Saturday, June 20, 2015

Food for Thought with Alex Bielak - Dream of Blue Oysters

Dream of Blue Oysters

So, with apologies to Sting, I’ve become a farmer. Well technically I financed a smallholding, and sub-contracted the work to my wife and daughter. How small, you ask? About a foot square by a couple of feet high. Allow me to explain…

A couple of weeks’ back – during the Les Marmitons Gala I mentioned in the last column - I was at a talk by Brad Kuhns and Angela Vessie, the husband and wife team that runs Top Shelf Mushrooms in Collingwood. I love mushrooms, especially the more exotic ones that cost so much at supermarkets, so I found their talk fascinating. They are foragers who eventually founded a business making kits for folk who wanted to try their hand at growing their own. They also now run an expanding mushroom farm.

Their grow-at-home kits, available by mail, are certified organic and come with a couple of

accessories that appear to help ensure success. All their kits are guaranteed to fruit, or your kit will be replaced: I previously experimented with kits, probably from the U.S., that sometimes appear on supermarket shelves, with mixed success. The Top Shelf kits come with the substrate in a bag, a mister, and a “humidity tent,” a larger plastic bag with holes in it to keep the humidity at the right level. I think the extra bag makes all the difference in case you forget to spritz the grow block to the 95% humidity needed to grow ‘shrooms.

Pasteurized oak sawdust mixed with oat bran makes up the substrate that is inoculated with mushroom culture. Several mushroom varieties are available, and first-timers are steered toward blue, white or elm oyster mushrooms which are the easiest to grow. Also usually available are shitakes, lion’s mane and the pretty, pink Salmaneo.

Sadly, my favourite mushroom, the earthy morel, is not available in kit form, as only one or two individuals world-wide have cracked the code of how to culture them. Apparently, Domino’s Pizza owns one of the patents, but I don’t see morel pizzas available, so who knows what the company is planning for the future. Similarly, Boletes, another of my favourites and considered the kings of mushrooms, also need co-cultivation with plants and bacteria , so are very tricky to grow commercially because of the highly selective environment they require.

Kuhns told me in a follow up call the yield from one kit can be between 1 and 3 pounds. His inventory of kits is down currently as Top Shelf expands its commercial farm production, but he has elm kits available, and some blue and lion’s mane coming too. “Shipping is the same cost whether you order one kit or more”, he added.

Sam Agro, of Agro Mushrooms of Hamilton, told me that his company used to sell kits, and it was a great business, but no longer does so for reasons related to extensive storm damage on his property some years ago. Neither he, nor John Rowe of Trinity Mushroom Farms in Ancaster, know of anyone locally that produces kits, noting that there are a number of operations in the US that do.

Both gentlemen appear to have their hands full keeping ahead of demand for their regular product that they wholesale locally. Rowe – an affable former associate professor of neurosciences at McMaster University - said the kits are a fun novelty and wonderful for introducing children to the concepts of growing food. He cautioned however that some people can be quite allergic to oyster mushroom spores. A well-ventilated growing space would therefore be a wise consideration, which is why I’m glad my blue oyster mushroom micro-farm is tucked away in the back 40, a covered corner of our patio.

As you can see in the photos, the first crop is upon us. I’m off to put butter in the frying pan before the ladies begin the harvest.

To see more pictures, click here.

To see all past columns please see (and “like”) the Food for Thought Archives

Alex (Alex can be reached at fft@thehamiltonian.info or on twitter @AlexBielak)


  1. AnonymousJune 20, 2015

    Thank you for shedding light the work of Hamilton mushroom farmers (no pun intended). Good luck, Sam and John!

  2. There's a great other story there, many more than one I suspect, Anon, ones I would like to write. I do not have their emails, so if you do please let them have the link to this one. And, yes, they are fun guys;-)


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