A mushroom farm in Berks County has consumers “wild” about its product.
Matthew Sicher and Jesse Tobin started their mushroom farm eight years ago for two reasons.
For one, the couple had been hobbyists in growing fermented foods and drinks.
“Mushrooms seemed to be the next logical extreme,” Sicher said about the progression into growing something known as a “wild food.”
“I had made sauerkraut, kimchi, (fermented) daikon radishes and brewed our own beer,” he said.
“Jesse and I have been together since we were 15. We would go on dates to identify wild foods, and mushrooms seemed to be a nice fit,” he said.
Their second reason for the farm was an effort to begin a business adventure. The mushrooms are grown exclusively indoors.
“I like the idea of investing in a controlled environment in agriculture,” Sicher said, plus he added that American consumers seem to have an increased interest in mushrooms for culinary use and for health reasons.
Not Your Typical Mushrooms
The mushrooms growing inside the couple’s barns are not your typical white or portabella mushrooms that you find at most grocery stores. These are more diverse foods typically found in the wild.
The core varieties of wild mushrooms grown by the couple currently include gray oyster, golden oyster, shiitake, maitake, lion’s mane, trumpet, pioppiano, nameko, pink oyster and reishi.
Their entire farming business, known as Primordia Mushroom Farm, is located on the couple’s personal property next to their home in Lenhartsville.
The pair built the four barns themselves.
The process for growing the mushrooms includes using sawdust from oak and poplar trees, which they obtain from local sawmills.
“We briefly take the substrate and run it through a mixer,” Sicher said.
They then bag the material. It’s steamed, sterilized and taken to the lab on the farm.
“All the inoculation happens in the lab, and then goes to the incubation barn and it colonizes,” Sicher said
That process is followed by the fruiting phase.
“What often surprises people is that there is a laboratory,” he said. “All varieties are clones, based on the specimens.”
The lab part of the farm is a “heavy” aspect to making the farm work, Sicher said, and it gives “a whole different mindset” to growing produce.
“When I give a tour to someone, I mention (when) they think of veggie farms, they probably think of having (rows of soil),” he said, reminding them of the weeding process and cultivation.
“(Here) we’re creating a sterile environment for fungi and bacteria to grow. The emphasis is on sterility,” he said.
He noted that if his growth process goes wrong, he is left with “really expensive compost.”
Diversity of Flavors
Wild mushrooms have a positive impact on one’s health and immunity, Sicher said.
Stressing that he does not have a medical background, he is basing his information on research that he has read about.
“Reishi mushrooms are known to be medicinal,” he said, by means of making it into a tea or adding it to bone broth.
Lion’s mane mushroom is thought to help with some brain issues, he said, referring to a study done by Johns Hopkins University.
The culinary recipe possibilities for the wild mushrooms are endless.
“Man, they’re just so diverse,” Sicher said, “so much more so than people realize.”
The recipes range from making the mushrooms almost unnoticeable, to making them the robust part of a dish.
“You can prepare it in such a way to fool people,” he said, such as within a vegetarian crab cake with lion’s mane.
Sicher said the lighter-flavored mushrooms, such as golden oyster, trumpet and lion’s mane, pair well with poultry, fish, pasta and white wine.
The stronger-flavored mushrooms like pioppiano, shiitake and maitake are best paired with red meat and red wine.
“They’re more pungent,” he said.
Restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia were the top customers for the farm business for many years. Chefs wanted to add these wild, rarer mushrooms to their menus. Soon, word of mouth generated more business at the farm. Chefs would share news of the good mushrooms with other chefs, who would then tell other chefs.
“Before COVID, we had been experiencing direct sales to Lehigh, New York, Philadelphia and Lancaster. We made deliveries seven days a week,” Sicher said.
The farm business also had the ability to provide dried and frozen forms of mushrooms as part of their product line.
“This was all a significant part of our prior model,” Sicher said about before the pandemic hit.
When the restaurants closed over a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that started in March 2020, he said that farmers markets and CSAs picked up much of what business was lost.
These essential food businesses brought in many new customers, some of whom were unaware of wild mushrooms and their benefits.
“There has been a lot of customer education. We train all of our workers. I have multiple pages of talking points,” Sicher said.
The first move is to get buyers interested in trying them.
“A good seller for us has been the 1-pound mixed bag,” he said, which includes a small amount of each mushroom.
“I often tell people, ‘Don’t be intimidated about cooking them. You don’t have to do anything fancy. Just marinate with onion and butter and garlic, and some salt to taste. Then experiment all you want,’ he said.”
When the COVID-19 shutdown shook many small businesses, Sicher said he and Tobin tried to keep their focus — on staying diversified.
He estimated that prior to COVID-19, the farm sold 80% wholesale and 20% retail.
That 80% disappeared when restaurants closed.
Today, the new business model consists of about 50% wholesale and 50% retail.
“The farmers markets have done well for us since COVID-19. We are super-grateful,” Sicher said. “I say all the time that we are so darn lucky to be in an area of high-quality food producers. Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, farmers markets are a better source than grocery stores.”
Sicher and Tobin work with six farmers markets, the same number they had worked with before the pandemic. Their sales with those markets did increase, partly due to some restructuring on the couple’s part.
“We made a point of increasing staffing at the farmers market so that customers were not waiting in long lines,” Sicher said.
He said customers expressed their appreciation and were more willing to visit their area and talk with them when the flow of traffic was efficient.
The Primordia Mushroom Farm employs nine individuals total at an equivalent of seven full-time workers. This includes farm work, delivery and farmers market help.
Tobin manages the farm from home, from the office and with the crops. She does some delivery, but spends most of her time present at the farm with the couple’s two children.
The couple has also been working with more CSAs, or community supported agriculture, and some local grocery stores and co-ops.
“We love having good relationships with other producers,” Sicher said, adding that it has also helped with sales. They have partnered with other producers to survive the pandemic’s hit.
Marketing has been mainly word of mouth. Just as chefs have shared their appreciation of Primordia Mushroom Farm, the same is true with other consumers who try their product.
Their business name, Primordia Mushroom Farm, is wildly significant.
“Primordia is the very first or earliest phase of growth for a mushroom. It’s a great conversation starter. Plus, it’s a fascinating fact that fungi is the earliest living organism on the planet. I’m dealing with a whole different kingdom here,” said Sicher. “(And) there is the philosophical reminder in its name. It’s a reminder to handle everything with care and vigilance so that it will turn into an abundant crop. I think that’s a good lesson for about anything in life.”
For more information, go to primordiafarm.com.