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Do you know the mushroom man?

Creating a thriving mushroom business out of a building on a cattle farm involves science and art.

Mindy Ward

February 6, 2024

7 Slides

In the early-morning hours, long before employees arrive, T.R. Davis walks between the metal racks stacked to the ceiling in a storage room of a small building off Interstate 44 in Missouri. All is quiet as he peers at each clear bag, noticing the black and white contents.

“It's kind of meditative,” he says. “No interruptions, just trying to catch small things as I go through every single day.”

Meanwhile, about 40 miles to the east on a cattle farm, his wife Jessica pushes back the plastic strips hanging from the entry door of a retrofitted old barn. She enters the mist. The same metal racks fill the space, only this time with emerging blooms of maitake mushrooms.

Mushroom cultivation is a mix of science and art. This former Marine and his wife found the right balance to appeal to two different markets — foodies and fellow growers.

The couple own Earth Angel Mushrooms, a commercial supplier of mushroom substrate and fresh maitake mushrooms, which started in 2014 in part of a small building on Bill and Linda McLaren’s cattle farm near Pacific, Mo.

“I met them when I bought into a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture],” Davis says. “The beef came from their farm. And Bill was interested in my business of mushroom farming.”

At the time, the McLarens had remnants of an older barn at their Crooked Creek Beef ranch sitting idle. “He offered it to me to start up my indoor operation,” Davis adds. The McLarens used the site to build the current mushroom growing facility.

So, the mushroom farmer started raising fresh mushrooms on a beef farm, then selling them on a small scale to grocery stores such as Schnucks and at farmers markets. The product line included oyster, shiitake, lion’s mane and king trumpet mushrooms.

However, during the entire cultivating and marketing process, Davis realized one portion of the market left unfulfilled — substrate.

In 2019, he dramatically changed the entire business model.

Filling mushroom industry needs

While many mushroom growers try their hand at concocting substrate, it is not an easy process. Davis saw the opportunity to help.

“I wanted to be an innovator in the U.S. mushroom industry,” he explains, “and this was one way, with my own creation.”

Earth Angel’s substrate or ready-to-fruit block is comprised of sawdust sourced from local Missouri sawmills, along with other amendments such as soy hulls. Davis believed he found the right medium to allow mushroom mycelium to develop. And his reputation spread.

The company refocused on substrate sales and stopped growing all fresh mushroom species except one, maitake. Why? Partly because Davis likes a challenge.

Maitake, also known as “hen of the woods,” is commonly found in the wild but is difficult to grow indoors. “You need the right medium to raise them,” he explains. “Our substrate is made up of sawdust, and maitake like hardwoods.” Davis must also maintain constant humidity, temperature and ventilation to produce fruit.

Because maitake is difficult to grow, there are not as many suppliers. Combining that with its extended shelf life, Davis saw an increased profit margin with this specialty mushroom.

Still, he started small, producing 10 bags a week. “It was trial, trial, trial and trial,” he says. “Then after I felt comfortable with the end product, I moved to 30 bags, then 100, and then 500.”

Today, Earth Angel produces 1,200 bags of maitake mushrooms per week, shipping them across the country via Southwest air cargo in St. Louis to growers from Salt Lake City to Boston to Nashville and even Las Cruces, N.M. Most take center stage on dinner plates at high-end restaurants.

But the road to five-star dining rooms took heading down an entirely different career path.

How it all began

After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps following his enlistment, Davis became a pilot, flying aircraft from St. Louis all over the country and world. To an outsider, it seems like the perfect lifestyle, but for Davis there was a downside.

“I was at the point of, I will be doing the same thing for the rest of my life,” he recalls. “But there is something fundamentally inside of me that makes me a very challenge-driven person. I have to have something to feed the challenge, so I left aviation.”

Davis turned to honing a skill that came from his youthful passion.

“I grew up morel mushroom hunting,” Davis recalls. “I love the outdoors and hunting. Where I would hunt in the fall, I would mushroom-hunt in the spring. It all comes together for me. So, there was always this fascination with mushrooms.”

Earth Angel Mushrooms began simply as a hobby, but it was Davis’ desire to overcome challenges and entrepreneurial spirit that transformed it into a business. And it took a little time.

Balance of science and art

Davis started reading and watching what few YouTube videos that were available 10 years ago on the subject. The resources revealed the science behind production.

“It is hardcore scientific — two plus two equals four,” he says. “I maintain a certain temperature and humidity. But it’s not that simple. You’re manipulating a living organism to do what you want to get the final product, and they have their own nuances.”

This is where the art of growing mushrooms comes into play.

“Each of these blocks tells a story,” he says. “It is up to us to be able to interpret what they are telling us — what may be wrong, what they need. We have to be able to see what is taking place and what we have to do to make it thrive.”

That is why Davis spends the early-morning hours walking alone through the colonization room.

There are obvious visual triggers when looking at mushroom substrate blocks that provide the nutrition, moisture and energy mushrooms need to grow and fruit. Green, black and orange colorations are worrisome. Then there is too dense white or less dense white within the blocks. Each fungus grows differently.

“So that's that artistic thing is to be able to interpret what they're telling you,” Davis adds. “And it might be it's a little bit too warm, or we didn't cook it long enough, so this bond was off. But we have to be able to interpret via the artistic side to be able to see what's going on.”

Success that satisfies

Davis admits cultivating mushrooms is not easy, scientifically or artistically, but it is one job that provides him with a sense of gratification at the end of a day’s work.

Leaning on the metal racks filled with bags of mushroom substrate, he pauses.

“I’ve always been pretty driven; the entrepreneurial thing was a natural,” he says. “The Marines taught me that there will be times when every cell in your body tells you to stop, but you don’t. You just keep going. You don’t quit. But that is just not for those in the military, it’s for business and life in general.

“There may be times along the way that you fail,” he warns. “It may be miserable, but keep going because you’ll overcome the challenges and produce something to helps others, while finding something that satisfies you.”

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About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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