There are no roosters crowing, no petting zoo, no corn maze, and no rolling hills of carrot tops or fruit trees. As you approach Gruger Family Fungi in Nisku, Alberta, what you will find is an unassuming facade in an industrial area that houses the largest indoor vertical mushroom farm of its kind in Canada.
With climate change and extreme weather patterns becoming the norm, reliable and constant supply of produce often comes at a higher price and lower quality. In the heart of the prairies, however, Rachel Yadlowski and Carleton Gruger are producing nutritious and delicious mushrooms–oyster mushrooms in pink, blue and gold, oyster mushrooms, maitake, and lion’s mane–in a 3,200 sq. ft. facility to deliver nutrient dense, seasonal and local produce.
With less marketing gimmick than the keto-friendly cauliflower, toast-loving avocado and the Beyond Meat burger, mushrooms are often overlooked as a worthwhile staple on the dinner table, save for the button mushroom, which are usually just sauteed with garlic and served next to steaks and pork chops.
“When people think mushrooms, their thought process stops at the button mushrooms, and then that’s it, especially people who don’t like them,” says Yadlowski. “Yet, there’s so many mushrooms. We have a mushroom that looks like a cauliflower. It tastes like lobster, it’s one of the richest, decadent mushroom on our farm; they’re absolutely delicious.”
Though they do offer some sought-after and difficult to cultivate varieties of mushrooms, like maitake, Gruger does not grow morels, as many have asked.
“There are some mushrooms that are absolutely revered that will not grow if they’re not given a buffet of bacteria and that’s something like the morel mushroom,” explains Yadlowski. “They want to grow where they have biodiversity of bacteria. That’s why we often see them after forest fires. Morels underneath will have a feast and start fruiting.”
But why drive out to Nisku to learn about the these beautiful and nourishing (but not “magical” as many people ask if they are) fungi? In addition to the informative tour of the facility–seeing how these mushrooms go from uncolonized bags of hemp fibre to little seeds that support mycelium growth, to fully colonized and fruiting mushrooms poking out of long vertical plastic bags–and educational experience you get at Gruger, consider this dirty little secret about large-scale button mushroom production: “The large-scale button mushroom farm needs large-scale manure to run; to get large-scale manure, you’re going to your large-scale animal farm, which are fed large-scale hormones, antibiotics and steroids. All these things that go through their system end up in the manure, so all that can get absorbed by the mushroom as well.”
Gruger grows its mushrooms on hemp fibre and recycled grains from Rig Hand Craft Distillery, supporting the craft production community as well as responsible farming.
Even if you’ve already visited Gruger Family Fungi last year, you’ll likely find, in addition to better signage, a different experience this year.
“We might do a video portion of the tour of the farm and we might spend some time outside. I can’t guarantee anything, but we are wanting to change it up,” says Yadlowski.
Longer term plans for Yadlowski and Gruger include an expansion so the couple can focus their efforts on fewer select varieties and add-value products.
“A lot of people are getting really excited about things like the Beyond Meat burger and just making a better burger in that way, and mushrooms are an incredible key to doing so with outstanding protein,” she says. “The vitamin content in mushrooms is just through the roof, the antioxidant content you can get from them is amazing.”
Until Open Farms Days take place in mid-August, you can visit Gruger Family Fungi every day, except Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can also track them down at Edmonton City Market, Salisbury Farmers Market.