Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins, Colorado
Hammond hasn't always been a fungus expert. "I started growing oyster mushrooms because those are usually the easiest to cultivate when you don't know what you are doing, which was me back in 1980," he recalls with a chuckle. A natural green-thumb with a background in biology and agribusiness, Hammond was fresh off a three-year stint working in the mushroom division of Castle and Cook when he began cultivating his own in his garage in Santa Cruz, California.
"My first crop just about killed me. I was up until midnight picking mushrooms," he continues. "But I grew from a garage to a rented warehouse and then a couple different facilities before buying a run down, vacated mushroom farm outside of town." Hammond and his wife, Toni, left California in 1993 and started a second mushroom-growing operation on a 10-acre farm with 12,000-square feet of buildings just south of Fort Collins. They sold the first operation and now focus their efforts locally, producing 4,000 pounds of high-quality mushrooms a week, equal to 200,000 pounds every year.
Varieties grown on the farm include shiitake, which Jim estimates accounts for 60 percent of production, oyster mushrooms, which make up about 15 percent, and button, cinnamon cap, lion's mane, miatake, and portabella. "We'll eventually add more," he says. "I don't know what kind though. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do. While all mushrooms require similar raw materials, they have different peculiarities as far as handling. It takes a long time to figure those out."
The mushroom-growing process includes three stages: spore, mycelium (or the vegetative state of the fungus), and fruiting body, which is what you buy at the grocery store. Sterile spoor cultures become mycelium, which are transferred to small jars of sterilized sawdust and later to larger bags of sterilized sawdust and wheat bran. The mycelium is built up within the bags over three to 13 weeks in a high-humidity environment that's a steady 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
"We then transfer the bags to a 65 degree Fahrenheit environment to stimulate production of the fruiting bodies," Hammond explains. "About two weeks later, we pick the mushrooms and start all over again."
Hazel Dell Mushrooms are produced without pesticides or fungicides. "We're certified organic by the State of Colorado Department of Agriculture," says Hammond. "We have to have very short harvest room cycles so we don't have buildups of fungus gnats, fruit flies, and other pests. And we have to have a sterile process to keep competing molds and bacteria out of our growing mix."
They accomplish this with a super HEPA filtered clean room to prevent contamination as well as pressure cooking the recycled sawdust -- sourced from hardwood door manufacturing companies around Fort Collins -- in giant autoclaves to kill any molds within it.
Hammond and his team sell Hazel Dell mushrooms directly to consumers at the farm, at local farmers markets, to about 30 area farm-to-table restaurants, and to Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage. The company recently added dried mushrooms to the mix as well as a product they are calling "Mushroom Rub." "It's powdered dried mushrooms mixed with spices such as garlic, paprika, oregano, and salt," Hammond says. Revenues are increasing at about 5 percent each year.
Challenges: "Our mushrooms are grown and harvested with a lot of handwork," says Hammond. "You cannot mechanize the process. Consequently, we require a lot of laborers working by the hour. As labor rates rise around Colorado because of the growing population, it's only getting more difficult to find additional workers for our farm."
Opportunities: The market for organic mushrooms is growing. "I think the biggest opportunity we have is to match our production with the population increase in Colorado," says Hammond.
Needs: Sensible expansion is the company's biggest need. "We have plenty of land around our facility," notes Hammond. "As the market grows, we'll be able to put up more buildings and expand with it. But we need to do so sensibly and according to our abilities."