Control over conditions is key, Silver-Ramp says. The laboratory is fitted with air filters and is pressurized to prevent outside air from getting in, creating as pristine an environment as possible. Facemasks and alcohol swabs serve as necessary office supplies. Lab work is done by workers wearing full-body hazmat suits—not because the mushrooms pose a danger, but because the people do: The mold and bacteria spores on humans can prevent fungi from successfully growing and forming infant mushrooms (primorida), effectively ruining the whole business. “In a computer-chip manufacturing facility, the purpose is to keep the human body away from the fungus,” Silver-Ramp explains. “Here, the process is reversed.”
On paper, growing mushrooms appears to be a straightforward ordeal. Silver-Ramp cultivates each new mushroom from a clone—tissue transferred from an existing mushroom to a new material—and plants it in a sawdust substrate. From there, the clone becomes primordia and eventually grows into the oyster, king oyster, nameko, or lion’s mane mushrooms that will then be shipped to the store.
But it’s not quite that simple. The process of growing an exotic mushroom is exceptionally touchy, and is affected by just about everything, from variations in humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide concentration, to light and air movement. Silver-Ramp says he can usually tell within a week of incubation if a batch has been contaminated or if it will make it to harvest.
This unpredictable process serves as a barrier to entry to the trade. “There’s a lot of people that come in and out of business,” Silver-Ramp says. “It’s a steep learning curve, a lot of variables, and you need a lot of equipment up front.” And while his degree in agriculture is useful, Silver-Ramp hasn’t gotten to spend much time in the lab yet. There are other things that demand his attention.
“To be frank, the reason I got into [mushroom farming] is because I wanted to focus on biology, but I’ve had to learn engineering, wiring, HVAC, boiler maintenance skills, and more,” he says. But that could soon change. Now that the shipping containers are steadily producing crops, Silver-Ramp hopes to find time to research more varieties and eventually work toward an urban farm ecosystem beyond mushrooms. “Fungus is this key that will enable us to do a lot of great things,” he says. “We’re taking waste and converting it into highly valuable products.”
That waste includes sawdust from Wood From the Hood and spent grain from Dangerous Man Brewing Company, both of which are used to feed the substrate that serves as food for the primordia. Once the mushrooms are fully grown and harvested, the reuse cycle continues as Mississippi Mushrooms sells the used substrate as gardening compost. “We’re closing the loop on this material,” Silver-Ramp says. The garden at 56 Brewing is a living example of this, where the substrate-turned-compost now sprouts herbs, cabbage, and kale.
Silver-Ramp says that, just like with beer, people often have a misunderstanding of mushrooms based on their experience of trying a single strain of the food. “A common thing people will say is ‘I don’t like mushrooms,’” he notes. “But fungus has a huge diversity.” There is often a variety out there to convert the unbelievers, he says, in the same way a palate averse to lager may enjoy sours or stouts.
One way to experience Mississippi Mushrooms—and create converts out of self-proclaimed mushroom haters—is by dining at one of the restaurants in the Twin Cities that features them, including The Bachelor Farmer, Create Catering, and Restaurant Alma. Or purchase a package from the co-op and enjoy them at home, perhaps following one of the recipes on Mississippi Mushrooms’ website.
Jill Livingston, produce buyer at Seward Co-op, recommends a traditional sauté to become familiar with the exotic varieties. “Mississippi Mushrooms’ oysters have a slightly fruity, slightly sweet flavor with a tender cap and stem,” she says. “They are excellent simply sautéed in butter and garlic. I’d suggest them enjoyed as a side or added to pasta or risotto with a little grated Parmesan or Grana Padano.”
Exotic mushrooms are already big in Asia and re gaining popularity in the U.S. Silver-Ramp sees them as a natural fit for the Twin Cities’ adventurous food scene, too. Ultimately, he aims to ramp up production while also looking beyond food production. His goals include finding ways to use his business to reuse waste products like CO2, grow other plants, and produce green energy. He even dreams of opening a market that will bring people to the farm itself.
For now, though, Silver-Ramp says he’s happy to have found a home in the Minneapolis–St. Paul culinary scene. “I’m happy to be in a time and place where we can experiment with food,” he says. “And we want to help make that even better.”
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