit difficult. So, we’ve had to scale steadily. We scaled up to produce about 200 pounds of fresh mushrooms a week at the house. We surpassed that and got to the mid-two-hundreds on a regular basis for a while. But when COVID kicked in, restaurants shut down. So we had to scale back to half, and we’ve slowly been building that back up to between 20 to 100 pounds of fresh mushrooms a week right now.
What is your strategy to meet the demands of the restaurants you have partnered with?
As we grow and aim to meet the increased demand. We’ve been really cautious about scaling up. We’ve implemented a couple of new fruiting chambers for our mushrooms.
How do the hot summer months here in Arizona impact your mushroom growing business?
We are learning from the challenges we faced last summer and know the heat is going to be a problem, so we put in some new refrigeration and cold storage before we really needed it. Now we’re starting to use it, and we’re going to see how this summer turns out before we kick up production.