Originally published in October 2017
Growing edible mushrooms in the Yakima Valley doesn’t sound like it would be especially productive.
Some might even say it can’t be done.
The dry air and seasonal temperatures of Central Washington produce some of the finest fruits and vegetables in the world. But those conditions are less than ideal for fungi, which require a damp, dark environment to thrive.
That didn’t stop Selah farmer Michael Bennett from trying.
For the past seven years, the owner of J&M Gourmet Mushrooms — with help from his wife, Judy — has created a healthy habitat for a dozen varieties of specialty mushrooms that he sells to area businesses and at farmers markets.
It has required lots of experimentation, but Bennett thinks he has found ample proof that quality mushrooms can, in fact, be grown successfully east of the Cascades.
“It’s a lot of work, but I love it because I learn something new every day,” said Bennett, a former drug and alcohol counselor who learned all about growing fungi at a 2010 seminar hosted by well-known mycologist Paul Stamets.
“You never know what you’re going to find when you work with mushrooms. Sometimes they grow and sometimes they don’t. The challenge is to figure out why. That’s why I enjoy it so much.”
After learning a few techniques at the seminar, Bennett starting out by growing oyster mushrooms in old maple logs. That experiment proved effective, so he tried growing shiitake mushrooms in beds filled with straw and recycled cardboard.
Early on, he only succeeded about 20 percent of the time with the shiitakes. But nowadays, he’s churning them out at a 60 percent success rate, allowing J&M to turn a modest profit.
“I got so far into it that I couldn’t give up,” Bennett said. “I really wanted to make it work, so I just kept pushing it. If you truly pay attention and analyze what’s going on with the mushrooms, you can be successful most of the time. You can’t get discouraged because it takes a lot of time and patience.”
Good thing Bennett kept the vision because today he is charging up to $22 per pound for his oyster, shiitake and Lion’s Mane varieties (most go for around $10 a pound).
They are sold both fresh and dehydrated, with local restaurants such as Cowiche Canyon Kitchen, Crafted Gastropub and Zesta Cucina receiving regular deliveries.
Also on the delivery route are Wine O’Clock in Prosser, Chris Guerra Catering in Sunnyside, Tagaris Winery in Richland and Birchfield Manor in Yakima, J&M’s first oyster mushroom contract.
The Bennetts also frequent the Yakima and Richland farmers markets and have an ongoing relationship with Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences and Pacific Northwest Fresh, a farm-to-home delivery service based in Yakima.
“I don’t always have what the restaurants need because I don’t control what the mushrooms are going to do from week to week,” Bennett said. “Certain times are better than others, and the chefs don’t always understand that. But I try not to overpromise. I just provide the parameters for the mushrooms to grow and God does the rest.”
Some mushrooms grow in all seasons, while others depend on the time of year, he explained. Some do better in cold weather and others like a slightly warmer climate.
A good portion of the mushroom crop is dehydrated in the Bennetts’ certified drying room, where they package dried mushrooms for soup broths, horse grind and gluten-free meat rubs.
J&M’s third mushroom species, Lion’s Mane, is an indoor/outdoor variety with medicinal properties that is grown inside a temperature-controlled room Bennett built in his workshop.
Now that the summer heat has subsided, the Lion’s Mane crops — which is taken to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease patients — have been harvested and are being moved to one of the outside shelters for the winter.
Hundreds of beds of shiitake and oyster mushrooms continue to grow all over the Collins Road property in composted material, straw logs, coffee grounds — whatever works, really.
Bennett said he has been selling about 200 pounds a week this year, and he could easily see that number increase next year.
“It took us about four years before we made any money doing this, but I’m stubborn so I stayed with it,” he said. “We’re running at about a 60 percent success rate now, but in a couple more years I’d like to see us at about 90 percent. Then we can start to recoup some of our investment before we retire.”
Bennett is 65 and his wife is 69, so time is of the essence.
But even if they don’t strike it rich, mushroom farming has become a most enjoyable second career for the couple.
If nothing else, they have proven that you can grow some pretty yummy mushrooms on this side of the state.
“I’m probably only making $2 an hour doing this, but I’ve really grown to love it,” Bennett said. “We’ve gained a pretty good following and I think we can keep expanding.”
To learn more about the Bennetts’ foray into fungi farming, visit jmgourmetmushrooms.com.