Mark Rickard | Sedro Wolley, Washington
I’m here at Skagit gourmet mushrooms with Mark, and we’re getting ready for a little interview. How’s it going, Mark?
My name is Mark. I’ve been farming mushrooms for about four and a half years; I’ve had this farm for eight years now.
What got you into mushroom farming?
I was already interested in another type of farming called aquaponics. And I went to a farmers’ market; there was a mushroom table at the farmers’ market. I had a bunch of questions about it because mushrooms are cool. And people are kind of drawn to them and interested in how to grow them, how to eat them. I had general questions for them, and they actually didn’t have any answers for me.
They had bought kits from a mushroom farm and just fruited the kits. This is what they had extra. It was just for fun. And I wanted to know the answers to my questions. So, I basically started doing online searches that led me to Paul Staments’ book Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms (volume three). I think that’s what it’s called. And I knew within the first chapter that I was going to start a mushroom farm, and eight years later, I did.
Can you give a shout-out to some other people online or some YouTube inspiration that you’ve had?
I didn’t use YouTube for any inspiration. I read Staments’ book. I ended up reading that thing in a couple of days, cover to cover. I got their Radical Mycology book, and later on, I read that. The online community, the way I was approaching it as building a farm, I didn’t feel was really strong. It seems like in the last few years, that has just like exploded. There were definitely a few farms, but the application they were doing really wasn’t what I was thinking of doing or how I was thinking of doing it. So, a lot of my knowledge has come from some pretty brutal trial and error lessons.
Can we talk about the trial and error you experienced?
Not turning your sawdust or using old sawdust that’s going to create a lot of problems in your fruiting. It’s going to create a lot of problems with contamination. It’s going to make things just grow weird. That’s just not something that you think of when you’re beginning or not anything that I ever saw on YouTube, talking about making sure that this gets turned, making sure it gets watered in the summer, a low hydration rate of your sawdust when the weather is warm.
Typically, you’ll add a bunch of water after that’s going to kind of give you that’s not going to be as thorough of a way to add water to add your hydration to your blocks. So it’s going to look good. But then, when you’re coming out to the fruiting stage, you’re going to be a little bit dry. You’re going to wonder why you’re not getting as much product out of your blocks, and it’s going to be because your hydration level was too low in your in the very beginning.
Though you could still get a decent hydration level even if you did a hydration test after you added a bunch of water to dry sawdust, you could get a decent reading on that and be like, okay, that looks good, but then the end product is not going to reflect that. Or it didn’t work for me. So yeah, old sawdust, type of sawdust, how often you turn the pile those are just little tiny, simple things that make a massive difference in the end.
Really, cultivating mushrooms is about making the best substrate block that you can and keeping that block at the most consistent temperature you can while it’s in the incubation phase. There are just so many little details that caused me to do so much labor, to go through the pasteurization process, the incubation process, and the grow-out process to find that the fruiting was wrong and didn’t look right. You can’t really sell it. You need to get rid of the blocks you invested not only all your time but all your aggregate costs that go into creating a block bag costs. Sada supplementation costs your labor costs broke for me. Propane or gas energy usage that goes into that to not produce anything is pretty rough.
What would your advice be to somebody just getting started?
Start small. What I really would recommend, honestly, is buying fruiting blocks from a mushroom farm that’s operating. Buy their blocks, not like hundreds of them, but buy ten and have multiple varieties.
If you really want to get started as a farm, and you’re not going into it with the intention that it’s cool to grow some mushrooms. Farming is not only about the method, but you need to make money at it or you can’t do it. So, money is a huge component of starting a farm. I think that that’s a good way to save money and time and also get to experience the end stage of mushroom farming.
Mushroom farming is about different stages. You have your making blocks stage, your inoculation, your incubation, and then you’re fruiting. After that, you have the packaging process, how you’re going to store it, and how you’re going to market it and sell it.
Do you use the same substrates for every varietal?
I do, for I use the same components but different mixes. I have varieties of mixes, all my oyster mushrooms fruit on the same ratio. Shiitake is different. Cinnamon Cap and Pioppini are a little bit different. But they all have basically the same components and different hydration levels.
Where do we start?
I do pretty low-tech mixing, sawdust pile under here. This is my soybean holes. They are pelletized. You can’t see them, but I’ve got 2000 pounds, super sacks of soybean holes under here. They get hydrated, and they get mixed in a very simple newer five cubic foot RYOBI mixer. All the components get put together, then they get put in here. I have to do some additional hand mixing with this unit. So as it’s running, I’m constantly reaching my hand in and kind of mixing it up. I don’t feel like the risk is very high since I’m strong enough to actually stop this from moving but do remember to be safe.
So that they get mixed. They go on a table. They get thrown in bags. Let me go grab one really quick. I’ll grab one we just did.
This is basically what it looks like after it’s mixed. This now has a nice little bubble in it because it’s been sealed. Then you fold the bag over, and they get loaded into my pasteurizer.
I have three of these, built them, and welded them up myself. In each barrel, I can get 40 bags. So, I ended up doing 360 bags a day. Full production is three days a week. So, we’re doing about 1000 blocks a week this year. They get pasteurized in here for about 12 hours, starting the propane to finish.
After that, we have a little vacuum brake. Our vacuum brake system is really rudimentary. I have a little inline HEPA filter and after the steam is bled off, each individual barrel has a valve that opens the back pressure to be sucked through the HEPA filters. So we don’t get contaminated when the hot bags are pulling air from the outside.
How did you come up with this?
I went to a website called shroomery.org and there was a guy who had posted a picture of a pasteurizer he made like this. And I basically took his idea and made it my own.
Do you have a background in making these types of things?
The first ones were welded by some guys who live on the property here who are expert-level welders. . They’ve been ironworkers for 45 years. So, they helped me with these.
No, I could not have just off the cuff learned to weld good enough to create seals that were tight. They couldn’t even create a seal tight enough to hold pressure on their first go around.
This system works good for you?
These work fantastic. Yep. The only thing that I would do differently about these is that I would probably look into getting some float feed system for the water. Because what I do is I fill up the barrel with…
… I don’t know how many gallons, actually. Another painful figure it out over time, is I figured out how many minutes I needed to run my exterior water pump to get the right amount of water to run for 12 hours. So I run it for seven minutes and 10 seconds of water into the barrel. And then that’s enough water for 12 hours.
After they’re out here, obviously, this is just outside with air and when exposed through here, so I use this hood. This is my little mobile HEPA hood right here. One barrel fits in here.
With this hood, I roll out in front of the barre I am going to open. I open the barrel on its side, and I just hand-load the 40 bags in here. Now they’re under clean air, and they’re safe from the soup of molds and spores that are floating around out there.
Did you figure out this design?
I did. Yep. I learned how to calculate the static pressure loads on the filters. It’s complicated if you’ve never seen it, but it’s actually fairly simple. I spent a lot of hours figuring it out.
I have got my filter, my pre-filter, and then I use, not the fan I would use in the future just so people know, but I did use this fan because this fan I could set to have the correct CFM for this filter. Then I built this hood.
I recommend you don’t build your own. There are pretty reasonably priced options available out there. $800 to $1000 bucks can get you a stainless-steel fan unit that’s got a two-by-four filter. I spent more money building it. It was cool to learn how to do it all. This was all self-taught carpentry, and I would build a different now, of course. All said and done, I would just buy one. I wouldn’t build it.
This room is really dirty, but you can operate a pretty clean operation in a dirty environment. With the HEPA filters, when this door is closed, I have positive pressure in this room. I unload my 360 bags that fit on four rolling racks. The rolling racks are just right here, and I stand in front of the hood. 24 bags fit exactly on here. I just do 24 at a time inoculating.
Then they move into my first incubation room, which is right here. Right now, we’re a little bit low.
WOW – This is the first time that I have seen black bags!
The light deprivation bags will increase yields for sure! You don’t get all of the pinnings underneath the plastic in random places. The only energy that the block is going to put is going to be right out of the hole that you make for it. In certain varieties, it doesn’t matter as much. I won’t give away all my trade secrets, but I will say most oyster mushrooms love the black bag, and you will see a definite increase in your yield using.
Normally this one’s full. But we’re just ramping up for this market season. I’ve got my co2 meter in the back. We’re at about 2700 parts per million co2 here, so I need to kick my fan on. B
This room holds about 1200 blocks when it’s full. An 18,000 BTU mini-split cools it-split. I do have four inches of rigid foam insulation. I set it at about 67 degrees in the summer, and it keeps a lid on the temperature. In the winter, I set it right at 70. And it keeps it right at 70.
I’m assuming you know exactly how long to leave it in the bag before you try to fruit it. Yeah, because you’ve been doing this for so many years.
We give ourselves windows. That’s what these are. We have the black bags, and then we have clear bags to check for contamination. And we can also see what the grow out is on many varieties of exotic mushrooms. For example, you’re looking at about two weeks with oyster mushrooms. There are some things you can do while incubating for longer periods of time. But it kind of depends on the space that you have.
When I started the farm, I started growing shiitake, and I learned a lot about it. Shiitake is a delicious mushroom. It’s an interesting one to grow. It’s definitely one of my favorites to grow.
This used to be my shiitake room, the aisle was about this wide, and I had shelves the whole way back. I would grow shiitake in here. I stopped because shiitake has such a long lead time. This holds about 800 blocks in this room.
I’m not going to be fruiting mushrooms on this farm anymore. I have a new property right down the road. So, all of the rooms here are going to turn into incubation rooms. My new farm is where I’m going to fruit all the mushrooms.
Having your recruiting in a separate place keeps contamination way down, right?
If you have positive pressure in your grow room, you’re not going to be running into contamination issues from your blocks. There’s more mold around for sure. But even with like mold covering my sawdust pile and all my rooms full I never I’ve never run into a contamination issue that stemmed from the rooms being connected to in my Grow Room was being connected to my incubation room or to my hood room.
Where would you say contaminations stem from?
Contamination in your spawn or not pasteurizing or sterilizing your blocks long enough; I would say those are the two main to watch out for. If you’re doing it in negative dead airspace or something like that, you are going to have a higher contamination rate.
If you’re not coming into your lab with clean clothes, you’re putting your farm at risk of contamination. I wear a mask always. I know some people say you don’t have to; I don’t subscribe to that. I wear a mask. I have things that cover my arms. I don’t wear an apron or anything. But I wear a full mask, and I have 99% isopropyl alcohol that gets things cleaned when wiped down. You have got to thoroughly clean stuff every time you use it.
Here’s the first grow room I built right here. But we’ll go back and take a look at some other things growing. Keeps going on. This is what someone who doesn’t know how to farm mushroom builds. Then a real farmer has to deal with it now.
Here’s another example of things that everyone who decides to be a mushroom farmer will deal with; my HVAC unit that supplies the heat and cool to the rooms is dead. So, I’m just using outside air, but it’s 40 degrees outside right now. Consequently, my co2 is very high in the room. So these blues look like mushrooms look when your co2 is too high. The king hybrid, the Black Pearl actually likes the higher co2 environment. But the blues, they don’t like it nearly as much. So, we’ll have some weird looking mushrooms.
This room fits nine racks. The room next to it fits eight racks. And yeah, they’re just kind of starting up. I think this room has 540.
It looks like you are a one-man show that plays go large or go home?
I’m not an amazing salesperson. I do pretty well at getting rid of the product that I have. But I think a big inaccuracy that people have when they go into mushroom farming is they think that they’re gonna make tons of money at it right away.
Just like anything else, the learning curve is steep. When you’re in production for yourself, you have a smaller farm, everything is your problem. If you have to do it all or figure it all out yourself, I think that it’s not easy. One little block of substrate isn’t always going to yield you $45. It’s a lot more than people want to admit, I think, especially when you start trying to scale.
So, when you start needing 1000 bags a week, when you start needing two tons of this or that every month, or whatever it is, you start needing to produce more and more and more and more. I would say for people’s hopes on yield potential, expect about half or three-quarters of what you actually are hoping that you get. That’s probably going to be closer to the real number.
Are you selling any inoculated blocks, or are you fruiting most of them?
I fruit all of mine almost. I sell inoculated blocks as kits. I have such a demand for it that I generally fruit almost everything. Kits, I don’t worry too much about during this summer, but in the winter it’s a great present. It’s fun. I think it’s fun. I have 1000, So you know, but yeah, I need to fruit my mushrooms.
How many pounds per week is your farm producing?
At 1000 blocks right now, it is about 600 pounds of mushrooms for me. When you have something that doesn’t look right, and you have something that’s in a dry spot in your room or something shut off or whatever, I think that 450 to 500 pounds a week is more reasonable.
Out here right now is the time when mushrooms grow effortlessly because the outdoor temperatures are supportive. But when you’re on the extremes, and you’re relying on dry heat, and you have to adjust your humidity all the time and all of those things, they’re living things, and sometimes they just don’t want to produce. It’s a work in progress.