By day, Eric Myers works for the U.S. Air Force, but in the evening — when he is not deployed — he has another passion. Myers grows and sells specialty mushrooms across the United States.
Myers’ passion for growing specialized mushrooms — oyster, shiitake, lion’s mane and reishi — started when he was living in Texas. When he was transferred to Haysville, Myers brought along his business — Myers Mushrooms.
Mushroom market increases nationally
Growing specialty mushrooms is beginning to catch on across the United States. Sales of these mushrooms are increasing at restaurants and farmers markets.
The type of mushrooms that Myers grows require an air-conditioned space in a garage, warehouse or basement. Myers converted a 2,400 square-foot building into a mushroom factory complete with sterilized laboratories and state-of-the-art equipment, some of which he engineered.
This year, the overall mushroom market saw an increase in grocery sales for common white and brown mushrooms, including portobellos. Commercial mushrooms are grown in large areas and represent approximately 98% of the market.
"Overall, during the last few years, mushrooms as a whole have seen an increase in demand," said Lori Harrison, a spokesperson for the American Mushroom Institute.
Much of this resurgence, Harrison said, is in the consumers desire to eat healthy foods.
"They are low in fat, low in cholesterol and low in calories," she said. "They are chock full of the things that are good for us."
Large mushroom farms
Most of the large mushroom farms are in California, Pennsylvania and Washington. However, Oklahoma has a large facility as well. These large-scale operations provide most of the mushrooms that supermarkets, schools and restaurants need.
"Mushrooms are consistently one of the top two or three vegetables each week in retail tracking data," Eric Davis, spokesperson for the Mushroom Council said. "There’s a 25-to-35% growth in sales compared to the same time last year."
The USDA reports value of sales for all mushrooms at slightly more than $1 billion during 2017-18.
Some specialty markets, as well as farmers markets, are wanting certain types of mushrooms that are difficult to grow and process at the large plants. According Davis, recent sales for specialty mushrooms were up by slightly less than $10 million.
"In the four weeks of reporting through mid-April, specialty mushrooms accounted for 2% of total mushroom volume but contributed 6% of total mushroom dollar sales," he said. "In comparison to the same time period last year, the specialty segment grew in volume and dollar sales, up 13.6% and 23.2%, respectively."
Myers specializes in growing specialty fungi, which requires several indoor rooms, specialized air flow, lights and humidity.
First, he combines soy bean hulls, sawdust and water through a machine he invented. Then he inoculates a spawn — all of this operation takes place in a sterilized facility. Once inoculated, the substance incubates for three to four weeks. During this time, the growth occurs. Then, the substance is transferred to a new container and the mushrooms begin to form.
Myers will grow between 200 to 300 pounds of mushrooms per week. The main cost he said is manpower and electricity.
"There’s no need for any kind of chemical," he said. "It’s all sterilized."
Some specialty mushroom businesses focus on only one of the above stages, while others complete them all — spawn production, bag production, fruiting and sales. Myers does all three, including specializing in selling bags of spawn to other growers.
"It takes capital to get going," he said. "It’s profitable, but it takes hard work. You’re either growing mushrooms, or you’re growing contamination."
Myers offers classes in the hows and whys of growing mushrooms and building a commercial operation.
"There’s always room for competition," Myers said. "I’m trying to improve the industry."