The Ground Floor: Vinton couple's morel growing kits may help answer mushroom shortage
Vinton mushroom grower Josh Osborn offers hope for morel mushroom lovers frustrated by last year's short supplies and high prices.
Osborn and his wife, Nikki, began selling home morel growing kits at his Blues Best Mushrooms booth in the New Bo Farmers Market.
The Osborns make the kit themselves using the same ingredients they'd been using at their rural Vinton home to grow morels for the last five years. Customers take the kits home and follow directions on how to till them into the soil.
For the cost of a $20 kit and a little labor, Osborn said the kits will yield about 100 morel mushrooms under good growing conditions.
Morel mushrooms are always a rare delicacy in the Corridor, but prices here went through the roof last year because of weather conditions that limited morel growth, and a recent federal law requiring certification in recognizing morel mushrooms to sell morels picked in the wild.
Many of the morel hunters who had been selling their finds in farmers markets or to restaurants still haven't completed the certification and cannot legally sell to the public.
The vast majority of morels come from the wild, and experienced morel hunters talk of their fickle nature. They may grow abundantly in one location one spring, then be conspicuously absent the next.
Osborn insisted they're not that hard to grow domestically, however, with the right ingredients.
"Take it, till it into the ground and let nature take its course," Osborn said.
The kits contain a "grow bag" with mycelium, the cluster of branching filaments from which mushrooms grow, and a medium containing nutrients.
The instructions advise users to store the morel kit at room temperature for about four weeks, until nut-like formations emerge around the edges of the bag. The next step is to shake the contents of the bag to break up the mycelium and, if the ground is still frozen, to store the kit in a freezer.
Once the ground is thawed enough to be worked, the gardener spreads the contents in a shaded, sheltered planting area in a row about 1 foot wide by 15 feet long. The goal is to mix the mycelium into the ground about 2 to 4 inches deep.
The final step is to lightly water the planted area.
Osborn has been selling the kits for about five weeks. He collects the email addresses of buyers so he can notify them when to begin looking for morels to emerge in the late spring.
True morel aficionados won't need one of the tidbits of advice Osborn dispenses with his kits: He recommends finding a secluded planting location and keeping it a secret. That's because any morel lover who stumbled upon a patch of the tasty fungi might not believe they were planted by anyone other than Mother Nature, and take them home for a meal.
Mushrooms are big business nationwide. The Mushroom Council reports that sales grew 5.2 percent in the year ended Sept. 30, to 616.2 million pounds. The pace of mushroom sales did not quite keep up with the overall sales in the produce segment, which was over 7 percent.
Owners: Josh and Nikki Osborn
Company: Blues Best Mushrooms
Address: 2872 60th St., VintonPhone: (319) 334-8983