Every mushroom grower has some idea about what they should focus on in their operation. The hard truth is that the most fundamental thing a mushroom operation must do is make more money than they spend. Period. The most common error I see with mushroom growers is that they lose sight of this reality.
There’s a marvelous line in the show Longmire, “We’re farmers, losing’s a way of life.” I’ve reflected on this again and again.
When I think of Mossy Creek Mushrooms, I always consider us to be a mushroom company. Farms grow food, companies make money. The difference is staggering. If you are interested in starting a mushroom operation, or upping your existing game, you probably don’t have the luxury of focusing on high ideals first. If your operation isn’t successful, you’re not going to feed the world in an eco-friendly farm or make any difference in the world. If you don’t make money, your dreams will be shattered and your effort will amount to nothing.
Where’s the money in mushroom growing? Andrew summed up our philosophy of The Importance of Working Backwards in a previous blog post, and I recommend reading it if you haven’t already. The mushroom growing value chain looks like this:
-Spores - Low value, rarely even used. Most cultures are clones of wild strains that have been found to be good performers.
-Cultures - Can seem alluring because one little petri dish can sell for $30 - $100, but the effort behind the scenes is substantial. Companies that focus on culture development and retention have infrastructure in place to handle it, and it’s justified by volume sales. They usually also create spawn.
-Spawn - Here’s where real value starts to come into play. There are substantially more legitimate spawn companies than companies that deal with anything further up the chain. There’s a real niche here, but it relies heavily on other companies and farms buying their product to actually make the fresh mushrooms that feed the whole value chain.
-Fruiting Blocks / Grow Bags - Add spawn to pasteurized substrate and incubate to perfection. Those substrates are pretty cheap, fruiting blocks are moderately valuable. If this isn’t done in-house, shipping is the silent killer.
-Fresh Mushrooms - This is the money maker that feeds value up the whole chain.
-Distribution - If the mushrooms don’t get sold, they quickly become worthless mush. When you’re first starting out, you really don’t have the option of letting someone else sell your product. We’ll get into that another day, though.
The largest single increase in value in the mushroom growing chain per pound of mushrooms is turning fruiting blocks into fresh mushrooms, at least in the beginning. At some point, though, your operation has got to start making your own fruiting blocks, because this is the second largest increase in the value chain, and it allows you to cut out shipping costs on a heavy, bulky product.
The 80 / 20 rule says that the first 80% of results only takes the first 20% of effort, but the remaining 20% of results takes 80% of the effort. When you have a system in place that can transform raw materials and spawn coming in, to fresh mushrooms going out, you’ve reached that magical 20% where the value of your investment is maximized relative to the value you export. However, there’s a trap in this transition, and you’ll face it again and again as you level up: the allure of looking legitimate.
There is an endless number of fancy gadgets and equipment to waste money on, and they are all wrong. To be clear: we are ALL doing this wrong. Watch any mushroom videos on YouTube and you can see an endless variety of ways to do things wrong. Whatever you start with will undoubtedly be wrong too, and there’s the trap. There will be a temptation to spend large sums of money on some fancy equipment that someone else has shown off for the bragging rights, and once you pick it up you are invested. There’s generally no going back from there, you’re stuck with the expense whether it was worth it or not. You should be heavily biased toward spending as little as possible until you have enough familiarity with your process to make decisions that are less bad.
When we started working with the Master’s Mix, we had a cement mixing tub and a pitchfork, and mixed that stuff by hand. It was agonizingly slow, and even though it beat working with straw hands-down, we knew we were doing it wrong. I spent a lot of time thinking about this process, and realized that we were mixing the bags twice, once when we made the bags, and again when we added spawn in the lab. So I asked Andrew why we were mixing things twice, and he didn’t have a good answer. Having seen another grower adding dry ingredients to bags and then swooshing them around by hand after adding the water, we realized we could cut out half our work for free. We started scooping dry ingredients and adding the water without mixing at all until we added spawn in the lab.
After doing it wrong, really really wrong, we learned what doing it right might look like. In the end, when we made our current bag making process, we built a prototype system from some used materials we had lying around and found that we had a system that could produce as well as the big expensive mechanized systems people had been using. That prototype, lovingly named Thor and The Mousetrap, is still in use today, almost two years later, because it ended up working so well that it’s never been worth the money to replace. We’re still doing it wrong, but we don’t have a loan to repay, and it’s good enough.
General Principles here:
You will always do it wrong, especially when you’re first starting. We’re trying to do things less wrong.
Cheap is better than expensive; simple is better than complex.
If you’re thinking about how excited you will be to show off your new tech, it’s probably the wrong investment.
Prioritize effective systems over expensive technology.
Good enough is good enough.
Recommended Reading - The Lean Farm -- Yes, I realize it’s ironic. Really good stuff though.