Kara Bond, of Canton, Ohio, always dreamed of having a mushroom farm.
“It was something that I always kidded about … ‘I don’t want a desk job; I’m gonna be a mushroom farmer,’” Bond said.
She worked desk jobs for a long time. But when she was laid off in November 2019, she found herself with extra time on her hands.
She started talking to organizers with StarkFresh, in Canton, about volunteering. StarkFresh is a nonprofit that seeks to tackle hunger and poverty.
Bond met with StarkFresh Executive Director Tom Phillips earlier this year. She mentioned she had always been interested in starting a mushroom farm. It turned out, StarkFresh wanted to develop a mushroom farm in the basement of its Food Justice Campus.
Now, Bond is well on her way to starting her own mushroom farm, which she plans to call Canton Mushroom Works.
Bond, 41, has always liked identifying and foraging for mushrooms as a hobby. Her career so far, however, has been in the corporate world, typically in advertising.
“This last time, when I lost my job, I thought ‘I’m just so tired of this,’” she said.
So, she decided to give mushroom farming a go.
“I don’t have a ton of money, but I do have time, and time is more valuable than anything, really,” Bond said. “I can spend this time … developing this business and learning.”
She’s been seeking guidance both from local business networking groups, and other mushrooms farms.
With StarkFresh’s support, the money side of things has been more doable, too. It is covering some of the cost of building out the basement space, including the water and electrical lines, with the help of a $9,000 federal grant.
StarkFresh is also providing a space rent-free until Bond’s company is up and running, and generating income. At that point, she’ll start paying rent. Based on what she’s calculated, Bond expects her total start-up costs to be around $5,000.
The farm will be Bond’s, but right now, it’s also part of a project titled “Mushroom cultivation as a way to get out of poverty.” With 32% poverty rates in Canton, StarkFresh wanted to show how one type of food business could create employment opportunities for low-income people seeking to make a living.
“Mushrooms are an interesting crop because you can do them indoors,” Phillips said. “It’s suited really well for an urban environment. There’s also a pretty decent return on the amount of time that you put into it. Mushrooms have a pretty high resale value, and there’s a gap in the marketplace for some of those items … we just thought it’s a good opportunity for someone.”
StarkFresh will document entire process of turning the basement into a mushroom farm.
“The ultimate goal is to come up with a low-cost solution for people to be able to do this in a small setting,” Phillips said. “To be able to … duplicate these efforts whenever they need to happen.”
Bond’s main market will be higher-end local restaurants, but she is also planning to supply mushrooms for StarkFresh’s grocery store.
It’s hard to get mushrooms wholesale in the Canton area. Phillips said it usually takes more than a week of lead time because of the lack of local growers.
“In northeast Ohio, you can count [the mushroom growers] on half your hand, basically,” he said.
So for restaurants that use mushrooms, there are advantages to having a mushroom farm close to home. This is Bond’s main market.
“Really, the only way to bring this into the community is to have a local grower,” she said.
The entire life cycle for mushrooms is about three or four weeks, Bond said. She plans to grow year-round indoors, and will stagger the mushrooms so that she can harvest some every week to deliver to restaurants.
The space is about 400 square feet, and will produce about 90-100 pounds of mushrooms per week in the beginning, Phillips said.
“It’s not huge, but you can fit a lot of mushrooms in that space,” he said.
Bond will grow her mushrooms in buckets with holes drilled in them. Once she’s at full capacity, she’ll have a few hundred buckets in the space. The buckets can be re-used.
“Zero-waste is an important concept to me,” Bond said. “I want to try to run my business zero-waste.”
But the growing process starts with a substrate of hardwood fuel pellets and chopped straw. She pasteurizes the substrate in a sink to kill off bad bacteria.
“The goal is to give the mushrooms the best start in life, so they can colonize that substrate,” Bond said.
Once the substrate is ready, Bond adds the mushroom spawn, then puts the whole thing in a bucket in the colonization room. Once mushrooms start to come out of the holes, the bucket goes into the grow room, where the temperature, lighting and humidity is controlled. She can get two or three harvests out of each bucket before emptying it out and starting the process over again.
Bond is currently continuing to set up the basement space, with StarkFresh’s help, and experiment with growing mushrooms. Soon, she’ll start contacting restaurants. She plans to have mushrooms ready to sell by the end of July.
While Bond says the current COVID-19 pandemic has been “intimidating … especially since my success depends so heavily on restaurant business,” she has faith in herself and her products.
She still plans on connecting with restaurants, but will also look to farmers markets and individual orders to sell her mushrooms.
“Regardless of what is happening in the world, I have faith that my product is something unique and special that our community will find value in,” she said.
Ultimately, Bond plans to have a lab in the basement, where she can create her own mushroom spawn. This will allow her to cut costs further and have more flexibility to grow different varieties. She’s starting out with just a few varieties of mushrooms, but will add in more as she goes.
Eventually, she wants to start growing mushrooms for medicinal purposes as well, and working with the community through workshops and classes.
“This is something that has always sounded appealing to me, and a skill that I wanted to build, and something that I wanted to be more a part of,” she said.
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