Mad About Mushrooms



Despite its occasional abundance in Colorado’s forested environments, the mushroom is an unusual farm-to-table crop. That’s why Michael and Liz Nail, who both studied sustainable agriculture at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, hatched the idea for Mile High Fungi in the summer of 2014. Today their tiny company—“It’s still a two-person mom-and-pop business,” says Liz—sells gourmet mushrooms from May through December in area farmers markets, through community-supported agriculture (including as an add-on to the Botanic Gardens’ CSA) and to Colorado restaurants. We talked with Liz about the business.

Why mushrooms?
It was either a stroke of genius or insanity. We were living in Denver, and because mushrooms grow using vertical space, we thought they were something we could grow in an urban environment using some of the organic waste the city produces. We started out in one bedroom in our house at 20th and Federal, then moved to two bedrooms, then to two shipping containers in our backyard. The city of Denver very nicely told us we couldn’t have those containers, so we moved to a 2,400-square-foot steel warehouse about 45 minutes away, in Deer Creek Canyon near Conifer.

Are mushrooms tricky to grow?
They are. They’re closer to animals than plants because they breathe oxygen and secrete carbon dioxide, like us. Plants do the opposite. And mushrooms don’t photosynthesize for energy—though they do need light. The old saying “Feed them s— and keep them in the dark” is not true. They also need moisture, so we have to get the grow rooms up to 90 percent humidity using mister nozzles like what you see in the produce aisle at the grocery store. But it’s like mad science: We take cultures from the mushroom we’re trying to duplicate, a little like mushroom clones, and grow them on a substrate made of hardwood chips and sawdust supplemented with organic soybean hull, oat bran and millet.

How many varieties do you grow?
We do standard-size shiitakes and petite shiitakes, lion’s mane, king’s trumpets, chestnuts, pioppinos and about five varieties of oyster mushrooms. Our powerhouse is a blue oyster mushroom, but we also do pink, golden and phoenix oysters, too. They taste similar but they’re kind of like wine grapes; each one has a different kind of complexity. We can harvest 100 pounds a day—we really can never let up. We have to keep our rooms totally sterile; we handle the mushrooms with nitrile gloves.

Are any of those like the varieties one would find in the wild?
There are a few exceptions, like oyster mushrooms, but most of the mushrooms that are cultivated are different from the mushrooms in the forests, which have complex relationships with their environments that humans cannot duplicate.

A grower of edible mushrooms that are sold at farmer’s markets and through local CSAs.

Even though mushrooms have a long cultural association with things dark and devilish, mushrooms and fungi are credited with more than 100 medical uses. Top of the list: penicillin, which derives from the fungal species Penicillium.

An assortment of Mile High Fungi’s edible offerings


(Top to bottom, left to right)
These rich, buttery mushrooms are often used in Japanese and Chinese dishes. They grow wild on decaying deciduous trees.

Long used in Chinese medicine, this ball-shaped mushroom with dripping “teeth” is touted for its medicinal qualities.

Firm, with a mildly nutty flavor, these have long white stems and are also known as Black Poplar mushrooms.

Easy to grow, this mushroom can double in size in a day. Like all mushrooms, it breathes in oxygen and expels carbon dioxide.

Commonly sought in the wild, this broad, fanlike mushroom has a slight odor like anise and is best picked when young.

The same as white button mushrooms but allowed to grow browner, they are like creminis; when larger they are called portobellos.

Want to do more than just cook ’shrooms with your carbonara? Brew ’em. The king of medicinal mushrooms, antioxidant-rich Chaga, when simmered in water and sipped, will give your immune system a major boost.

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