MAKANDA, Ill. — It may not sound like the most romantic introduction, but Michael and Jessica Hatfield’s relationship began with a fungus.
The couple grow gourmet mushrooms on their small farm in Jackson County, Illinois.
“Our first date was morel hunting,” Jessica said. “We read some books on them and realized that mushrooms are pretty amazing. You can use them to build or bioremediate soil. They’re like medicine. Our interest was piqued, and we started growing them.”
The commercial enterprise began about five years ago. Michael did an internship with Aloha Medicinals, a Nevada company that produces organic mushrooms and supplements. There, he learned how to grow mushrooms from culture starts.
“That was the point where we really took off,” she said.
The focal point of the Hatfield operation — Flyway Family Farm — is the “Shroom Barn.” That is where the delectable goods are grown.
“It’s a completely climate-controlled environment,” Jessica said. “It’s the perfect temperature and humidity for them.”
Mushrooms aren’t literally fungi. They are actually the fruiting bodies of fungi.
The Hatfields have become gourmands of a sort while introducing their product to others. They don’t bother with standard button mushrooms, which are grown in sterilized compost.
“We don’t like the flavor of them,” she said. “Once you’ve had mushrooms grown on sawdust, you can’t really go back compost mushrooms.”
Incubation is where it all begins. Bags of sawdust — steam sterilized for 12 hours — are placed in a climate-controlled substrate that gets inoculated. A white mass develops, what Hatfield calls the “brain and body” of the mushroom.
It remains in the incubating room for about two weeks before being taken into the fruiting chamber.
“Humidity and light is what gets these guys to fruit,” Hatfield said. “Isn’t this beautiful?”
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. The Hatfields grow many varieties, including lion’s mane, shiitake and blue oyster.
“Each mushroom has its own distinct flavor and way it likes to be cooked,” Jessica Hatfield said. “Yesterday I made rice with chestnut mushrooms rather than shiitake, and it just didn’t taste right. Shiitakes have a lot of that umami flavor.”
The mushrooms are harvested daily and stored in a walk-in cooler before delivery to farmers markets, wineries, restaurants and local grocery stores. Some are also marketed via CSAs.
“We’re all over,” Jessica said.
Her favorite dish is “vegan pulled pork” made with mushrooms instead of meat. She also uses a variety of types in making creamy mushroom soup, and uses mushrooms in deviled eggs.
“You can make alfredo sauce with mushrooms,” she said.
Despite the homegrown delights, the Hatifields still hunt for morels.
“It’s definitely worthwhile,” she said.