Mushroom! These delicious little fungi aren’t just a treat for the palate, but can be a treat for the senses and health as well. The mushroom farming business is growing and full of untapped potential, and now is a great time to learn about it. Tony Frischknecht is joined by mushroom farmer and founder of Fresh From The Farm Fungi, Gary Heferle in a lively discussion about mushroom growing. Gary talks about getting his start in the industry, using hemp farming byproduct, and the challenges he faced during the early days of his business. Gary also discusses mushroom growing techniques and gives great advice on starting your own mushroom farm.
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Growing Success: Sprouting Into The Mushroom Farming Business With Gary Heferle
I have a special guest on the show. I have Gary Heferle with me. Gary is in farming just a little bit different. He is speaking from the world of fungi. Gary, how are you doing? It’s great to have you on.
I’m doing good. Thank you. It’s nice meeting you.
You as well. For everybody that is around the plant world, every now and then we see discussions around mushrooms and fungus. It’s coming out in our world that seems to be, at least, that’s what I have been noticing. Over the last few years, it’s still been quiet. I’m starting to run across guys like Gary. Gary and I met at the Hemp Expo here in Colorado in Denver. They are doing some unique stuff. We are talking several hundred booths were at this. It was the coming out of COVID time for a lot of people. Everybody was super excited. What drew me to Gary is they are just doing something different. I wanted to bring Gary on the show and have a discussion with him. Gary, will you share with the readers a little bit about your background and where you came from?
I’m with Fresh From The Farm Fungi. That is my company. It’s my wife and I grow gourmet mushrooms to sell at farmer’s markets here in Denver, but we also are starting to break out into some of the nutraceuticals. The power of fungi with health is unbelievable. One of my passions ever since I was little has been growing things. I always do a vegetable garden every year. I have grown a lot of cannabis myself. I’m a pretty big advocate. I’m so thankful to live in Colorado, where the cannabis industry is thriving. One of the main reasons why I went to the Hemp Expo was because I believe that there is this huge goldmine of resources at the tail end of the hemp production. A lot of these big farms out here, they are producing all these products and they end up throwing out all of the hemp waste, whether that’s the green waste from the leaves or the core from the stems.There's a big difference between growing cannabis and mushrooms. Mushrooms have to be completely sterile. Click To Tweet
As a mushroom farmer, I believe that we can help close the loop on that process and grow mushrooms on hemp. At the end of that Hemp Expo, I got a bunch of samples of what they would consider waste product. I started running some test batches on some hemp grown mushrooms and they are doing well. They are keeping up with my substrates. Now I use sawdust as my main substrate. I either get it from some woodworkers in the area or I work with this company called Mushroom Media. They make little pellets out of sawdust. One of my goals at the expo is to link up the Mushroom Media company with a hemp producer so that they can make hemp pellets, then I could grow my mushrooms on it. That was very exciting. I happen to meet so many other people there. I just learned a lot of information and I’m still digesting it two weeks later. It was so fun.
It’s like drinking from the firehose. Everything is happening. You got that two weeks in this honeymoon phase where you’re, “I just don’t know where to start.” I’m glad you brought that up. In the cannabis industry, there is so much waste that does happen. I have spoken about this a couple of different times. The recycling aspect of hemp and cannabis, whether you are tilling it back into the ground, into the soil to make your soil more nutrient, turning into pellets. This is the first time I have heard about taking and growing mushrooms off of pellets. I love the idea. I had an idea of taking the pellets for fuel and burning them because they burn really hot. That was another thing I looked into. You have got this background in cannabis. You got hemp now. You got pushed into mushrooms or you were drawn to mushrooms, what happened there?
My background in the cannabis industry, I started off right when cannabis was legalized here in 2012. I jumped into a tissue culture position. I was doing plant tissue culture. We bred 85 different strains for one of the dispensaries here. After that project was over, I moved into the regulatory aspect. We were testing cannabis products for contaminants like yeast, mold, salmonella and E. coli.
It was a huge business here with the state. The regulations were all wonky. We had to do some testing but there was no standardization.
In the early days, it was the Wild West. I was a supervisor at one of the testing facilities. I watched as the laws and all the mandates changed over time. I would say nowadays, it’s so much better than in the early days. Apart from that, I got to go and visit all these facilities because we were working with a CDPHE. We would help people remediate their issues when they weren’t passing the quality control for their products. We visit all these sites. In the meantime, I got into growing my mushrooms. I started off growing little button mushrooms in my garden, and then slowly built into this hobby. My wife and I were eating tons of mushrooms.
At one point, we had way too many. I posted an ad on Craigslist. There’s a gentleman that brought his bike all the way from North Lakewood to my house here in Denver. He showed up at my door. I was growing lion’s mane at the time. This is before it was even known in the general mainstream. He grabbed this mushroom and ate it like an apple. It just like threw me off. I’m, “No, you have to cook that.” At that moment, I realized this has a lot of potential. I knew that is a good product. I enjoyed producing mushrooms. Being from the laboratory side of things like plant tissue culture, and testing, I had collected all this lab equipment over the years.
There is a big difference between growing cannabis and mushrooms. Mushrooms have to be completely sterile. There is a big laboratory aspect, which is what drew me in. From there, it’s very parallel to the full production of cannabis. You would clone your plants. You would clone your mushrooms. You have an incubation period, which is very similar to a vegetative state. The flowering side is almost like fruiting for mushrooms. It went hand in hand. I still believe that there is this symbiotic relationship with mushrooms and plants that aren’t being utilized even in the grow rooms, which I think it’s on the cutting edge. There are already some products out there that utilize fungi. For these grows, there is a product called sac 02, which is a slow growing polypore mushroom. You put it in a bag. You set it in your grow room. It breathes off CO2 and inhales oxygen. It’s the opposite of the plants. The idea is that you can just buy some of these blocks. They will live for up to eight months or something. They naturally generate CO2.
Those have been around for quite some time. If you are not familiar too far with my background, I worked in a grocery store for a couple of years too. We had these guys come in and say, “We can take your CO2. You can use these bags. You can put it in your room.” We had no way to measure it, so it was challenging. These guys are still around. They have created a business out of this. Is this your full time business? Are you growing mushrooms all the time?Denver is such an awesome community. Everyone's health-conscious and open to natural medicines. Click To Tweet
We started in 2018. I decided to step away from the corporate world. My wife and I always dreamed of starting our own business. It started off a little rough. I had to pick up some part time jobs along the way. We are going into our third season at the farmers’ market now. Things are going well. We also teach classes in the winter so that hedges against our farmers’ market season. Now, it’s busy. We are starting to ramp up our production. It’s so cool to have customers come to us weekly and just talk about mushrooms. Denver is such an awesome community.
Everyone is health conscious and open to natural medicines. I think of mushrooms as nature’s vitamin that takes all these nutrients from the substrate. It concentrates it into these little fruiting bodies which people eat. They taste great. They are super healthy. There is a benefit for mushrooms in the community. I think that helping close that loop on the hemp would be huge for our environment here. There is a lot of gardening programs. There is a lot of composting programs here in Denver. That goes hand in hand. I like to spread the nutrients.
I want to step back here a minute. I try to talk with my entrepreneurs a little bit. You’ve given us a lot of great information. I thank you for that. Stepping back to you coming out, you wanted to step away from the corporate world. What pushed you over where you’re, “I can’t do this anymore.”
My personality is a contributing factor to society. I’m always driven. I continue to work 10, 12-hour days. To me, that is enjoyable. While I was at these, it was essentially a startup company that I bounced around twice. I gained a lot of knowledge of what went into a business, what went into starting a business, the ups and downs of the early days. I started off at the grow. I saw all these problems. I got excited about that. It reached a point where we had 400 employees or something. Things started to dwindle a little bit as far as the energy went.
I hit a ceiling as far as my growth at that place so then I would move on to another startup company. The cannabis industry is I knew at the time. It was very dynamic. Eventually, I realized, I’m putting in all this effort and all this energy for these companies. I should be doing that for myself and for my family. That is what guided me away from those opportunities. Honestly, I learned so much. I’m grateful that I had the chance to work in that environment. I feel like I hit a ceiling quickly in my eyes that is why I jumped ship and started my own thing.
When you talk to your wife about this, was she excited for you? Was she scared? What did she say when you were like, “I’m going to quit the corporate and we are going to grow mushrooms?”
It’s always a scary thing to not know the future, not have that stable paycheck and whatnot. We’re also savvy with our money. Another side thing that I like to do is we flipped a couple of properties before. We always had a cushion. We’re reaching the point now where we are thinking about growing more too. It’s just continuous growth, baby steps and setting your goals. It’s always scary at first, and then you get your wings and move forward. I think that not having that ceiling where I’m, “I did this and this,” there is nowhere to go. When you have your own business, you can always reach out into 100 different directions. That is an issue too. You have to pick one thing to stay focused on or at least make sure that you have a solid area before you start going in so many directions.
It’s the curse of the entrepreneur. You have got to take the leap of faith and that is what you did. You are like, “We are going to make this work.” One of the hardest things is, if you don’t have a partner that’s behind you, or that’s at your side, that can handicap you as you grow. I know guys that have done it by themselves. It’s very challenging, but they have done it. They have seen some success and were able to bring their partner along with them but that took some time. At least you didn’t have that to overcome. The other thing is the shiny objects. You are seeing, “I have got this opportunity. I got that opportunity. Which one do I jump on and hogtie?”
Those are challenges as you go through because what you feel right now is building your company. Next year may change. You might have to pivot and find something new. I think these are the entrepreneurial things that we deal with. These decisions we have to make when it comes to money, “Are the bills paid. Am I happy?” What I think we lost sight of couple decades ago was, people were very money driven and material driven. What I’m seeing now, younger generation, I know I’m not that old, but in the 20s and 30s, there are some guys that are understanding that they want to enjoy their lives and not live to work. It seems like you are finding some of that now.
For example, we cranked out our work early. At lunch, I was done. We had this time in between. We went out and hiked around Red Rocks. If I was in a corporate setting, I did my work, and everything was done by 12 noon, then you got to wait until 4:00. I was always the person that would go above and beyond and create these projects and stuff. It’s rewarding. There is a lot of shiny objects in the mushroom industry especially. I focus on my skills, my niche, and what I can bring to the table. I did the same thing with the cannabis industry too. I was a laboratory technician.
That is my main background. I joined the cannabis industry. I use my skill in laboratory to leverage my position. The same thing with the mushrooms. I’m seeing all these opportunities from all the industries that I have worked in. I’m molding that into what I’m strongest at. That is what I would recommend to anyone who is just starting out, find your strength and build on that. See what works and build on that instead of doing what everyone else is doing. You should focus on what your strengths are and what you are passionate about. Build on those successes.
You have probably found some people to work with that fill those gaps.
A team is necessary. I have some relationships with other people that are in my position. Zack and I teach the classes on how to grow mushrooms together. We have two separate businesses, but we work hand in hand with each other. That way, we have this connection where we can rely on each other. We have an accountant and all the necessary pillars inside of a business. Once you have that team established, it takes a lot of stress off. You can focus on your skills again. It’s a constant balance between reaching for help and focusing on what’s working.
What do you think your biggest mistake was when you started on your own, once you tried to grow?
Early on, I was super excited, overly ambitious. I would say that I took on too much and tried to grow so fast. My wife has been there the whole time to guide me. She helped dial me back. The first time we were at the farmers market, my production was ramping up rapidly. Instead of sitting down and thinking, “How can I make this efficient? How can I work smarter,” I was doing the same thing 80 hours a week. It was getting results, but it’s so much work that I had to step back, analyze everything and make it more efficient. I would say my biggest mistake at first was just over exhausting myself.
You have to think of it as a marathon and not a sprint. I was so excited that I was gaining traction that is overwhelming with the amount of work that I was doing. I did learn a lot during that period so you can’t think of it the worst thing ever. I would say though, one of the hardest parts was balancing between efficiency and effort. If I would do it over again, I would have bought some pieces of equipment that helped me now. As I grow my business, I’m investing into better pieces of equipment, rather than just plunging into this.
It’s easy to get into this mode where it’s like grow more, grow more, especially when you have bills sitting in the back of your mind. I have got to make sure that I get this stuff paid. Instead of efficiencies like you said, you are, “I need more pounds. That will solve my problems.” It does to a point. You lead to what your problem was, “I was working 80 hours a week. I was working much harder than I needed to be.” Now, it sounds like you’ve scaled that back where you are probably doing half that, if not a little bit more.
I like this because this isn’t focused on just cannabis or mushrooms or any business. For the readers out there, I’m not telling you anything, Gary is not sharing anything that is any new in any other business. This is simply how to stay focused as an entrepreneur. This is a major problem we have. Those efficiencies that start coming into play, start making your processes better, your life better when you can start honing that in. You said you are a few years in now Gary, when you started. When did it start getting a little easier?
I bought my first sterilizer in October. That dramatically changed my life because it cut fourteen hours process that I was doing every single week, down to 40 minutes. That was the biggest moment for me. My wife and I had made a pledge. We’re not going to go into debt over this. It took a while. We had to save a lot of money to get this piece of equipment. Now that it happened, it freed up so much time and energy. It was a game changer.
It’s taken you two and a half years to get to this point.
We are trying to grow every quarter. It’s gaining traction. That was the turning point. Along the way, I met all these cool people. One of my dad’s good friends, he had been growing mushrooms for about ten years in Niagara Falls, New York. In the beginning, I didn’t have anyone to lean on. I reached out to him one day. I’m blessed because he mentored me up until the point where I was on my own. There are some times where I almost threw in the towel. I would reach out to him and he would be, “I remember when I went through that.” That was also a pivotal point early on was finding this guy, Anthony. He was ten years ahead of me. He coached me through the struggles. Those two points were game changing. It helped me get to the next point.
It’s also amazing when you are in the thick of it, when you’re able to reach out to that person. If you are not asking him for advice, just somebody to lean on when you’re stressed out, and you don’t know what to do, that mentor change that all around. I have had people in my life that have done the same. I love reading books, learning new technology and new things, but that is something that I haven’t been able to get from a book, that extra little touch you need to get you over the hill to success. I have got some guys in my life that have done the same thing for me. Had I not had them there to have these discussions with, I would have been gone a long time ago. It wouldn’t have happened. If somebody is thinking about growing or they are looking at this as a hobby, how do you suggest that they get started?
As far as growing mushrooms, I always say, start with a grow kit. You can work your way backwards from there. There are a few companies I recommend. There is one called North Spore in Maine and Nearby Naturals in Florida. They make little kits that you can put on your countertop. That way, they do all the hard work. You just get to watch the mushroom grow. I would say that is the easiest starting point. As far as growing cannabis or any other vegetable, start with the seed and you will learn from every single time you do it from start to finish. It’s going to be better and better. There are some sad projects when I was growing cannabis. I would get all the way down to the final flower and trim everything. It got mold on it. I had to ditch it. That is heartbreaking. The next time, I knew I have to be prepared when I’m harvesting my plants, to get everything ready, so it just doesn’t go to waste. I would say start off small. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Learn every single cycle, whether it’s mushrooms, plants or cannabis. Learn every single time and that way it will get better.When growing mushrooms, start with a grow kit. You can work your way backwards from there. Click To Tweet
I talked to a lot of guys about the same thing and what happens is, they don’t put in the mindset that this is something that is living and it’s growing. It’s not instantaneous. It’s taking you three years to get to this point. You probably feel like you still have a lot more to go.
The more that I do it, the more I realize I don’t know anything.
That is another entrepreneurial thing. You are like, “I think I know what I’m doing, but I’m barely making it happen.”
Every time is better. That is what I look forward to.
How can people reach out to you at Fresh from The Farm Fungi? How do they get in touch with you?
You can email me if you have any questions directly. It’s FreshFromTheFarmFungi@gmail.com. We also have Instagram, Facebook, TikTok. We do a YouTube every Friday. We do Fungi Friday. We also have a brand new video series. We doing Gardening with Fungi. I’m trying some outdoor projects this year. We got started with that. You can communicate with me through the comments there.
I want to go back to the school stuff. I almost forgot about that. If people are interested in learning how to grow, is that the best place to reach you there too, through your email and stuff?
We have lots of videos on YouTube, but we do an online class. We’ve got one more in person class, but it’s sold out. We probably won’t do another grow class until October 2021. That is when the market season slows down. You can find us at MushroomCult.net. It’s on our website. We will start posting updates in the fall on when we are restarting our grow classes. We do our classes from October until now and then the market season. We’ll also be at Cherry Creek Farmers Market every Saturday. If you want to stop by and grab some mushrooms, we will be there.
If you guys are interested in learning about mushrooms, if you guys are looking for a part time job, if I didn’t have more going on, the price of mushrooms is crazy. I wanted to talk to you more about this, but we will chat some more. There are the magic mushrooms but the cooking mushrooms out there, you can get up to $100 an ounce for regular cooking mushrooms, is that correct, Gary?
Yeah. We are growing our cordyceps. That’s one of the more finicky ones. We are selling it for $75 for a half ounce. Those are very unique mushrooms. There are also truffles out there. Those can go up to $2,000 a pound.
Guys, if you are looking at the side business, understanding and you like growing, I would totally be jumping into this. Not only is it not illegal, but it’s also legal stuff. There is hardly anything out there that brings that value. I don’t know any crops to do.
They are high-value crops. They are very healthy too. That is the coolest part. They have their value in the market. They have their value when you consume them. They have the value when they are keeping things from going into the landfill. I fell in love with mushrooms. If you have any questions, reach out to me and check out our content. I look forward to the hemp industry and the fungi industry, working hand in hand, from here on out. I feel like there is so much opportunity for both.
If there are some hemp growers out there reading, reach out to Gary because I think he’s 100% right. The amount of material that is being thrown away is simply ridiculous. If people knew how much money was wasted in cannabis and hemp, they would lose their minds because it is. There are these recycled programs that not only recycle something that nobody was going to use, but it also takes it over environment, makes our environment better. That is a huge win right there. Gary, I appreciate you being on the show. Thank you so much. On this episode, you will see Gary’s information. You can click on there, on the blog page at PlantProblem.com. If you have any other questions for me about Gary and you are not able to get to Gary first, you can reach out to me to it, Tony@PlantProblem.com. Thank you so much for joining me, Gary. I hope to have you back on the show sometime.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much.
- Mushroom Media
- North Spore
- Nearby Naturals
- TikTok – Fresh From The Farm Fungi
About Gary Heferle
Fresh from the Farm Fungi strives to represent the remarkably healthy nature of gourmet mushrooms by making them available for consumption using only the highest quality, locally sourced substrates in a clean and eco-friendly environment.
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