Jumpstart grant spotlight: This episode highlights Esperanzo Wilcox, or Espo. This past year, Espo began the PA Mushroom Company, an organic mushroom farm, specializing in cultivation of edible and medicinal mushrooms and mushroom grow kits. He is also a 2021 recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit jumpstart grant which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this past fall. Tune in for an inside scoop on mushroom production and tips for start up farmers!
Opportunities in Specialty Mushroom Farming
I'm Rachel Sattazahn and joining me on today's podcast is Esperanzo or Espo Wilcox. This past year, Espo began the Pennsylvania Mushroom Company, an organic mushroom farm specializing in cultivation of edible and medicinal mushrooms and mushroom brochettes. He is also a 2021 recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit Jumpstart Grant, which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this past fall. Espo, thanks for joining the podcast.
Could you tell our listeners a bit more about yourself and how you became a mushroom grower?
Yes. My name is Espo. Initially, my path started in the woods. I was a mushroom forager. I was always interested in being able to share that with my friends and family. I'd often find these wild mushrooms and people were on the fence on trying them with me. You know what I mean? I had to break out books and do all this explaining to get people to be like, "Okay, we'll try it. We'll kind of agree with you on this one."
From there, things transitioned, and I joined the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, which is filled with industry leaders and insiders. Some of these guys have credits in the Audubon. They also have literature that they produce, multiple books. Mushrooms of the Appalachia’s and stuff like that. Like-minded individuals that are also bodies of knowledge. From there, my interest turned to cultivation. Once I became an identifier, I became a certified identifier.
I got registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Ag for wild mushroom identification, so I am safety certified for onsite identification and sale to establishments. Restaurants or direct to consumer. And then, from there, my family and friends started to trust me a little bit more. They were like, "He's okay. He's got some credentials. He knows his stuff. All right." From there, I wanted to be able to share mushrooms with people year-round, and I started to dibble in cultivation.
And then, from there, one thing led to another. I decided to invest in a setup. Once I made that move, it was kind of like, "No turning back." It's like, "You got this equipment. You got this setup. Now, it's time to master it." It took almost a year. A year to two years for me to hone it in, master my setup, my skill set. In that time, I continued to forage. And then, I started to sample live tissue cultures. I would bring back a wild specimen. I would clone it.
From there, we got into wild strain domestication, which is currently what we're working on. We continue our cultivation. We grow out a variety of different mushroom strains. We make mushroom products, dry products. We're working on making mushroom tinctures and just a variety of products. Mushroom jerky, which is one of our most sought-after fan favorites. That's a little bit of our start. From forging, learning true identification, sourcing wild mushrooms. To domesticating new strains, and the final stage of cultivation, growing out mushrooms in a controlled environment.
For those of us that do have limited mushroom knowledge, could you share with us a bit more about how you grow the mushrooms? And then, how you have come to marketing your products through the Pennsylvania Mushroom Company?
Mushrooms are a kingdom of their own. You got fungi or some people call it fungi or fungi. Tons of different pronunciations. But the mushrooms we grow are saprotrophic. They're going to be mushrooms that are decomposers. These mushrooms are wood-loving decomposers. You might find these growing off an old oak tree, off of a hemlock tree, off of a dead tree. Those are the mushrooms we focus on, which are exotics that are wood-loving.
There are another type of mushroom, which are mycorrhizal, which are able to be cultivated like your morels, which people are starting to cultivate. You do also have chanterelles and mushrooms that are more common in that realm. Mushrooms start out from spores. Spores then germinate and they create hyphae. Hyphae is a chain-like structure. Once they create these clamp connections, they grow out into mycelium. The mycelium is what grows out onto a substrate, and it breaks down the raw material and makes it into digestible nutrients for the mycelium to produce mushrooms.
That is pretty much the life cycle. And then, from there, it will produce a fruit body. That fruit body will then again produce spores to continue the life cycle. That's pretty much the wheel of life or the life cycle for mushrooms. Starting from spores. Again, they create hyphae. That hyphae exudes or releases chemical compounds that break down that raw material. And then, from there, the mushrooms eat it up and they produce ... Or the mycelium eats that up and they produce mushrooms. That's kind of how that works.
We do that with just different varieties. Bringing back wild samples into a lab setting, and then looking for characteristics for commercial potential. Is this growing fast in culture? And then, from the in vitro culture stage to putting it onto a substrate block, which is a blend of saw dust ... Potentially, wheat bran, alfalfa pellets, beet pulp pellets. Anything like that. Just nutrients for the mushrooms to use and consume to produce fruit bodies.
That's a little bit of how that all works. Hopefully, that wasn't too scientific, but I just wanted to give some information, as far as the life cycle and how it all works and how they start and how we get them. Produce them.
Once you have your product, how are you marketing your product in the community now?
One of our greatest strengths has been word of mouth. I know this is a cliche style of business. You know what I mean? Very simple. But that's one of the major effects. You get one customer, that one customer goes and tells someone else. With social media keeping us all so greatly connected, someone shares their experience. People are sharing their recipes on Facebook, posting them, tagging our business. You have that digital footprint happening just on its own.
By the time it reaches the customer, they say, "I picked these up from Espo at the farmer's market. I bought these from PA Mushroom Company. I got these from a local market. They're from the PA Mushroom Company." All of those tags and the algorithm of social media has been great. All mediums. We've used a little radio. We've also partnered with other farms. Some of these centennial farmers in our area that have been in farm and agriculture for hundreds of years. Getting with them and getting in front of some of their clientele.
Just getting in front of some of the produce purveyors and people and institutions that provide produce. Getting in front of their customers as well. Just naturally, it's almost like the mushroom sell themselves. Once people know that they're available or where to find them, they will come in and hunt you down. I've had people drive for miles all over the place. People send their parents. I had this lady once come up to me. She was like, "Hopefully, you're not out of ..." I was out of lion's mane. She said she drove an hour and a half. Her son was like, "Mom, I need these mushrooms. This guy's got them right now."
She drove and I went back to our facility and harvested some just for her, because I wanted them to share that special experience. That's what it's about. Customer fulfillment and that word of mouth being so key. I've done deliveries as small as one to two pounds. 30-minute drive. Just to put that smile on someone's face and to give them that experience. From there, they're return buyers. They come back. Next time, they want a case. They're bringing their family with them. They're preparing these at Thanksgiving, Christmas, during different holidays. Very interesting.
That has been one of the ways we've marketed. Just letting things happen naturally. Not putting a lot of force on it. Making sure we have very clean literature. That is going to be a key for anybody in any agriculture industry. I think oftentimes farmers neglect marketing properly. They don't want to run commercials. They don't want to spend money on ad revenue. But if you can at least put together some good posters, good signage, literature ... Let people know you're there.
Invest in some graphics. Invest in your logo. Clean it up, if you do have an old logo. All those things are going to be big. See if you can get tied into any community events. Help out with the fundraiser. Donate some of your product. That's what we're doing now. We've even been donating grow kits to golf scrambles, charity events. Just another way to get more product in people's hands and letting them have an experience for theirselves. That has been one of the greatest marketing tools.
Some great ideas there for others to consider. You're right. A lot of times, those in agriculture maybe don't think about the marketing side quite as much. It's really important for those especially like you, Espo, that are selling direct to the consumer and trying to build the market.
Thanks for sharing that. Espo, what has been your greatest challenge so far in beginning this quest with mushrooms? What resources have you found that have helped you along the way in getting started?
One of the biggest challenges would be sourcing commercial supplies and volume to bring the cost down effectively. When you're starting to get into bulk supplies, you need resources to do that and make that happen. That's big. Getting connected with grant funding. AgChoice, the Jumpstart Grant. Huge. It really helps, because it lets you put emphasis on ways you can expand and ways you can put more product on the market. Whether that be investing in a structure to expand. Whether it be supplies.
It really helps you take the stance and get additional traction, so you can pivot correctly. Wherever it is along that supply chain you're focused or wherever you're short ... I was able to bring somebody on board to help. I was able to hire someone, which was big. To be able to employ someone. A local kid, who's like, "This is all I want to do." He just kind of came to me. And I was like, "Definitely."
But I had the money available and the funding behind me to say, "Okay. I'm going to go ahead and do this." And it helped me expand. Extra hands. I could produce more. So it all just works full circle. Definitely, opportunities like the Jumpstart Grant are key. They help a lot. You know what I mean? Wherever it is, you need the extra assistance. It helps you. Again, it helps you pivot and it just strengthens your business. That's really what it does and it has helped us a whole lot.
We're continuing to make strides. We're looking to take that next step here soon to continue to work with AgChoice. We're excited. In the coming months, we plan on expanding and pivoting in a direction. We're just trying to get ourselves through this summer. It's been kind of busy. Taking us by storm. We thought we were producing enough, but we're not. It's like, "Back to the drawing board." We're scrambling. Putting things together and just trying to produce greater volume, so we can produce and supply a lot of our accounts.
I do appreciate the demand. I wish I did have the product. That's where we are. And it's not really a crazy bottleneck. You know what I mean? Mushrooms are one of the fastest turning crops. From score to production, you're looking at 30 days. You know what I mean? For a new strain or a variety, to get something to market won't take long. You just need ample space to produce at those volumes. That's it.
We're excited to be small scale. It really helps us focus in on these different variables that you need to know before moving to that larger scale. Specifications geared to certain strains, what these strains look like at different times of the year. Once we're dealing within different environmental factors, warmer temperatures. How to keep your facility stable. Those are all key aspects in the industry.
Forming at this scale and operating at this scale is great, because you get all those data points and you get all that information dialed in. When you're ready to take that next step, it's just a space ... At that point, you have all the knowledge and the skillset and the know-how for the different varieties, which is key. And the development of new varieties, which we're doing. We're looking to add new strains to the supply chain and to the commercial markets. Very fascinating and very exciting.
To tie into that, you sort of alluded here maybe where you're headed in the future. What does the future look like for the PA Mushroom Company? Do you have any specific goals in mind or specific targets you want to meet? Or anything like that you'd be willing to share with our listeners?
Definitely. We are currently on the hunt for a commercial space. We were looking at different options locally. Right now, the market, it's very aggressive. In terms of ... Something's available today. Two days later, it's gone, which is fine. And so, we've been pivoting into the idea of pretty much just building a facility. And then, from there, that facility would house our genetic operation and also our commercial-scale cultivation operation. That's what we're looking at.
We've been looking at some different properties, some land. We're just looking for some certain things that make it easier and more cost effective to build out. That's what it looks like for us within the next year or two. We'd like to have a facility and be able to invite people to come and check it out. Also, this structure would be used for classes, speakers, lectures, direct retail sales.
Also, just agritourism. Inviting people out to the facility to just check out what it is, what a mushroom farm looks like. A specialty mushroom farm. Just getting people connected with that information, and hopefully steering their interests and getting them to want to come and take a class. Just figuring out new culinary applications for mushrooms. Seeing our different mushroom products, the powders, the jerkies, the tinctures, and the products that we currently have in R&D. New products we're developing.
Just where we are and where we're headed to next. That's where we see ourselves. We want to scale, effectively. We're looking at some properties throughout Clarion County and some of the surrounding areas to see what's going to be the best fit for us. That's our goal. Our goal is to take that step and scale. That's what it looks like for us. We want to provide more, and we want to do it at a location where we can also have that retail aspect. An all-in-one spot.
We're looking at some of the different models, some of the companies that are mainly geared towards specialty production, and what that looks like at-scale. Maybe not large scale, but at least mid-scale.
That's kind of our goal and those are our aspirations. That's the direction we'd like to head in. Also, being focused on the genetics of creating different genetics and strains for different companies to be able to use and some of the IP that is attached to that. Pretty cool stuff.
Well, Espo, you had mentioned there a little bit earlier how the Jumpstart funds had come in useful. Especially, from supplies and things that you need right now. That type of thing. We are very excited to have you as one of our 15 of the winners that we have across the AgChoice Farm Credit footprint. Certainly, very diverse operations. You are our only mushroom grower that we have on there. Anything else you want to share related to the grant funds and how you plan to use them to improve or enhance your operation?
We are looking to get more equipment, which will also increase our capacity. That's going to be probably our next step. Our next quick step. Or our next first step, I should say. Helping us reinvest and make that long term commitment. That's what it was. It pretty much just showed us that we were on the right track. Our idea was valid and what we were doing was also validated by this. From there, we're just very pumped. We're excited. We're like, "Hey, man. From here, sky's the limit."
How far can we take this? How far will this go? It's a newer industry that's getting a lot of attention. People have been growing for years and years and years, but these companies scaling is a new thing. People are inquisitive. They want to know. They're like, "Hey, is that going to work? Is it not going to work? He's doing it. It's working." I think that's what we're looking to do is close the gap and bring it all to the forefront.
Showing people a successful model. "Hey. This is working for us. This is what the numbers look like. These are our customers. These are some of the ways we're making it work and making it happen on all ends." We're trying to choose a direction, but it's hard. I think we're going to be vertically integrated all the way through. A lot of people are like, "Well, are you just going to do genetic work? Just sell your IP and your strains and some of the developments you make? Or are you going to continue to grow everything and do all the steps?"
And I think it's key to do all steps. Especially, if you're going to be selling strains. Because people need information and they have to see the process through sometimes. If you're able to demonstrate what you did, I think it's more effective in the long term. I love growing mushrooms. It's hard to separate myself and be like, "I'm just going to be in the science lab all day." I think that's where a lot of people want me to be.
Or that's the direction that we're getting pushed into, which we don't mind. I do enjoy doing the genetic stuff and finding the new strain variations and doing all the R&D. But I also do like customer satisfaction. I do like selling the mushrooms, but I guess we're going to see what happens. The AgChoice funding definitely helped us even get to this point, where we could even start to make these decisions. Where we were able to even think like this, and free up the time, and free up the resources for us.
We're able to sit back and say, "Wow. Okay. Let's really look at this and let's think this through. Let's put a better plan in place." Build off of what we started with, make adjustments, and then allocate the resources to where we felt they were needed most. To help us be most effective and efficient. Once we were able to do all those things, things just started to line up for us.
Now, we're able to take that step and market directly to consumers and sell to distributors and make those connections that we had dreamed of making. We were thinking about doing it. We wanted to do it, but once we actually started to do it, it was fascinating. A lot of people said, "Wow, man. How'd you do that so fast? You said you were going to do all this stuff. And then, two weeks later, man. You're at the local meat shop. You're in these restaurants. What are you doing?"
Behind the scenes, I just go in direct. If I want a client, I just go and approach them directly. "Hey. This is what I have for you. Can I set up a meeting? Do you have time to talk? Are you interested?" Just getting in front of that customer and doing whatever it takes to attract and acquire their business. That has been a key also, but AgChoice made it possible for me to take that initial step to have that foresight. To open my eyes to, "Hey. Take a step back. Broaden that lens. Look at it from a different angle."
Apply more on the business side. Look at your numbers, your projections, all these different things. And then, figure out how to scale to reach those goals. That's where we are. It really just helped us solidify things and really excel. It's exciting. We're excited to what's going to be happening next and where we are. We're looking forward to the future. Great stuff. We're stoked. We're happy to be a part of this and we're happy to be a part of any future events. It's great.
As we begin to wrap up Espo, could you share one piece of advice you have for someone who might be interested in starting up an agricultural business or farm of any type? What advice would you have for them?
One word. And it's going to be due diligence. All right. Commit and recommit and stay committed. Don't quit. There's going to be rough days. There's going to be rough weeks. There's going to be times and moments of doubt. We all have them sometimes. I have sat and I've been like, "What is going on? How did I get here? This is wild." But also, those same moments brought me a lot of clarity in my line of work. Made me proud of taking those steps and continuing to apply, and continuing to study, and continuing to hunger and thirst for that knowledge.
Even as far as I am along, I go back to the books. I'm always reading, Some of my favorite reading is medical publishings. Two years ago, I would've never. But now, that's all I want to read. I'm fascinated by knowledge. Continue to learn, continue to grow, take advice. Be okay with people critiquing your work and maybe sharing a different experience or a viewer perspective. That's going to be big. Being due diligent. Continuing to commit, sticking after it. When you're met with failure, don't just throw in a towel or take too long of a break. Get back on the horse ride again.
That would be my biggest key is to stay diligent and stay committed and stay focused on your work. Not everyone's going to see the vision initially, but if you do, you can make it. You can surpass that view and people will jump on board. Initially, I was just a guy alone on a mission. My family wasn't super ... They were like, "Man, this guy's growing mushrooms?" They're were kind of like, "Uh ..." They didn't deter me, but now they're like, "Okay. Wow. We see." Now, the vision is seen by many. Not just the few I was trying to share it with initially. That's my tip for you.
That's awesome. Thanks. Building advocates, right? You've turned them into advocates on your behalf.
There you go. It takes one and sometimes that one is you. Be okay with being the sole individual with the plan. And if you can see that vision through, just continue to follow it through. Don't give up. Just apply yourself. Keep your head down and be able to just have that focus where nothing else matters. You can block out time and this is all you want to do. This is what satisfies you. This is what can feed your family.
You definitely want to stay committed. Also, try to mirror what you want to be or how you want to grow. Or whatever it is you want to do. See if you can connect with a farmer, a mushroom grower. Someone who's trying to establish an orchard. Or an old apple orchard that's already established. See if you can get out there. Volunteer. "Hey. Can I come work for you? I don't want money. I just want to learn."
Those are ways you can get connected and it can really streamline you. Get you to where you need to be even faster. Due diligence and asking for help and advice. Going and volunteering and getting to know a farmer are going to be your keys.
Great. Finally, here, Espo ... Could you tell our listeners where they can find you online to learn more and to connect with you?
Yes, www.pamushroom.com. You can find us on our website. We have information. That'll get you my phone number. You can email me there. You can also find me on email, via email@example.com. That's my email address and PA Mushroom Company on Facebook and Instagram. We are the PA Mushroom Company, pamushroom.com and PA Mushroom Company on all social media platforms.