Mousam Valley Mushrooms

The Sharood family loves mushrooms. They love to forage for them in local forests, they love to eat them, and they love to grow them. Daughter Emily writes, “From the tiniest transparent Indian Pipe to a field of Trumpets, the find all depends on location. As long as I can remember, mushroom hunting has been a Sharood family favorite. It is not so much an activity, but more so an adventure of sorts. The action has always remained the same, yet what we find varies greatly, and so do we as the seasons change.”

It is clear that when the family decided to go into business together, it wasn’t just about business – it was personal, and it was about family. John Sharood, father of business partners Robert and Emily and husband of business partner Sandra, says, “We started this company for a couple of family reasons. Our family has always been interested in food, nature and in mushrooms in particular, but mainly as hobbies and activities. For about ten years I ran companies in the Boston area, commuting 150 to 160 miles a day every day. It was fun, but I never got to see much of my family. When Bob and Emily began working, they struggled to find jobs that were more than just a job, things that would be creative. I was tired of commuting and looking for something to grow locally.” With John’s extensive background in business and start-ups, and with his son Robert’s development of a method to grow mushrooms in a controlled indoor environment, their dinner time conversations led them to explore a compelling market opportunity that also appealed personally: the specialty mushroom business. Emily volunteered to help, bringing her marketing background to the table, and the three jumped into it full time starting in 2011, forming Farming Fungi, LLC, which trades as Mousam Valley Mushrooms from its location in Springvale, Maine.

The company farms a variety of certified organic culinary mushrooms for restaurants and the consumer market. They strive to grow mushrooms as close to wild as possible, cultivating them from samples gathered locally and grown on Maine hardwood sourced sustainably from the same woods in which they walk and forage. The end result is a mushroom that could have been picked right off the side of your favorite hiking path. The only difference is that Mousam Valley Mushrooms can grow them year round, and they know exactly when they will be perfect for their customers to enjoy. The company currently produces three healthy varieties of USDA and MOFGA certified organic Oyster mushrooms including Italian and Pink Oyster mushrooms, and their own cultivated strain, the Katahdin Oyster.  They plan to introduce more varieties, including King Oyster mushrooms and native Hen-of-the-Woods and Chicken-of-the-Woods mushrooms, among others.

When most people think of what mushrooms must need to grow, they think damp, dark and dirty.  But the conditions at Mousam Valley Mushrooms couldn’t be farther from that stereotype.  “Our growing rooms are cleaner than your doctor’s office,” says John. They have to be, to avoid contamination by dust, spores, or bacteria.  Even the wood chips are selectively pasteurized before use. Staff wear masks and gloves, and each room is a sealed environment controlled by a high-tech computerized system that monitors and maintains perfect light, temperature, humidity, airflow, and carbon dioxide levels for each lot of mushrooms. This system has been developed with the help of two $25,000 seed grants from MTI, the Maine Technology Institute. “MTI wants to see technology involved in the projects they support – but often food production involves technology, and MTI has been a supporter,” says John.

There is a lot of potential for the market in specialty foods, especially organic foods like Mousam Valley’s mushrooms. The organic fruit and vegetables sector grew by 15% last year, according to the Organic Trade Association.  In contrast, the food market in general is only growing by 3% per year.  Still, that’s a lot of mushrooms to produce – how do you make a profit growing and selling mushrooms?  It’s not easy, says John. Key to their success is their ability to distribute their goods.  The company has recently expanded to the point where its mushrooms have started being carried by two large food retailers: Whole Foods and Hannaford supermarkets.  By the end of this year, Mousam Valley Mushrooms will be available in 35 Whole Foods stores and over 50 Hannaford locations. To help fuel this expansion, Mousam Valley Mushrooms recently applied for and was awarded a $50,000 marketing grant through the USDA.  This funding has been used to help develop specialty, 100% compostable packaging for the mushrooms and will help fund design for in-store promotions and sales displays.  

Supporting and taking part in the local economy is important to the Sharoods. They make sure every single input - from harvesting the wood that the mushrooms grow on, to the mechanics who service their delivery truck and equipment - is obtained as locally as possible. They are even working on a pilot project to sell the composted substrate to a local farmer, closing the resource loop. The company also maintains its local roots by supplying mushrooms to local restaurants and CSAs – Community Supported Agriculture arrangements, where members pay a fee up front to help with a farm’s production costs and receive a share of the farm’s produce during the growing season. The York County Farmers Network is one way the Sharoods stay connected with other farm-based businesses in the region, and a resource for readers who may be looking for a CSA or other producer in York County.

For a company that started as a series of dinner table conversations about how to turn a family hobby into a business, Mousam Valley Mushrooms is proving to be an incredible success.  It has grown from three employees – John, Robert, and Emily Sharood – in 2011 to 11 employees in 2014, including agricultural technicians and, now that distribution is increasing, delivery drivers.  The company plans to continue its growth, aiming to nearly double its production in the next year and potentially adding new varieties of mushroom.  There are plans to increase growing space, too, with the addition of another barn.  The additional space would potentially allow the company to produce more than four times its current production. With all of this growth, however, it is still the connections that remain important. John says, “One of the most rewarding aspects of the business is the positive feedback from customers who try our mushrooms and love them. It fires us up to do even more and to make the product even better.”

 

 

For more information on Mousam Valley Mushrooms, visit the company's website.

Read an essay from Emily Sharood on mushrooms here.