Upstart Little Rock mushroom grower making waves
By Dwain Hebda Photography by Katie Childs
There are a lot of unexpected things awaiting the visitor at Wye Mountain Mushroom Farm, nestled in the shadow of Pinnacle Mountain.
First of all, it’s not a farm in the stereotypical sense of the word, nor does the operation consist of dank and dark spaces. The tasty fungi here are lovingly coaxed forth in a well-lit, temperature- and humidity-controlled space inside a nondescript building roughly the size of a garage. It’s more laboratory than cave in the woods.
Founder Jess Wilkins is himself a bit of a revelation. A self-taught mushroom farmer, he got into the business of growing ’shrooms armed with little more than a tinkerer’s natural technical aptitude and an insatiable curiosity.
“Once I started learning and found out there were all these mushroom varieties that I had not even heard of, it was just fascinating to me,” he said. “I thought, cool, maybe I can try to raise some.”
Wilkins' fascination with the crop started about eight years ago and resulted in a very crude setup in his apartment that scarcely yielded five pounds of finished product. Still, it was more than he could eat, and his girlfriend at the time mentioned it to the chef at a local restaurant where she worked.
“He said, ‘Yeah, bring them by. I’ll buy ’em,’” Wilkins remembers. “I sold him what I had for 50 bucks or whatever it was. But that planted the seed that, you know, maybe there’s a market here.”
Jess Wilkins and his dog, Ralph, take a break from inspecting the crop
Wilkins’ hunch was correct, but it took a while for him to refine his knowledge and production process to meet a commercial demand with regular and consistent produce.
“It was a lot of Google, mushroom forums and Facebook pages,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of growers are pretty protective about their techniques, so you can’t just go on there and expect someone to hold your hand.”
“There’s so much information and if you just ask, ‘How do I do this,’ good luck finding someone who’s just going to feed you information. So, I was mostly just reading, reading and studying.”
Once he got over those hurdles, however, his exotic gourmet mushrooms caught the attention of local chefs and these restaurants quickly formed a bedrock clientele for his operation. Today, he also sells his stock out of a booth at the Hillcrest Farmers Market.
Mushroom farming is as much an art as a science, a weird dance of living beings emerging from the decay of its host food source. Imagine walking in the woods and seeing mushrooms; they’re growing on a tree or out of other nutrient-rich substrate.
The mushrooms we eat are actually a very small part of the overall organism and can be compared to the bloom on a flowering plant. Traditionally, wild mushrooms were prized and expensive due to the fact that nature is very inefficient at producing mushrooms in quantity, as too many variables exist that can prevent the edible part from forming at all.
Wilkins’ operation, while largely of his own construction, is far less random than Mother Nature’s, and he’s constantly refining his process to improve the vitality and yield of his product in the most efficient way possible.
“The way the mushroom cycle goes, its starts with a spore,” he said. “I start from a germinated spore that’s growing—the mycelium. And so that basically has a momentum to it already.”
Wilkins innoculates bagfuls of sawdust supplemented with other grain matter with mushroom spawn which he grows separately in bags of sterilized grain. Once tiny mushrooms called primoidia appear, what growers call “pinning”, the bags are moved to the fruiting chamber where the edible parts of the fungi grow and mature under tightly controlled conditions.
Clockwise from left: Jess holds bags of mushrooms ready to be sold. He grows a variety of rare mushrooms, including chestnut, maitake and blue oyster. Using the spawn, a term that applies to all species, Jess makes the “substrate bags” in which the mushrooms actually grow.
Part of Wilkins’ success is his mastery at producing gourmet varieties that local chefs crave, including delicate blue and king oysters, chestnuts, the out-of-this-world lion’s mane and others.
“There’s so much shitake already out there. I like growing the ones you can’t get [as easily],” he said. “Maitake, which is one of my favorite cultures, is one I’m most proud of. They are extremely difficult to grow. I have never even seen or harvested a wild maitake. Yet I was able to clone it and so technically it’s my culture that I grow now.”
Timing is everything to keep 150 to 200 pounds of product rolling out the door every week, as each variety runs through its life cycle at its own pace. Unchecked fluctuations in temperature or humidity can quickly wipe out a crop, but Wilkins takes everything in stride even as he walks the line between a bountiful crop and disaster.
Wilkins' excitement for raising mushrooms is infectious; he happily takes the visitor through every step of the process, sharing the finer points of his journey from hobbyist to entrepreneur. Every element of the farm is his own design, what he proudly considers part of the learning process that’s more or less constant and ongoing. The commercial success, which is growing steadily, runs a nice second to the thrill of discovery.
“I’ve got some cultures I haven’t even grown out yet,” he said, beaming. “It’s always exciting growing something new.”