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The reality of building a morel mushroom industry

Posted at 1:43 PM, Apr 26, 2022

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Fleshy, spore-bearing bodies of fungus are the bread and butter for Henry Hellmuth's family-owned urban mushroom farm called Ozark Forest Mushrooms.

Hellmuth's parents started the farm three decades ago in the Ozark forest. However, they've moved the majority of their operations to St. Louis, Missouri, because that's where the restaurants and grocery stores buy their mushrooms.

"We're growing blue oysters, king oysters, black pearl oysters, chestnut mushrooms, lion's mane, shitake," Hellmuth said.

Most mushrooms cost about $10 a pound, but some, like morels, sell for a much higher profit.

"Right now, full sale from Oregon, they're at about 45 bucks a pound, and then it cost about $1.50 a pound to ship them," Hellmuth said.

The only way to get morels is through foraging companies. Or you can hunt for them yourself in a nearby forest. Dan Liles is a mushroom expert who has been hunting morels ever since he moved to Missouri.

"People will turn their mother in before they will give up their morel hunting hotspots," Liles said. "Some people take them to the grave. They won't tell anybody where they are."

Not only are they delicious, but they sell for good money mostly because it's not easy to grow them in a greenhouse.

"They grow in symbiosis with a living tree," Hellmuth said. "So all the mushrooms we grow are sapaphytic, which grow on dead wood, which is a much, much easier process to replicate artificially than it is to replicate growing something that lives in symbiosis with another living being."

Liles says people have been trying to reproduce morel mushrooms for a long time.

"And it's very difficult," Liles said.

However, Michigan State University associate professor Trey Malone is determined to help small farmers make a better profit. His team of researchers was granted money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a plan for cultivating a morel mushroom industry.

"So there are two parts to this project that look at the supply side of mushrooms," Malone said. "Whether or not we can actually effectively grow them in greenhouses, and then the demand side of mushrooms. So, where would these mushrooms be sold? Who would these mushrooms be sold to? For what price?"

The project is ongoing, and Malone feels optimistic they will develop an effective plan to produce morel mushrooms on a commercial scale. Hellmuth says he's not holding his breath.

"The science of it alone is tricky, and then to be able to grow them commercially will be another obstacle to overcome," Hellmuth said. "I don't think we're going to see big morel industry for at least another decade, in my estimation. But I would love to experiment and play around with trying to cultivate them if I had more time."

For now, he's trying to make a living by continuing his parents' legacy.