Jodi Hilt

Shoppers familiar with white button mushrooms are in for a surprise when viewing Jodi Hilt’s farmers market display. It features uniquely shaped and textured specimens in hues that range from bright yellow to soft pink to mesmerizing gray-blue.

“I like to have at least four different varieties at the market each week,” said Hilt, the owner of Grand Prairie Mushrooms, a home-based business located on the east side of Wellington.

Among the varieties she grows are yellow, pink and blue oyster mushrooms; the black king trumpet, her personal favorite flavor-wise for its tender and tasty stem; brown beech and chestnut mushrooms, which actually do taste nutty; the bushy white lion’s mane, extremely healthful and sometimes compared with the consistency of white crab meat; reishi, known as the “immortality mushroom” for boosting cardiovascular health; shitake; the willow pioppino, “a true Italian mushroom;” and the dramatic ruffle-shaped turkey tail.

“When I first started growing them, sometimes I’d put them on my table as a centerpiece. That’s how pretty they are,” she says. At a time of heightened concern about nutrition and healthy eating, the dazzling array of fungi has a practical function too. The well-known health benefits of fresh mushrooms have made them more popular than ever at the Old Town Farm and Art Market in downtown Wichita this year.

“It’s a good business to get into,” Hilt said. “There aren’t that many mushroom growers out there right now. Because there are so few growers and demand is high, I generally sell out every Saturday.”

The production process at Hilt’s 980 square-foot indoor growing facility starts with substrate, a growing medium that usually contains soybean hulls or wheat bran and hard wood pellets. That material is placed into individual 8-pound biodegradable breathable bags, each with a small filter that keeps contaminates out. The bags are then sterilized in a stainless steel box sterilizer — the most expensive piece of equipment she owns — that holds 480 pounds at a time.

In a special “clean room,” with two HEPA filters running 24 hours a day, she inoculates and vacuum-seals each bag before moving them to the incubation room. When the bags are filled with mycelium and ready to produce, they are cut open and placed in a high humidity fruiting room.

It takes anywhere from a month and a half to four months to complete the entire process, depending on the variety. Hilt routinely starts two new batches every week.

“Everything has to be done in a very sterile environment,” she emphasized, adding that cleaning, filtering and monitoring water, walls and air is a big part of the job.

“If you don’t like cleaning, don’t get into the mushroom business,” she joked. One of the biggest considerations for a grower is how to dispose of hundreds of spent bags and leftover dirt. Hilt typically composts hers, but they can be also be used to build berms or remediate soil.

“Mushrooms are great for mycoremediation,” she said. “They remove toxic compounds from the soil if it’s been contaminated in some way. It’s being used a lot in other countries already, and now it’s coming to United States, because it works.”

Hilt’s business is thriving, with more demand than she can keep up with. While the coronavirus outbreak virtually eliminated her restaurant business, sales activity at the farmers market has helped make up for it. That’s a good trade-off, because she finds marketing direct-to-consumers extremely rewarding.

“I don’t go to just any farmers market, I go to the Old Town market in downtown Wichita,” she said. “The culture there is so fantastic. People there are interested in their health. They want to learn. They are hungry for education. It is so fun for me to talk to people. Saturday mornings are what make it all worthwhile.”

Little about her business has changed during the outbreak, except she now packages the mushrooms in individual boxes of around one pound each. The stackable boxes protect the mushrooms and make it easier for customers to grab what they need and go with minimal handling.

Early on, Hilt was composting any extra mushrooms she couldn’t sell. Then she decided to get more creative. She added a 13-by-16-foot licensed processing space to her production facility and equipped it with a dehydrator and freeze-drier. With help from her handyman husband, Richard, the whole process took about two months to meet all Kansas Department of Agriculture requirements.

Drying mushrooms concentrates their nutritional properties, which appeals to many health conscious customers. Others buy them for camping trips or to prep their pantries.

Hilt has even used dried mushroom powder to make chocolate brownies she sells at the market.

“That’s something I’m really looking forward to getting into more is selling the mushroom flour. It’s gluten free, so that makes it a great substitute for ordinary flour,” she said.

At the market, she also sells mushroom-and-fruit smoothies, another way to demonstrate how easy it is to incorporate mushroom powder in a wide range of items.

Hilt has long had a fascination with mushrooms. While earning a business administration degree in college, she decided to research the concept for a class project and was soon sold on the idea.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I knew it was something I wanted to do someday,” she recalls.

Roughly five years ago, while still employed in the purchasing department of a surgery and rehabilitation center in Wichita, she decided it was finally time to explore it further. She traveled to El Paso, Texas, to take a weekend class from a man who was growing mushrooms in his garage.

“I thought, if he can do it, I can do it,” she said.

First she grew a few mushrooms for she and her husband to enjoy. Then she started sharing them with family, friends and co-workers. Earlier this year, she quit her job to devote herself to mushrooms full-time.

“I loved my job, but this is kind of a dream come true for me,” she said. “It’s fun, and things are going well.”

Though her outgoing friendliness and enthusiasm for what she does makes her seem younger than her 60 years, she admits the support and assistance of her husband, who helps with everything from facility construction and equipment repair to packing and heavy lifting, has been vital to the enterprise.

“I’m having so much fun I wish I was younger,” she said. “It can be physically demanding, but I plan to do this as long as I can.”

To learn more, or to buy mushrooms direct from the farm, go to GrandPrairieMushrooms.com.

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