Edmonton·Video

Family fungi farm flourishing near Edmonton

Alberta family goes vertical with their mushroom farm. The Gruger family runs a specialty mushroom business in Nisku, Alta., cultivating oyster mushrooms using artificial logs made of a hemp by-product.

'When we do tours, a lot of oohs, a lot of ahhs, when people step into the growing rooms'

Tour this family fungi farm in Nisku, Alta., with co-owner Rachel Gruger. 2:17

Rachel Gruger plucks a large pink mushroom and places it in a cardboard box. 

"Mushrooms are 100 per cent my passion," said the 27-year-old Nisku, Alta., farmer. 

Back in 2015, Gruger and husband Carlton Gruger started their fungi farm in a small white sea can.

Oyster mushrooms from Gruger Family Fungi in Nisku, Alta., are prepared for shipping to a local restaurant. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

"We ended up growing some really unique fungi. We had a small market following and a few restaurants who got to try the sample pack. They said, 'This is great! When can I get 10 lb. a week?'" Gruger recalls. 

At that point the pair decided to go all in, full time, year round, growing a crop that can literally double in size every 24 hours. 

They've since incorporated parents and cousins as a part of the Gruger Family Fungi, moving into a 16,000-sq.-ft. space in an industrial strip mall south of Edmonton. 

"In this space we've built 13 identical growing rooms, each with the right temperatures, the right humidity and right air flow, to create the ideal environment to grow these fungi," Gruger said. 

Carleton Gruger inspects a jar with the makings of five hundred mushrooms in the lab at the family operation. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

In an airtight laboratory Gruger splices spores of oyster mushrooms onto Petri dishes. Six weeks later they will be transplanted onto artificial logs, which are plastic bags filled with a compost of hemp by-products and other nutrients.

"When we do tours, a lot of oohs, a lot of ahhs, when people step into the growing rooms," Gruger said. "They've seen nothing else like this."

So far this year the family operation has produced 17,000 lb. of mushrooms at a retail price of $20 a pound, Gruger said.

"We are the very first farm of our kind in Canada to grow these mushrooms at such a large scale all year long." 

Their biggest customers are restaurants and farmers markets.

Braden Folk, owner and chef of Rural Routes Brewing Company, says you can taste the difference.

"Not only is the quality of the produce fantastic, it's visually appealing and the taste is amazing."

Folk's micro brewery, a five-minute drive from the Gruger mushroom farm, serves up pink oyster mushrooms deep fried in a tempura batter. 

"When they're cooked they've got an almost bacon-y quality to them that lends itself very well to being fried," he said. 

Chef Braden Folk picks up a box of pink oyster mushroom to cook up at Rural Routes Brewing Company in Leduc, Alta. (Adrienne Lamb/CBc)

Folk purchases between 10 to 15 lb. of the mushrooms each week, which become 40 or 50 appetizer orders.

"It's not the cheapest ingredient," he said, but his consumers are willing to pay for local produce and so is he.

"The more we can support and grow these satellite industries to the restaurants, the better off we're all going to be," Folk said. 

The market for niche mushrooms is expanding across the country, said Ryan Koeslag, executive vice-president of Mushroom Canada which represents mushroom producers.

"We're growing at about 25 per cent for specialty mushrooms, which includes oyster and king oyster," he said.

White and brown button mushrooms you typically see in the grocery store are increasing at about six per cent a year, he said.

A bouquet of oyster mushrooms sprouts out of the artificial log in a growing room. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Koeslag said he welcomes experimentation and innovation in the industry. "We're happy to see any mushroom farm operating across the country. It's certainly a labour of love and a lot of hard work."

You can see more on mushroom this week on Our Edmonton at 10 a.m. on Saturday, 4 p.m. on Sunday and Monday at 11 a.m. on CBC TV.

About the Author

Adrienne Lamb is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. She's the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. Adrienne has spent the last couple of decades telling stories across Canada.

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