Knoxville's Surprising Mushrooms Industry

With Everything Mushrooms and Monterey Mushrooms, the Knoxville area may just be the mushroom capital of the Southeast

On the surface, Everything Mushrooms and Monterey Mushrooms couldn't be more different. The former inhabits a small building in South Knoxville and employs six people; the latter is housed in a huge facility in Loudon and has 560 employees. Everything Mushrooms specializes in online sales across the country; Monterey delivers truckload after truckload of its products to regional grocery stores and restaurants.

The differences go on and on, right down to the types of mushrooms each one specializes in, but there is one thing the two companies have in common: their dedication to producing the best edible fungi around. And in pursuit of that quest, Everything Mushrooms and Monterey are putting Knoxville on the map as the unheralded mushroom headquarters of the Southeast.

East Tennessee may have a great climate for growing mushrooms, but that's not why California's Monterey Mushrooms opened its Loudon mushroom farm back in 1977. All of Monterey's mushrooms—and there are a lot of them, 30 million pounds a year—are grown indoors.

What East Tennessee did have was easy access to straw bedding from horse farms, which is the primary material in the compost in which the mushrooms are grown. Outside the building are piles and piles of refuse in the process of composting—straw bedding, cotton seed hulls, waste from poultry farms near Chattanooga, and the old compost left over from the end of the mushroom-growing process.

"We are a huge recycler of materials from other industries," says Greg Sweet, the regional general manager. "We may not be an organic facility, but we are a very, very green facility."

"We reuse 90 percent of our water," adds Dirk Cox, the facility's general manager. Much of that water is used to spray down the massive compost piles as they are composting—the process by which organic material breaks down creates a lot of heat, and the moisture prevents spontaneous combustion.

When the compost is ready, it is brought inside and pasteurized to kill off any weeds, mold, or bacteria.

"It's real clean dirt," jokes Joe Caldwell, the regional vice-president of operations.

Giant trays are filled with the compost and then planted with mushroom spores and topped with peat moss, which provides extra protection and nutrients for the growing mushrooms. The trays are stacked one on top of each other in row after row in one of the facility's temperature-controlled growing rooms, all of which lie off a hall a quarter-mile long. The containers fill the rooms from ceiling to floor, almost like bunk beds of raised bed gardens.

It takes only a few days before the fungi start to pop through the soil, and soon the entire trays are full of mushrooms, which double in size every 24 hours. When a room is ready, a team of pickers comes in, moving up and down the beds, picking each mushroom by hand.

"They're very fragile," Sweet says. "We want to pick them and touch them one time."

"It's not easy work—they've got a lot of square footage to cover," Cox adds.

Workers average picking 65 to 70 pounds of mushrooms an hour—that's 600 pounds a day. As is the case with most agriculture in the United States, most of the harvesting is done by Hispanic workers. Cox says around 80 percent of employees at Monterey's Loudon facility are Hispanic, the majority from one state in Mexico, although many families have been in the community for so long that the second generation is now working at Monterey.

Cox says the appeal of mushroom farming compared to other agricultural labor is multi-fold. First of all, the work isn't seasonal—Monterey has people harvesting mushrooms seven days a week, 365 days a year. Second, the work is indoors, in cool, temperate rooms. Third, the company is committed to promoting from within.

Cox introduces Jorge Garcia, a supervisor who looks after one-third of the growing hall. Garcia has been at Monterey for 16 years. He started as a mushroom picker, but he says that his manager saw some potential in him and encouraged him to take on more responsibility. Now Garcia oversees around 40 employees and has been on salary for nine years.

"It's been a lot to learn," Garcia says. "But I like to work with people."

After the mushrooms are picked, they are packaged and stacked in cartons, ready to ship. The company processes 85 tractor-trailer trucks of mushrooms a week that go from Arkansas to Indiana to West Virginia to the Gulf Coast. If you've bought white button or portobello mushrooms at Kroger or Walmart or Target or Aldi, they were grown in Loudon. If you've had pizza or a salad or sandwich with fresh mushrooms, they were probably grown in Loudon.

But what if you've had oyster mushrooms, or shiitakes? Although the Monterey facility occasionally grows them (and other Monterey locations around the country do grow them), chances are those more exotic fungi were grown on much smaller mushroom farms.

That's where Everything Mushrooms comes in. Bob Hess started the business seven years ago, after a childhood spent foraging for edible mushrooms on hikes grew into a larger obsession. He started growing his own mushrooms at home, and, wanting a change from his public relations job, decided to turn his hobby into a profession.

Unlike Monterey, Everything Mushrooms doesn't actually grow produce. Instead, Hess specializes in mushroom cultivation supply. That is to say, Hess grows the spores that grow the mushrooms.

"We maintain all of our own biology," Hess says. "We have a sterile lab here. … We maintain biology for maybe two-dozen specialty mushrooms."

And not just shiitake and oyster mushrooms, which almost seem to have become mainstream, but mushrooms like reishi, enoki, black poplar, and lion's mane.

"Primarily the mushrooms we focus on are mushrooms that are easy for the home gardener, the home hobbyist, the small farmer to grow," Hess says.

Although Everything Mushroom's Sevier Avenue store does get some foot traffic, Hess says 98 percent of his business is online. His company is one of just a couple in the country that do anything like it, and he ships all over the world. While some customers are just avid gardeners who want to add mushrooms to their rows of tomatoes and herbs, many others are farmers or even other companies selling grow-your-own mushroom kits that don't have the lab and cultures that Hess has.

Like Monterey, Everything Mushrooms has room after temperature-controlled room of product (albeit far less of them), but these rooms are full of petri dishes, plastic bags filled with sawdust, wood chips, and mushroom mycelium, or even jars of kombucha, a fermented tea that Hess started growing last year and now sells at Three Rivers Market. The bags are the grow-your-own kits, which can be grown in the bag or taken out and grown in a terrarium or something equivalent.

There's also mushroom plug spawn—little nubs of wood infiltrated with mushroom spores. Drill some holes in a log, insert the plugs, and boom—you have a mushroom-covered log within weeks, ready to eat.

The store also specializes in medicinal mushrooms. These are not the psychotropic kinds of mushrooms (obviously), but ones used in alternative medicine and herbal supplements. Hess says interest in these types of mushrooms has been growing rapidly as more is known about the health benefits.

Although business has grown every year, enough so that Hess has been able to buy the building he's in and has hired a chief science officer to oversee the cultures, he says American culture still remains mycophobic.

"Most of the other parts of the world, like Asia and Europe, are mycophilic. They love mushrooms," Hess says. "But we've come a long way just in the past five years."

Hess says the more people's food horizons have been expanding, the more interest in exotic mushrooms has grown—and the more people are willing to try doing it themselves.

"Twenty years ago the only people growing mushrooms were hippies and fungal fanatics," Hess says. "Now it trends upward every year." m