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Interest in area food entrepreneurs is, well, mushrooming

Mississippi Mushroom, with its gourmet-quality fungi, are one example of the growing sector.

The fungi at Mississippi Mushrooms grow up to be big, beautiful and exotic.
MinnPost photo by John Reinan

You know the old joke about being treated like a mushroom: kept in the dark and fed nothing but —well, let’s call it an unappealing diet.

But if you were a Mississippi Mushroom, you’d be kept in a dimly lit, temperature-controlled room, fed only the finest brewers’ grain and choice sawdust. And you’d grow up to be big, beautiful and exotic.

Mississippi Mushrooms is just one of the countless small food companies that are sprouting like fungi in Minnesota. Nik Prenevost and Ian Silver-Ramp, both with agriculture degrees from the University of Minnesota, started the company last year and moved their growing facility to northeast Minneapolis a few months ago.

Although experience suggests that mushrooms will thrive under just about any conditions, growing gourmet-quality ‘shrooms requires rigorous attention to air quality, heat, light and the growing medium. The same conditions favorable to growing mushrooms also favor mold and other invasive organisms, so anything that gets into the building can potentially blossom into an unwelcome visitor.

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Mississippi Mushrooms spent a good bit of its startup cash on an elaborate air-filtration system that yields better air quality inside the building than out. The partners installed much of it themselves, leading Silver-Ramp to quip, “We went to school for agriculture, but we’ve had to learn mechanical engineering.”

The mushrooms you see in the typical grocery store are almost certainly portobello or button; the two varieties account for about 85 percent of commercial mushroom production. (Pennsylvania produces by far the most mushrooms of any state.) Mississippi Mushrooms grows specialty such varieties as Oyster, King Oyster and Lion’s Mane that sell for $10 to $20 a pound.

MinnPost photo by John Reinan
Ian Silver-Ramp: “We went to school for agriculture, but we’ve had to learn mechanical engineering.”

“Growing portobellos is like growing corn or soybeans,” Prenevost said. Margins are tight; “you have to grow a lot to make it work.”

Targeting the specialty niche will allow the company to turn a profit on much smaller quantities. When full production is reached, Silver-Ramp said, they should be able to produce up to 600 pounds a week. Mississippi Mushrooms are currently sold at the Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis and at several farmers’ markets throughout the Twin Cities.

The partners grow their mushrooms using locally sourced waste byproducts. The fungi begin their lives in jars of spent brewers’ grain from Boom Island Brewing, then “fruit” (ripen) in sawdust collected from high-end furniture makers in the Twin Cities.

Days after I talked to Mississippi Mushrooms, I attended an event that really drove home for me the excitement around food production in Minnesota. The Minnesota Cup, which I’ve written about several times for MinnPost, held a kickoff event last week to announce a new division for entrepreneurs in food, beverage and agriculture.

The event drew attendees from across the spectrum. Such large companies as General Mills and Cargill were well-represented, but so were small farmers from the organic and sustainable end of the business, as well as the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. In the past, getting those groups together was something akin to organizing a Hatfield-McCoy barn dance.

But there clearly seems to be a growing consensus that the food business in Minnesota benefits us all, and everyone can learn lessons from the other players. That’s an attitude adjustment worth applauding.