Michael Bennett is down-to-earth and thankfully easy to talk to, because his vocation is complicated.
The owner and operator of J & M Gourmet Mushrooms is amazingly knowledgeable about fungiculture — the cultivation of mushrooms. That knowledge has helped grow the business to the point that Bennett is a supplier for chefs, caterers, and restaurants from Yakima to the Tri-Cities.
Bennett counts Yakima’s Crafted, Gasperetti’s, Birchfield Manor, Pacific Northwest Fresh produce delivery, Wine o’Clock in Prosser, Richland’s Tagares Winery and Taverna and Parkway Farmer’s Market among his regular customers.
So how does a retired drug and alcohol counselor living on a few acres north of Selah supply our region with enough specialty mushrooms? By not only being a brilliant mycologist (mushroom specialist), but by also being a really handy guy.
The story of how Bennett began growing mushrooms is a testament to his drive to let nothing go to waste. When he and wife Judy moved to the area, they planned to build a home using straw-bale construction. The couple did indeed build the first Yakima County-permitted straw bale home, but during the years it took to get those permits, Bennett stored the bales.
“A friend told me that you can grow mushrooms in straw,” Bennett explained. “I knew nothing about that, so it sounded about right, because that’s the way I go about stuff,” he said. Of the five varieties he tried, four grew and tasted “like paper,” but Bennett was hooked.
“Next, I read an article about using a plastic tote filled with straw instead of a bale,” Bennett said. “I was about to retire and thought that sounded good but the mushrooms only grew out of the drain holes.”
About that time, Bennett discovered the Yakima Valley Mushroom Society, where he learned about Fungi Perfecti, an Olympia company that “specializes in using mushrooms to improve the health of the planet and its people.” Founder Paul Stamets is nationally renowned in the industry. After reading several of Stamets’ books, Bennett attended his fungiculture seminar.
“Paul couldn’t believe I wanted to grow out in here in the Yakima Valley. He said I am either very stupid or very stubborn,” Bennett said. “He told me that if I got above 30 percent success in the first five years I would be doing great. I hit 50 percent by the third year.”
Bennett, with the help of his mentor Stamets, has learned how to adapt his growing practices to our climate. “The spores of every mushroom variety grown in the entire world are present here somewhere,” Bennett explained. “They travel on the winds and just need the right conditions to grow. Those conditions are different for each variety,” he added. “They need the right latitude and longitude and altitude and humidity.”
Judy Bennett no longer farms due to health issues, so he has cut back his workload a bit. He no longer hauls used coffee grounds from town to use on the farm he began nine years ago. His mushrooms are all natural, but he is not certified organic. He uses food-grade cardboard left over from Zirkle Fruit to chop into wood cellulose for the growing medium, as well as burlap from John I. Haas as walls in some of the sheds.
In another year or so, the 80-year-old silver maple wood that he cut and hauled home to become totems for his shiitake “forest” will be done producing and Bennett will chop the totems into firewood. That in turn will burn in the wood stove and heat water to run through the recirculating heating system he rigged up using barrels recycled from Haas. One heated indoor grow room allows Bennett to market his produce year-round.
Developing the right conditions for each variety was not Bennett’s only chore for building his mushroom farm. To create the right habitat, he began outside with some small ponds that are now quiet, shady pools filled with bullfrogs. “Inviting nature in helps with lots of problems,” he explained. “Salamanders eat slugs — frogs and tadpoles help keep down flies.” Bennett explained that fungiculture is an exact science but is there is an art to it as well.
He can explain about “slants,” a test tube full of one variety ready to spawn and begin eating its way to becoming a Lion’s Mane or burgundy wine cap. He talks about proteins and sugars. He also can explain that mushroom size has nothing to do with harvest time. That is determined by shape.
“I can get the parameters right but have to know when to inoculate with the spores. And when my 30-pound column of wood cellulose gets down to where it feels about five pounds, all of the food has been eaten up and the column goes into the compost. It’s a learning process and I can’t be afraid to experiment.”
Bennett’s experiment of growing gourmet mushrooms in our arid land has been successful. Thirty days after he starts a batch, he will begin to see “pins,” the match-head-sized mushroom fruits, and within about 60 days he begins harvest.
So this winter, when you receive fresh gourmet mushrooms on your plate at a local restaurant or in your produce box from Pacific Northwest Fresh, thank your local mycologist. “The guys that love my product understand I may not have what they want right then,” said Bennett. “That’s part of the deal with farm to table.”
The company’s website lists the in-season produce. Mushrooms may be purchased directly from Bennett and a tour of the 1.5-acre farm is available. Bennett simply asks folks to call ahead.