Years: 2002 - 2004

PI: Dr. Cathy Cripps, Mycologist, Dept. of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology,
AgBioscience Facility, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT, 19717

Glen & Wendy Babcock, owner & proprietor of Garden City Fungi, near Missoula, MT


Specialty Mushroom Farming is a relatively young industry in Montana and one that shows promise for continued growth. There is a demonstrated regional and international market for specialty mushrooms, and Montana is well-suited for commercial production due to location of markets in the PNW, a climate that keeps pathogens in check, and availability of large amounts of raw agricultural substrate such as wood and straw. In addition to diversifying Montana’s agricultural economy, specialty mushroom farming provides a market for agricultural and commercial wastes, adding value to traditional industries. Specialty mushroom farming can be successful on both a large and small scale, making it a realistic possibility for potential MT growers. This project was a collaboration of researchers at the MSU Mycology lab (Plant Sciences & Plant Pathology Dept.) in Bozeman, and an established business, Garden City Fungi near Missoula, one of only 113 organic mushroom producers in the USA. This joint effort allowed mycological research at MSU to move directly to commercial production benefiting economic development in the state. This project can serve as a model to stimulate interest in the mushroom industry in Montana, and GCF and MSU can now lead the way.

For most new ventures in commercialization, marketability is the practical bottleneck to success. However, markets already exist for specialty mushrooms from Montana, primarily in the PNW and West coast. Barriers to growth of the mushroom industry are often inefficient/outdated technology and a lack of expertise. The primary goal of this project was to develop new technologies, expertise, and resources that can benefit the Specialty Mushroom industry in Montana.

These goals were accomplished on several fronts, and led to new products, new technology, economic development, and a model for research and commercialization of mushroom production in the state. Garden City Fungi is fast becoming a model business at the forefront of this development. Through this project, we were able to attend the International Conference on Shiitake Production to learn state-of-the-art technologies in Mushroom Science, and to transfer this information (including mechanistic automation) to MSU, GCF and Montana. MSU and GCF made important national and international contacts, and GCF was later invited by Penn State, a leader in Mushroom Science to present at the International Mushroom Growers Conference in Gainsville, FLA, which put Montana on the map for organic mushroom production. Dr. Orson Miller, a leading mycologist in the USA has publicly endorsed GCF products. All are a direct result of this project.

Research at MSU was completed in the Plant Growth Center, an ideal facility with programmable growth chambers. New technology developed through this project is now employed by Garden City Fungi, and the company reports “increased productivity for the farm” and that “approximately 25% of the production of GCF fresh shiitake is now being grown in two thirds the time as was previously required” (a 33% reduction in time with increased yields for some strains). As time continues, more and more of GCF production will move in this direction.

New strains of shiitake and other specialty mushrooms were researched at MSU, and several were commercially developed by GCF. These include a fast-fruiting shiitake for Mushroom Growing Kits (now available nationally from Carolina Biological Supply), a strain that tolerates warm summer conditions (saves cooling costs in mushroom houses), and several shiitake strains which were debuted in 5 lb Gourmet Variety Packs (along with other specialty mushrooms developed through this project). These now provide market quality organic mushrooms that are flavorful and accepted by chefs throughout the Northwest. Many of these products have been displayed at the Capital Rotunda for viewing and “tasting” by legislators.

New substrate formulations showed it was possible to fruit strains of shiitake on straw, an inexpensive alternative to wood chips. “Straw strains” were tested by GCF and have potential commercial value. Numerous wood types (cottonwood, aspen, alder, hawthorn, ash) and 30 waste products were researched or tested and resulted in good production for some of the 100+ strains of fungi grown out/tested during this project. Inexpensive additives were found as an alternative to millet for commercial production of shiitake; they are now being tested at GCF for potentially all shiitake production. The technology of Block Recycling now in use at GCF increases shiitake production (biomass), and reduces waste by 40% at the same time, as reported on by GCF at the Mushroom Growers meeting in Gainsville, FLA.

A “Mini-cultivation” method, developed through this project, was used to force fruiting in desk-top containers, a potential novelty product. It was used to research new species of specialty mushrooms, including wild Montana mushrooms. A culture collection of commercial and wild varieties is maintained at MSU with over 100 isolates. A new technology for long term storage of fungal strains was developed at MSU using mycelium stored -800 C temperatures, and is currently in use to maintain genetic integrity of strains, of high value to growers. Molecular strain typing to monitor genetic changes is currently in progress.

Garden City Fungi has expanded their production capability in terms of infrastructure and human resources. They now produce 500 mushroom blocks per week. With increased block production, enhanced biological efficiency, improved substrate formulation, and use of new strains, GCF expects to ultimately expand production by a 5-fold increase. Markets have kept pace with increased production. Garden City Fungi has initiated workshops to help other growers with production techniques, and interested growers should contact GCF in this regard.

Overall, this project has served to enhance specialty mushroom production in Montana, and new opportunities for other parts of the state are being examined. Five MSU students and several researchers took part in this project. For GCF, the next expansion will likely be a larger work force, and possibly satellite production centers in the state. This technology is applicable for many areas of Montana including rural farms. This project stimulated interest in research on edible mushrooms at the MSU Mycology Lab, and we are continuing our efforts beyond the scope of the present project. We firmly believe that the mushroom industry is a viable alternative industry for Montana, as it has been for other rural regions. This project is one of the Commercialization Successes listed on the MT Department of Commerce website by the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization.


Other Information/Credits

We wish to acknowledge and thank the Montana Research and Commericalization Board (MBRCT) for funding this project