Freshness is a key ingredient for a Saskatchewan farmer who has come up with a unique way of growing mushrooms.
"Everything is sold within a week or not sold at all," explained Joel Huyghebaert, owner of Stellar Gourmet Mushrooms, while leaning up against the styrofoam insulation of a newly-constructed building on his farm near Regina.
The specialized facility houses racks of oyster mushrooms, and is one of a very small number of operations in Western Canada. That's the key to profitability, according to Huyghebaert.
The mushrooms grow in clear bags of sterilized straw and are seeded or spawned in a grain mixture developed in a laboratory in the city.
Oyster mushrooms thrive on wheat and barley straw, Huyghebaert discovered during three years of research, and there is plenty of straw available in Saskatchewan.
"I'm using an agricultural residue, a byproduct if you will, and turning it into food," Huyghebaert said.
Start to finish, including the sterile laboratory phase and growing time, he said it takes about six to eight weeks to turn a crop around.
"It's faster than most crops, greenhouse crops included", Huyghebaert said.
The operation yields about half a kilogram of mushrooms from each bag, over the course of two or three crops.
Following a substantial initial investment — Huyghebaert had to design and construct a heavily-insulated building with specialized temperature and humidity controls — he began marketing his crop this summer.
"The profits haven't started rolling in yet," Huyghebaert acknowledged, "but we're optimistic."
He is still working out the sales aspect of his business after spending years researching the growing process, building his own facility and perfecting the growing conditions.
Already, though, he is seeing signs of success.
"I've got a couple of restaurants that have been really supportive of my product and buying regularly," he explained.
Beer Brothers restaurant, The Creek Bistro and The Willow on Wascana all have chefs who are enthused about Huyghebaert's oyster mushrooms, which come in three distinct varieties.
He has also started selling directly to the public at Regina's twice-weekly Farmer's Market, and plans to expand the operation in the next few months.
"I've always been inclined to grow my own food, and interested in growing food for others," Huyghebaert explained.
However, rather than going into a business such as a greenhouse, his mother encouraged him to move into mycology, or mushroom culture. Huyghebaert says she had read an article about a small family mushroom farm in Alberta and told him it was something he should try.
"I always kind of thought I'd be into farming, so this is definitely farming, just an intensified cultivation."