BRIMFIELD — When Pat and Lisa Connolly started growing mushrooms, they didn’t plan to make it into a business.
"We were interested in mushrooms because we like to eat them, and they are not really available around here except for the occasional shiitake and, of course, portobellos and white buttons," said Pat Connolly on Wednesday morning while sitting on the deck of his rural Brimfield home.
The Connollys don’t eat meat, so mushrooms are an important protein source in their diet. Frustrated by the lack of variety in local grocery stores, Pat Connolly decided to learn how to grow his own mushrooms.
"I got a little bit of spawn, which is the vegetative part of the fungus, from an online supplier and then just started reading books and watching YouTube videos," said Connolly.
Mushrooms aren’t that easy to grow, but after a few failures, Connolly started to succeed.
"On the third try, I finally got some mushrooms and they were delicious, and it was exciting and we just kept going," he said. Soon he was growing more than he could use, so he gave them away. They were quite popular.
"We gave them to our family and they liked them, we gave them to our friends and they liked them. Eventually we went down to the farmers market and realized there was no mushroom vendor, and lots of people who would be receptive to it. So our next goal was to produce enough to be able to go down there," said Connolly.
Bloom Shroomery was born in the summer of 2019 when the couple began selling at the Riverfront Market in Peoria. Their mushrooms are also available at Sous Chef and by messaging Bloom Shroomery through Facebook and Instagram.
Connolly currently grows a wide variety of mushrooms – lion’s mane, chestnut, three different types of oysters and shiitakes. He starts them in sealed plastic bags filled with sawdust that has been sanitized in an autoclave to remove microorganisms which can keep the mushrooms from thriving. The bags sit in Connolly's basement until they become lumpy with baby mushrooms.
"So then you either cut the bag open to let them out, or sometimes there are holes already in the bag and they just pop out of the holes," said Connolly. "At that point they need fresh air and humidity, so I take them outside."
Connolly transfers the bags to a grow room in his back yard, a vinyl shed equipped with grow lights and humidifiers.
"Right now it’s pretty damp out here, but once it heats up during the day, it will look like there’s fog rolling out of here," said Connolly while standing at the doors of the grow room. Mushrooms like moist air, so the humidity in the shed is kept at 85 to 90 percent.
With mushroom growing more popular on the east and west coasts, Connolly doesn’t know of anyone else locally who is doing it. He might be the only one and the endeavor has been steadily expanding. This year, Bloom Shroomery bought equipment that raised their peak weekly yield from 25 to 75 pounds.
The success of Bloom Shroomery has been very helpful for Connolly this year. As a full-time musician who made his living teaching and performing, the pandemic cut deeply into his income.
"I had a studio in Peoria where I teach. Everything was going well, then COVID happened. We are unable to use the studio because of social distancing, so I switched to online lessons and lost quite a few of my students this spring," he said. "But it’s allowed me to put a little more focus on the mushrooms."
The truth is, Bloom Shroomery hasn’t been able to raise enough mushrooms to meet demand – they are always selling out. So this winter, Connolly has plans to expand the business even further by building a climate-controlled grow room.
"If all goes well, this time next year we will be producing hundreds of pounds a week," said Connolly.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.