Foodstuffs: The New Hampshire Mushroom Company Fills a Fungus Niche

Jul 30, 2015

In 2012, the New Hampshire Mushroom Company was producing two hundred pounds of mushrooms a week in their 5000 square foot farm-warehouse in Tamworth - and struggling to sell them.  Three years later, with seven full-time employees, the farm can't keep up with the demand, selling out their weekly stock of 1,200 pounds of edible fungus usually within 24 hours. 

Dennis Chesley, part owner of the New Hampshire Mushroom Company, says there's very little gray area when it comes to mushrooms.  It's either love or hate -

"People feel about mushrooms like they do about accordions or bagpipes.  There's nothing in between."

Chesley at his desk and Milligan holding a chaga mushroom.
Credit Sean Hurley

If your family traces back to Eastern or Northern Europe, Chesley says, you probably love mushrooms - and maybe accordions.  

"Whereas a lot of families who have ancestors from the British Isles are mycophobic. They fear mushrooms. They want to step on them -  exterminate them - hit them with the lawnmower ."

Chesley's lifelong mycophilia began fifty years ago.

"My dad was a mail carrier and he would spot wild mushrooms on the mail route and when I got home from school he would say "You want to go out and find mushrooms?" And I'd say "You bet." I was 12 then I'm 64 now and I am up to 160 plus species."

As the company's principal owner Eric Milligan explains, Chesley means he's consumed over 160 different species of mushroom.

Eric Milligan in front of the NH Mushroom Company
Credit Sean Hurley

"He still also poisons himself usually once a year. Don't listen to him! There's one species he'll eat every year. His lips swell up, his fingers swell up and he thinks that maybe this is the year is not allergic to it. It's an edible species that he's allergic to. This is how you find the edge of the cliff!"

About 3% of the population is allergic, like Chesley, to the suillus mushroom - which is one of the reasons it's not one of the nine exotic mushrooms the company grows and sells. 

"Right now we are growing King Oysters, growing Blue Oysters - we're growing what's called an Elm mushroom. A Chestnut mushroom.  Lion's Mane or Bear's Head which grows wild around here."

The farm also cultivates regular, yellow and pink oysters as well as the medicinal Reishi mushroom. 

Chesley and Milligan in one of the misty grow rooms.

"We are producing about 1200 pounds a week and we're delivering to over 100 restaurants ourselves."

They sell at Farmer's Markets, small grocers and health food shops. All part of their original vision for the company - to fill a need in the market that wasn't being met.

"There's only a few mushroom farmers in the Northeast and we knew that there was a market for specialty mushrooms with farmers markets, restaurants and also with medicinal species and there just wasn't anybody around."

But before they can sell them, they have to grow them.  To begin with, the 9 species are incubated in clear bags.

The mushrooms are grown in clear plastic bags.
Credit Sean Hurley

"So essentially what this bag is is a tree. It's a mixture of red oak sawdust, organic wheat middlings - just ground up wheat - limestone and water."

A seed-like mushroom spawn is introduced and the bags are set on shelves in small, environmentally controlled grow rooms. Temperature is monitored to the quarter of a degree and humidity is constant.

"We're making the ideal conditions that would be outdoors for each one of these species to grow to its highest potential."

Mushrooms grow so fast, Milligan says he never stops working.

"You get questions,  "What did you do on Christmas?" "You mean Thursday? (Laughs). They have to get picked every day. It's a 365 day-"

"So you're always picking mushrooms?"

"Always. Always.  I actually live here at the farm."

While Milligan stays at the farm, Chesley travels around the state, trying to find restaurants to sell to - and trying to turn mycophobes into mycophiles.  Chesley's secret weapon is a special dish that makes their top selling mushroom, the King Oyster, taste like bacon.

"And those King Oysters contain all eight essential amino acids, all the B vitamins lots of minerals - and they're wicked tasty."

From wicked to wicked tasty.