Canada's First Vertical Mushroom Farm Grows On Artificial "Trees"
Inside a misty growing room, meat hooks hang what look like punching bags, covered in pink oyster mushrooms.
“We’re creating an artificial tree for these mushrooms to grow on,” said Rachel Gruger, who co-owns Gruger Family Fungi with her husband, Carleton Gruger.
The Nisku operation is the only indoor vertical mushroom farm of its kind in Canada. It specializes in tree-loving mushrooms, so you won’t see any regular grocery store portobello or button mushrooms growing here.
“These ones have a smoky, bacon-like flavour. And they’re starting to show their gills, so they could be harvested right now and put into a stir-fry,” said Rachel Gruger.
In just three years, the Grugers went from farming their first mushrooms in a converted shipping container to producing about 12,000 pounds of mushrooms per month in their Nisku facility.
“What we can do in a day on our farm now took us a whole season then,” said Gruger.
The startup came from a desire to produce food and to start fresh.
Bev Gruger, Carleton’s mother, has been involved since Carleton and Rachel hatched the idea.
“They were both living in the city, working their good jobs, and they weren’t happy. They didn’t want to live that life — they wanted to farm. So they came up with this plan and asked if they could come home,” said Bev Gruger, who lives in Thorsby.
“We knew it was important to have food grown locally and nearby. We looked into growing greens, even had a small mealworm farm tested out,” said Rachel Gruger.
Then they stumbled onto mushrooms, realizing they could produce an organic source of protein that would appeal to vegans, vegetarians and shoppers looking for ethically cultivated local food.
And they quickly realized that there was a huge demand.
“When they first started on the small scale, they realized there’s definitely a market but we need to scale up,” said Bev Gruger.
They began marketing their mushrooms to local eateries.
“As soon as the restaurants received a small sample box from us, they said, ‘This is great — can we get 10 boxes a week?’ Which is when we realized we need to expand,” said Rachel Gruger.
Now, the farm grows 10 different kinds of mushrooms. Some are to eat and some are medicinal varieties meant to heal.
Gruger can break down the nutritional benefits of every type of mushroom here, but the entire family had to learn as the operation developed.
“We call this a research facility because nobody’s ever done this — there’s no book. What works in this room for this mushroom, might not work for this mushroom in this room. People don’t realize there’s a lot of science going on behind the scene,” said Bev Gruger.
In a lab, where the air is purified and all of the material is sterilized with a pressure cooker, crops begin as a spore in a petri dish before developing a root system in sugar water. As they get bigger, they are put into bags, and finally moved into larger containers packed with hemp fibre and recycled grain protein. Those are hung, and the mushrooms fruit in growing rooms with temperatures and humidity carefully controlled.
Each growing room is full of mushrooms at various stages of growth. In one, there’s Lion’s Mane, a white mushroom that could be mistaken for cauliflower. This cultivated version is thicker and more condensed than the Lion’s Mane that grows in the wild in Alberta.
“I’ve actually harvested some of these on the trails in Thorsby,” said Rachel Gruger.
And there’s even community connections from other businesses helping the operation thrive. Nearby Rig Hand Craft Distillery gives the mushroom farm its leftover byproduct.
“Once they’re done distilling grain, all that’s left is protein — which makes for great animal feed, and great feed for mushrooms too,” said Rachel Gruger.
Selling the mushrooms at farmers’ markets and local stores, as well as supplying 12 restaurants, means that everyone at the facility is busy seven days a week.
“It literally is a family business,” said Bev Gruger.
Carleton Gruger’s father, sister and cousin are also helping out with the business.
“You have to have the same passion. We don’t work normal hours,” adds Bev Gruger.
Often, that work is simply educating customers about unfamiliar mushrooms.
“A lot of times, it’s a full conversation about these mushrooms. But as soon as they try it, they can’t get enough and keep coming back week after week,” said Rachel Gruger.