Mushroom Farmer Builds Niche Market in Driftless Area
Alexander Graham Bell once said when one door closes, another door opens.
This is often said when a layoff or other job change occurs.
Creating a new path may bring more freedom for an entrepreneur to try something new, but it may also put pressure on that new entry into the marketplace.
Josh Buettner explains in our Cover Story.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic triggered economic fallout leading to job losses for tens of millions in the U.S. alone. For one recent college graduate, being laid-off was the final nudge he needed to branch-out - by returning to his roots.
Tanner Sanness/Owner – Reconnected Farms, LLC/Dorchester, Iowa: “Reconnecting people to the food they eat is kind of the idea that I had.”
A sixth-generation farmer from northeast Iowa, Tanner Sanness helped raise livestock and row crops growing up.
Tanner Sanness/Owner – Reconnected Farms, LLC/Dorchester, Iowa: “There’s some scientific studies that suggest that they may help in nerve regeneration. They’re also really delicious…really good seafood replacement.”
Now he’s acquired a taste for specialty mushrooms shared by a growing number of locals willing to pay a premium for his ultra-fresh supply.
Tanner Sanness/Owner – Reconnected Farms, LLC/Dorchester, Iowa: “I had listened to a podcast, and it was talking about the health benefits of lion’s mane. And I was too broke…I was in college at the time – to afford the supplements – so I ended up buying a grow block of the lion’s mane. We fruited it right on our kitchen table and dehydrated the lion’s mane and made a powder out of it. And then I had kind of fallen down the YouTube rabbit-hole of how to grow it – and didn’t really see that there was anyone growing oyster mushrooms or lion’s mane and that’s kind of where my business degree came in hand and I saw the niche in the area.”
Basic button mushrooms have long dominated U.S. shelves. According to industry trade association – the American Mushroom Institute, mushroom farming contributes over $3 billion annually to the U.S. economy. USDA data points to California and Pennsylvania responsible for 90 percent of domestic supply, though cheaper imports from Canada, Mexico, South Korea and powerhouse China are growing – as is a hunger for more exotic varieties.
Tanner Sanness/Owner – Reconnected Farms, LLC/Dorchester, Iowa: “You’re basically adding the mycelium, which is the living organism of the mushroom, into its favorite food – and the humidity from the grow room makes it fruit. It will take around a month for it to completely encompass these bags.”
Initial research and online classes quickly led to a makeshift grow room. Within two months, Sanness was selling his harvest at a local farmers market. Now an upgraded grow space – inside a repurposed refrigerator trailer in a barn on the family farm – gives him the environmental controls and space needed to bump yields to around 280 pounds per week.
His startup, Reconnected Farms, supplies farmers markets, a co-op and CSA, restaurants and grocers within a 60 mile radius of Dorchester, Iowa.
Bryan Haugland/Produce Manager/Woodman’s Market - Onalaska, Wisconsin: “We started carrying Tanner’s mushrooms…November of 2020, and as soon as we started carrying his product, it almost doubled our sales.”
Bryan Haugland is the produce manager at Woodman’s Market in Onalaska, Wisconsin, a suburb of La Crosse - where Sanness went to college. With around 20 stores in Wisconsin and Illinois, Woodman’s prides itself on high-quality, fresh produce.
Bryan Haugland/Produce Manager/Woodman’s Market - Onalaska, Wisconsin: “So normally, mushrooms, they’ll be harvested, shipped to a distributor...might take up to a week before those mushrooms are received in the store. And with Tanner’s, they’re coming here the same day. You know, when you’re getting them that fresh, you’re getting the best product that you possibly can.”
Haugland says health-conscious customers prefer the taste Reconnected Farms bring to the table, as well as the antioxidants and vitamin D not present in many other plant-based foods.
Dr. Todd Osmundson/Mycologist – University of Wisconsin – La Crosse: “We think of sweet and bitter and salty and sour when we think of tastes, but there is another taste - that’s know as umami - that’s found in many mushrooms. That’s sort of more that ‘savory’ taste.”
Dr. Todd Osmundson is a mycologist at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse who uses DNA to study and identify the geographical distribution of fungi, various strains, and their relationship to different environments.
Dr. Todd Osmundson/Mycologist, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse: “I think the idea of food as medicine has really taken off and there are a lot more supplements that you can buy that have mushrooms in them, then there were even ten years ago…and it’s also getting attention in clinical settings.”
Osmundson says past scrutiny of mushroom compounds has to led pharmaceutical heavy-hitters like penicillin and cyclosporine – and fungal analysis continues regarding their immune system influence fighting infections and cancer. He adds use of varieties like lion’s mane stretches back 3 to 7000 years between ancient Greece and traditional Asian medicine.
Dr. Todd Osmundson/Mycologist, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse: “There’s been some suggestion that it could be helpful in Parkinson’s disease, ALS, possibly Alzheimer’s disease…any disease that involves neurodegeneration. A lot of these ideas haven’t been explored using standard double-blind kinds of medical experiments, but there is a long history of use that suggests that they might be really powerful.”
Tanner Sanness/Owner – Reconnected Farms, LLC/Dorchester, Iowa: “These are reishi mushrooms…This is actually the first flush of king trumpets that we’ve had on the farm…”
While commanding wholesale prices between 8 and $11 per pound for current crop, Sanness experiments with other varieties, with other health benefits, he might offer customers one day. He adds that because Reconnected Farms uses organic substrate and excludes chemicals and pesticides, gaining organic certification could be easy and help unleash another product line with even higher premiums.
As demand accelerates, Sanness hopes to expand deliveries to a 100 mile radius within the Driftless Region of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But he doesn’t sweat competitors using his road map.
Tanner Sanness/Owner – Reconnected Farms, LLC/Dorchester, Iowa: “I think the market’s plenty big for multiple growers in an area.”
For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.