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Their business is mushrooming

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / October 23, 2011

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NEWBURYPORT - An unmarked door in a nondescript industrial park building leads to a scene of surpassing strangeness.

A plastic greenhouse has been assembled to fill much of the rented space, and inside this climate-controlled structure hang rows of pale, 4-foot-plus columns sprouting fungi.

Alien pods prepping a new “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?’’ No. They are bags of organic wheat straw popping out gourmet oyster mushrooms to feed foodies from here to Boston and beyond.

“Within about three days of me coming home with a degree in business management, Dev was growing his first mushrooms, so we decided to take them around to a few restaurants in town and see what people had to say. We got incredibly strong responses,’’ said Nate Seyler. A business plan was hatched.

“Dev’’ is Devin Stehlin. With Leif Johnson, Seyler and Stehlin are the owners of Shady Oaks Organics (www.shadyoaksorganics.com), which has started operations in new digs here after a pilot run in Middleton last year. The three friends hope to make a success selling mushrooms to chefs and shoppers hungry for organic, locally grown food.

The business requires finicky standards of cleanliness and knowledge of mushroom behavior and restaurant demand. Building that 35-foot-long greenhouse wasn’t easy either.

“It’s like an Erector set,’’ said Stehlin.

‘It’s 4,000 parts and 80 pages of instructions,’’ Seyler said, shaking his head.

Seyler, 23, and Stehlin, 24, both of Newburyport, have been friends since fifth grade. Johnson, 23, grew up in a military family, meaning he moved around a lot. He and Seyler became friends at James Madison University in Virginia, while Stehlin was at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Johnson began spending holidays with Seyler’s family in Newburyport when his parents were overseas. Now he lives here too, and all three are working other jobs while trying to get Shady Oaks up and running.

Mushrooms entered the picture while Stehlin worked in the dining room at local restaurant Ten Center Street when he wasn’t at college. Getting interested in the food world, he began foraging for mushrooms in woods around Newburyport, a pursuit that turned out to be both delicious and modestly lucrative. (Caution: The Shady Oaks team warns against eating wild mushrooms. When it comes to foraging, they say, a little knowledge can be dangerous.)

After college, Stehlin and Seyler started their mushroom business small in a Middleton space borrowed from a friend. In 2010, they grew enough good mushrooms to see that it could succeed, selling 20 or 30 pounds per week to restaurants and at farmers’ markets. But they needed more space to make the economics work. With Johnson on board as of this past January, they rented the 2,300-square-foot industrial park location in March and started assembling that greenhouse.

The growing medium for the mushrooms begins with organic wheat straw, run through a wood chipper to break it up, then hot-water pasteurized at the site.

“The name of our game really is to keep down competitor molds and fungi,’’ said Stehlin.

The straw is then cooled and mixed with the mushroom mycelium, or spawn. So far the trio is buying it from a company in Wisconsin, mixed with organic rye berries. They can buy five different types of oyster mushroom mycelium, including Italian, grey dove, and pink.

“It’s pretty much analogous to our seed,’’ Stehlin said.

They then pack tube-shaped plastic bags with about 50 pounds of the straw mix, tying off the ends. The bags are perforated all over with a rack of arrowheads that looks like a medieval torture device; this allows air to get in and mushrooms to grow. These bags, or “columns,’’ spend a couple of weeks hanging in the small, humid colonizing room inside the greenhouse, until the mycelium has fully colonized the growing mix. Then the tubes are hung on a custom suspension system in the larger “fruiting room,’’ where they are well-spaced to allow air to circulate all around them. The mushrooms emit carbon dioxide as they break down the straw, and too much CO{-2} means a mushroom that’s all stem, no cap.

“Once the columns are inoculated, the maintenance to them is fairly minimal,’’ mostly just watching for mold contamination, said Seyler.

Within a few days, the “flush’’ begins and mushrooms begin to grow all over the outside of the columns. In another week or so the trio begin to pick them by hand, carefully twisting them off the bags rather than using a knife. After a short dormant period, another flush appears. Each bag goes through two or three flushes, with diminishing amounts of mushrooms.

In the end, the trio can get perhaps 6 to 7 pounds of mushrooms per column per flush, selling for $7 per 100 grams, or roughly $23 a pound, at farmers’ markets. They’re also in talks with a wholesaler. They hope to hit 150 or so pounds a week in a couple of months and reach a financial break-even point, then 250 pounds at peak capacity.

The used bags are emptied and discarded, with the spent straw taken to nearby Colby Farm and used as compost.

“The whole team over at Colby has been really great to us,’’ said Stehlin, including storing their fresh straw for them. Both sides hope to sell Shady Oaks mushrooms at the popular Colby Farm stand on Scotland Road.

Cleanliness is next to godliness in this business. Gloves and hand sanitizer are all around. While Seyler and Johnson sit and answer a visitor’s questions, Stehlin dons boots and a jumpsuit and sets to cleaning the greenhouse.

“One of the key things we provide our customers is we care so much about these. We’re so careful with them, we make sure our deliveries are as fresh as possible because the shelf life is so short,’’ Seyler said.

At Ten Center Street, Stehlin mostly worked the front of the house, but became friends with chef Billy Brandolini. Now the chef at Ceia Kitchen + Bar and the Rockfish in Newburyport, Brandolini forages for mushrooms too. He’s one of Shady Oaks’ supporters, having seen what they produced from Middleton.

“It’s legit - it’s the only [producer] around and they’re producing mushrooms that are beautiful,’’ he said, noting that usually when he orders mushrooms, they come from as far away as Oregon.

Brandolini said he is looking forward to a steady supply of grown-in-Massachusetts Shady Oaks mushrooms.

“Everything about it is better,’’ he said. “Obviously it’s a lot fresher. I’ll use them in pasta, use them with proteins. Right now, all of my specials are mushroom-involved.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.