Dan Bilyeu mixes together cardboard, straw, fertilizer and oyster mushroom mycelium in a Quonset hut next to his Nikiski home. Behind him hang bags of the mixture where the mushrooms sprout.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Dan Bilyeu is hoping to spread a fungus among us.
More specifically, Bilyeu has been growing oyster mushrooms from his Nikiski home and then marketing them directly in order to consistently deliver a fresh, high-quality product.
“I’ve been filling a few orders, but mostly I’m still trying to educate people about them because not a lot of folks know what they are,” he said.
Oyster mushrooms, as their name implies, have smooth, oblong caps that bear a resemblance to the bivalve of the same name. They also are prized for the palatability, according to Bilyeu.
“They have a very robust taste that is superior to button mushrooms,” he said.
As to how he found his way to growing fungus as a financial endeavor, Bilyeu said it was a fluke.
He had long been interested in growing mushrooms, but his work as a heavy equipment mechanic occupied most of his time. When a work-related injury left him unable to continue this career, he knew he needed something to fall back on.
“I hadn’t messed with them in a few years, but a friend of my brother’s brought it up and I started to research it again,” he said.
It didn’t take Bilyeu long to figure out what he needed to get started. He transformed a 30-by-40-foot quonset on his property into a growing area, ordered spores from Oregon and Hawaii, and began to grow his own oyster mushrooms.
“I really enjoy doing it. It’s kind of fun,” he said.
Bilyeu hopes to grow enough of the succulent mushrooms to supply local restaurants and individuals.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Bilyeu said there has been a lot of trial and error over the past year, but he thinks he finally has the process down.
He said he starts the spores in jars filled with a medium of sterile grain. Once the spores begin developing into a branching web known as mycelium, he transfers them to shredded straw and cardboard.
“We’ll mix them all together and then stuff them into 8-feet long plastic tubes that we hang vertically in racks,” he said.
Hundreds of tiny holes are punched into the tubes in order to make locations where, in search of oxygen, the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms will grow.
“The whole process takes about six week on average. Then you can harvest them,” Bilyeu said.
Bilyeu said there are several climate concerns that must be addressed to successful grow mushrooms, some of which can be challenging during an Alaska winter.
“These mushrooms don’t grow in the dark, so I’ve got grow lights on them on a 12-hour cycle. The temperature must be a constant 68 degrees and the humidity has to be at least 75 percent at all times,” he said.
Setting up a timer and adjusting the thermostat took care of two of the three, but the proper humidity was tougher to accomplish. Bilyeu said he had to invest in industrial humidifiers to keep the air moist, and he also simulates rain by misting the mushrooms with a hand-pump sprayer twice a day.
When all growing criteria is adequately met, Bilyeu said the fruits of his labor can be quite ample. From each growing cycle, “I will generally pick three flushes, and I get 20 pounds per flush,” he said.
Bilyeu sells his oyster mushrooms for $7 per pound to individuals for their own culinary creations.
“I’ll hit the farmer’s markets with them in summer, though, and I’m hoping to be able to supply a few restaurants and maybe grocery stores with them in the future, too” he said.
For more information, contact Bilyeu at 776-8311.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia @peninsulaclarion.com.
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