The Small but Mighty Mushroom: Are fungi the key to a healthy belly and a happy planet?
Mushrooms are having a moment, and new varieties like oyster and lion’s mane are giving meat a run for their money.
Many gourmet mushrooms add an earthy or nutty flavour, and for vegetarians, a great, meat-textured protein to press together into steaks or shred, like pork. They’re an affordable, clean protein, wellness shot, and earth healer, and they aren’t going away anytime soon – especially with many grow-at-home kits allowing us to take part in the farm-to-table movement in our own backyards. Luckily for us, Alberta is also home to many young, inspired, and passionate growers who are making a large-scale difference – one mushroom at a time.
For Chantal Wang, of Planet Mushrooms, growing fungi was simply walking in her parents’ mushroom-growing footsteps. 10 years ago, she left China to study at the University of Alberta, but she struggled to find the mushrooms she used to eat. Alberta’s climate resembled her home in China, so she started growing her own mushrooms, eventually selling them at farmer’s markets.
Some were skeptical of the mysterious mushrooms, but with the help of Albertans’ growing interest and Wang’s love of “the great fungi world,” Planet Mushrooms was born. Today, Wang grows shiitake, oyster, shimeji, enoki, reishi, and turkey tail mushrooms, to help you spice up a dish and shake up your proteins. She’s continuing to add to her inventory of mushroom grow kits, and is in the process of developing mushroom extracts to help with anxiety, immunity, and memory.
With plans to expand to Calgary markets, she invites customers to explore. You can find info on new products, mushroom research, and recipes in her e-newsletters (go to the footer of planetmushrooms.com to sign up!). Most of all, “be brave and be curious,” she says, “after you try them, you will be so surprised because they taste so good.”
Nearly 60 years ago, Dr. Murray Roy O’Neil dreamt of a future of healthy protein and clean production, and this passion and drive soon turned into Highline Mushrooms, the world’s largest organic mushroom farm. Today, Highline Mushrooms has farms across Canada, including one in Crossfield, near Airdrie, where Albertans can pick up fresh mushrooms. The Highline Mushrooms line-up includes button, mini bella, portobello, shiitake, enoki, oyster mushrooms, as well as king oyster, and with the help of Dutch growing techniques, the company grows millions of nutrient-packed, recycle-loving fungi on a one-acre plot.
Highline Mushrooms is also committed to continuing its water-conscious operation using evaporation to ensure no freshwater is wasted. And to further give back to Albertans, the nitrogen-rich soil left behind after their harvests is gifted to community gardens to keep the cycle of local, healthy, earth-friendly food going.
But this isn’t it for Highline Mushrooms. Dr. O’Neil’s dreams live on, and the company is always looking for ways to “embrace every opportunity to grow,” says Marketing Manager Stephanie Myles, “to grow as a company, grow our communities, and grow pretty amazing mushrooms.”
For husband and wife duo, Rachel and Carleton Gruger, the future is fungi. With a passion for clean protein, wellness, affordability, and sustainability, the two set out in 2017 to establish Gruger Family Fungi to share their love of mushrooms with others. According to Rachel, “it was a no brainer.”
In 2018, their first mushrooms sprouted, bringing about an eventual expansion into king, gold, pink, and blue oysters, as protein alternatives as well as lion’s mane, reishi, and cordyceps for a boost to mental health, immunity, and energy, respectively. To shake things up, Gruger Family Fungi also offers an array of products, including Umami Bomb spices, dry oyster mix, reishi tea, and king mushroom flour, or you can try their mushrooms fresh. They’ve also got recipes on their website like Rainy Day Blue Mushroom soup to help you get started.
If you fancy a farm-to-table mushroom patch of your own, Gruger Family Fungi offers mycologs for the spring and summer months. It’s all part of their mission: “keep providing nutrition in uncertain times,” Rachel says. “Healing the earth … and providing good food people can trust.”
Just outside Strathmore is Red Fox Fungi, a small operation with big dreams run by Janine Aube and Brad Wandzura. The two met while in law enforcement, but after visiting Wandzura’s property in 2018, Aube saw an opportunity: gourmet mushrooms, and more specifically, pink and blue oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms.
A mechanic by trade, Wandzura balanced his corrections job with building their equipment and facilities, and Aube now works full-time on the marketing and value-added side. They’re the yin and yang of the Alberta mushroom game, and a force to be reckoned with. Sustainability has become a buzzword, but Aube and Wandzura have vowed to be ahead of the curve: they use biodegradable fruiting bags and purchase honey from a beekeeper up the road (rather than plastic Petri dishes) to grow the mushrooms’ growing base, mycelium. In the spring, Red Fox Fungi also offers gardening soil from their fruiting bags that you can pick up by donating to Kids Cancer Care.
A past collaboration with Inglewood’s Cold Garden (a lion’s mane mushroom and chocolate, dark beer!), grow-at-home mushroom kits, and ‘seconds’ mushroom spices now available means we can expect exciting things from Red Fox Fungi in the years to come.