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Business is mushrooming for Grand Rapids' first gourmet mushroom CSA

From left, Josh Kruis, Trever Clark and Richard Marmion.

Josh Kruis

Trever Clark

The Urban Mushroom is bringing gourmet mushrooms to West Michigan's fungi-loving foodies. Zinta Aistars learns why growing this uber-local food is one entrepreneur's dream come true.
Occupation: Shroomologist. It’s a far cry from being a digital marketer for Yahoo! Inc., but that was the career change Trever Clark made so that he could open The Urban Mushroom for business in August 2013.

“That’s what I call myself,” Clark grins. Mycologist would be the more accepted name, if less fun. It was an idea that had been mushrooming in his imagination for quite some time, to run a gourmet mushroom CSA, or community-supported agriculture, selling shares of mushrooms to customers on a weekly basis.

The vision came to him while Clark was living in a beach house, telecommuting to his digital marketing job from Costa Rica in 2012. It’s not what most would dream about while walking sandy beaches, but in Clark’s mind, he saw fields of fungi.

He traded in the beach house for a small industrial building at 2345 Chicago Drive in Wyoming that was once used for truck repairs. The new-old building is in an industrial area, no beaches, and just inside, an old refrigerator hums behind a worn counter, surrounded by well-used and gently ripped leather couches where Clark has been known to catch a nap when pulling an all-nighter, working on spores or building equipment or composing strategy.

“This laminar flow hood, we built it ourselves,” he says as he points out a steel box used to prevent contamination of mushroom cultures. Light glows from the cabinet in the otherwise dark room and Clark’s face beams with pride. “These usually run around $20,000 commercially, but we were able to build one for around $300.”

It’s that kind of ability to build something from nearly nothing and keep the bottom line trim that Clark and his business partners, Josh Kruis and Frank Montel, along with part-time employee Richard Marmion, trust will take them to success--and quickly.

“I have a bachelor’s degree in information technology … IT,” Clark says. “But I never liked IT. I switched majors several times, but at least digital marketing allowed me to work on my own, run some websites, e-commerce, that sort of thing. It gave me the chance to experiment a little in sustainable agriculture on the side.”

Clark had attended a permaculture course in Wisconsin at some point, and what he heard, saw and learned stuck with him. Even while in Costa Rica, he kept thinking about growing mushrooms.

“I picked up some overpriced Oyster mushrooms one day, $8 for a quarter pound, and I thought: I could grow these.” He did grow the mushrooms on a piece of cardboard, then placed coffee grounds in a bucket, cloned some of the mushrooms into the mix, “and they grew!” Next, he inoculated his landlord’s compost pile, and once again, mushrooms appeared.

“This was great!” Clark says. “I can do this! So, yeah, that’s when I came back to Grand Rapids and thought I’d start a mushroom business.”

The compost pile out back turned into a more sophisticated mini laboratory inside, in his kitchen. Clark earned his first fan in the owner of a local pizza parlor, CVLT Pizza, who expressed an interest in buying some of his mushrooms. Apparently, most every pizza ingredient was available from local, sustainable sources--except for mushrooms.

Bartertown Diner lined up next. Well House expressed interest in collaboration. This thing was … mushrooming. “I used about 20 square feet of space at the Well House garden to experiment. It’s a co-op for homeless people, and they were interested in learning how to grow mushrooms, too,” Clark says.

In May 2013, Clark moved his operation to what was once the Israel building on the corner of Grandville and Wealthy streets. He pulled in a couple of friends, Kruis and Montel, who had gotten equally fascinated with mycology.

“Problem was,” Clark recalls, “that building had a wooden floor, and we were on the second floor. Growing mushrooms, you get a lot of condensation. And leaks. We realized we needed a concrete floor.”

The three entrepreneurs moved to their current building that gave them the concrete floors they needed and a location close to downtown Grand Rapids, so that they could offer in-town deliveries for CSA customers.

“Our goal is to get to 500 pounds of mushrooms a month,” Clark says. “We’re growing Gray Dove and Golden Oyster mushrooms now, and we will offer Shiitake, Lion’s Mane, Enoki, and other mushrooms throughout the season.”

One full share of the CSA mushrooms, at $160 per share (half shares of half pound per week are available at $90), gets the customer one box of gourmet mushrooms per week for 16 weeks. Deliveries begin in May.

“That’s at a 30 percent discount from farmers market prices,” Clark adds. “And we toss in new recipes with every order. Our customers are invited to workshops we will be offering, too.”

In the incubation room, long, cylindrical plastic bags are stuffed to bursting with inoculated straw. For two to three weeks, the spores colonize in the bags, kept in temperatures that mimic summer.

“We’re using the bags now, but we are starting to change over to plastic buckets,” Clark points out. “The bags are for one use only, but we can get buckets from various other companies and re-use them. Our goal is to use sustainable, carbon-neutral production methods.”

Other goals for the next few years of the new business include moving over to permaculture methods and alternative energy sources in and around the building.

“We also plan to join the growing field of mycorestoration,” says Clark. “Certain species of mushrooms are capable of filtering polluted run-off from factory farms and other sites. Certain mushroom species are capable of processing heavy metals and petroleum-based pollution and converting those toxins into non-toxic compounds. We’d like to be the first organization to bring mycoremediation to the West Michigan and Great Lakes region, for personal use as well as government clean-up efforts.”

For now, they're growing delicious gourmet mushrooms, one carefully cultivated spore at a time. For more information, call The Urban Mushroom at 616.264.9609.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, writing and editing services, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photography by Adam Bird
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