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With a Strong Business Plan, Their Venture Is Mushrooming

Thomas P. Caldwell - June 14, 2013





Mushrooms

Eric Milligan of the New Hampshire Mushroom Company displays some of the blooms in the climate-controlled growing room at the Tamworth facility.

In business for less than a year, New Hampshire Mushroom Company already has established itself as a reliable source of superior gourmet, cultivated, and wild mushrooms, drawing orders from as far away as Texas and New York. But in choosing the name of the business, Principal Eric Milligan and his seven partners wanted to be sure it reflected its New Hampshire setting. And, as much as possible, they determined they would draw upon and support local businesses.

The Tamworth mushroom farm operates out of a single building where most of the mushrooms are grown under strictly controlled conditions to ensure maximum quality and maximum shelf life. As Milligan explains it, they could grow mushrooms more quickly and add to their weight by providing them with more water, but that would downgrade their quality and reduce their shelf life. And if the mushrooms were to be harvested just a little later, they might be bigger, but, again, their quality and shelf life would be lessened.

The New Hampshire Mushroom Company, which sells certified organic products, opened last July, but Milligan notes that it was eight years in the planning. His inspiration came from working on a New Hampshire farm for eight months and learning about mushrooms there. He later was able to acquire the farm’s equipment which remained in storage until he and his partners, Dennis Chesley and Keith Garrett, opened their own facility last year.

Milligan had studied theatre in college, but, realizing there was not much money in that field unless one is willing to move to the city — “and I’m a country boy” — he found himself working at construction jobs until he wound up on the farm in New Hampshire. After his eight months at that job, he went to work at Melvin Village Marine. Walking through the woods every chance he got, he would observe and identify the wild mushrooms, and it solidified his interest in them.

He soon identified other people who shared an interest in mushrooms — including his current office manager — and, after doing a lot of reading and research into the mushroom trade, he was ready to proceed.

“People are investing more in ideas than the stock market these days,” Milligan said, explaining that, with a solid business plan, it was not hard to sell the idea to individuals willing to invest in mushrooms. Thus, the New Hampshire Mushroom Company went into business.

They had a three-tiered plan: a focus on growing seven species; getting their mushrooms into restaurants and farmers’ markets; and wholesaling the product to large buyers. They have done well on all counts. They cultivate and harvest their own mushrooms as well as foraging in the wild, and they now have their products at the Concord Food Co-op, E.M. Heath Supermarket in Center Harbor, The Local Grocer in Conway, and Philbrick’s Fresh Market in Portsmouth. They have had booths at the Tilton Winter Farmers’ Market and the Tamworth Farmers’ Market, and they have paired with other businesses, such as Nila’s Chutneys and Bonnie Brae Farm, who also have booths at farmers’ markets where they share New Hampshire Mushroom Company products. The company also wholesales its products to 100 restaurants, as well as being distributed by Native Maine Produce & Specialty Foods and by distributors in Vermont and Boston MA.

After they first opened in July 2012, and before their own cultivation process got going full-steam, they began by harvesting wild mushrooms which come out in the fall. The fall forage ended just as their cultivated product was ready and the business was off the ground.

The cultivation process requires controlled conditions. In the wild, with billions of spores per mushroom, only a few of them have to survive to produce more mushrooms under the variable conditions that occur. To be successful as a cultivator, New Hampshire Mushroom Company set up its facility to maintain proper humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels. Grow lights nourish plants that act to cleanse the air of excess CO2 produced by the mushrooms, and the mycelia (root-like structures that hold the spores) are kept in sealed bags that serve as a substitute for the tree bark that, in nature, would protect them until the time is right for fruiting.

The process begins with a “clean room” where the hardwood sawdust that is used as a base and the grain that is added as a nutrient are “super-pasteurized” by steam which kills bacterial and fungal contaminants. They are then dried and cooled down by HEPA-filtered air that is blown in, and then are put in a laboratory with positive pressure where the spawn is introduced to the substrate, an exact amount for each bag. With their current equipment, they can prepare 100 bags in about 15 minutes.

Depending upon the type of mushroom, the cultivation will take from 17 days (for the Bear’s Head mushroom) to 80 days (for the Chestnut mushroom). The other mushrooms they specialize in are the Oyster, King Oyster, Lion’s Mane, Blue Oyster, and Elm Oyster.

They originally produced between 500 and 700 pounds of mushrooms a week; now they are producing 1,700 to 2,000 pounds per week, harvesting three times daily, at 7 a.m., 1 p.m., and 8 p.m. The operation continues 365 days per year.

The work includes a lot of experiments, adjusting the grains and trying different combinations of heat and humidity to determine what works best — secrets that are closely guarded by those who cultivate mushrooms selling for $12 to $14 per pound.

New Hampshire Mushroom Company also is experimenting with medicinal mushrooms such as the nutrient-dense chaga which is ground into a powder; reishi, which is said to help the immune system and assist in dealing with Lyme Disease; and matsutaki, which has a spicy scent and flavor. They also offer blends of mushroom varieties.

They are planning to have some outdoor beds, more for educational purposes than for profit, as part of their mission is to teach people about mushrooms. In that vein, Milligan has scheduled a series of talks, and the company’s Facebook page shares links to stories about mushrooms as well as offering tips and advice.

The company donates 85 percent of its waste product to the Community School of Tamworth, as the waste contains many nutrients that the school is using to restore its garden soil. New Hampshire Mushroom is considering making a mushroom compost that it could sell to the public.

For more information, see the company website at www.nhmushrooms.com, or call 323-0097. 

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