Michael and his wife, Liz, who met while attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, became interested in mycology after spending time foraging for wild mushrooms in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. A growing fascination with the diversity and flavor they discovered led the pair to begin growing their own mushrooms after moving to Colorado.
While they launched Mile High Fungi from two shipping containers in their backyard, the farm has since expanded into a 2,400-square-foot facility that they built themselves from the ground up. "It has been an interesting journey because we knew nothing about how to grow mushrooms when we started," Nail says. "We are completely self-taught, but we've been able to figure it out."
Though they produce well-known varieties including shiitake, oyster, and maitake mushrooms, the Nails saw an emerging demand that was previously unmet in Colorado and determined to fill it with mushrooms like blue oysters, phoenix oysters, chestnuts, pioppini, beech, and nebrodini that many consumers have never tried. "We've carved out a little place for ourselves in the industry," Nail says.
His CSA and farmers market customers like to try something new whenever possible. "We expose them to what is available in the mushroom world," Nail continues. "There's a lot of education that goes into exploring the breadth of the fungal kingdom, and our clients enjoy taking that journey with us. Variety is the spice of life, and we hope to provide that."
They're now doing so at a rate of 500 to 700 pounds of fresh mushrooms each week thanks to a new autoclave that can sterilize 2,500 pounds of cereal grain or hardwood sawdust medium at a time. "We used all sorts of inefficient sterilization methods over the years until we could finally afford to invest in this machinery that will really help us get to the next level," Nail says. Mechanization of sterilization is vital because mushroom farming is time and labor intensive. Nail likens it to a combination of "conventional agriculture and weird science."
"It all starts in a petri dish," Nail explains. "We have a number of mushroom strains that we work with, and we literally copy their genetic material onto a petri dish where it grows before transfer onto sterilized cereal grains." The cereal grains Mile High Fungi uses to propagate mushroom cultures include rye and millet. These grains provide nutrition for the growing mycelium, which is then transferred to hardwood sawdust medium for the final production stage.
"The front end of the process is done in our lab space," Nail continues. "Instead of putting on our bibs, we're in lab coats, surgical masks, hair and beard nets. The mushrooms fruit in a separate part of our facility. That part of the process is more akin to conventional agriculture with irrigation, light cycles, air exchange, and that kind of thing."
Challenges: Though the Nails have always focused on local CSAs and farmers markets as their primary sales channels, their customer base pre-pandemic also included a number of farm-to-table restaurants. "As a business, we were immediately impacted when restaurants were forced to shut down in-person dining," Nail says. "Their budgets were stretched pretty thin, and they had to cut food costs wherever they could."
While the couple's sales volume hasn't faltered, they've since had to pivot to more direct-to-consumer distribution routes. "We've been managing an increased number of relationships since the pandemic started," Nail continues. "The organization that it takes to keep everything running smoothly given that has been our biggest challenge."
Opportunities: Nail says that consumer interest in mushrooms is increasing. Mile High Fungi grew 30 percent year-over-year in 2019 and may achieve similar growth in 2020 despite these unprecedented times. "People are looking for alternatives," Nail explains. "Whether they want to diversify their culinary repertoire or support local businesses selling nutritious produce, we can provide that for them."
Needs: Nail says he needs more hours in the day. "But both my wife and I feel very fortunate that we've been able to continue to work throughout the pandemic and that our business has done better year after year," he adds. "We have so many dedicated clients who tell us how much they love our product, and those small accolades go a long way."