Fungal farm pivots and finds there's shroom to grow during COVID-19 pandemic
MONTREAL -- If you start asking Gabriel Vallee about mushrooms, he will talk your ear off — oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane, and a host of other types are top-of-mind for him. He runs the Big Block Mushroom Workshop, an urban mushroom farm just off the northeast corner at the intersection of highways 15 and 40.
He’s been doing this for almost four years now.
“Producing mushrooms in an urban context takes a lot of ingenuity and a lot of drive,” he said.
His mushroom farm is in a third-floor warehouse, and he grows the mushrooms by putting sawdust in plastic bags treated with moisture and sugar to emulate conditions one would find in a humid forest.
His urban farm can produce more than 100 kilograms of mushrooms a day, and interest from restaurants has been strong for most of the farm’s history.
Then COVID hit.
“And the cards just reshuffled, where your hand is no longer your hand,” he said. “We had to tap a bit, we had to pivot.”
The restaurants in Montreal closed, meaning that suddenly the primary market for much of his high-end wares dried up for the time being.
According to grocer Patricia Masbourian, who runs Chez Nino, an upscale produce market at Jean-Talon that sells Vallee’s mushrooms, this is a harder period for producers than for markets like hers. Even though three quarters of her business is restaurant-driven, she says she can simply stop buying produce in the short term.
“But they have to grow the stuff,” she points out.
The life cycle of a mushroom is about four weeks, meaning that Vallee has to pick his crop anyway, even if there’s no restaurant to sell to.
Masbourian points out that during the last wave of restaurant closures, demand for high-end mushrooms returned as people rediscovered their kitchens.
“People just started eating and cooking a lot,” she said. “So it went back very quickly.”
She’s hoping the same thing happens this time around, and in the meantime, Vallee has shifted how he sells his wares.\
“We’re making marinades,” he said, “and selling dried mushrooms.”
After all, he has more than a hundred kilos of varieties like blue oysters just waiting to be picked.