To describe mushrooms as farmer-entrepreneur Brian Thomas’ passion is something of an understatement.
An ‘all-consuming obsession’ would be more like it.
“Mushrooms are the food of the future,” he says.
In the space of little more than a year the apparently tireless Thomas, a regular vendor at the White Rock Farmers Market, has taken his Aldergrove indoor mushroom farm operation, MYCA Farms Ltd., from start-up to the status of an emergent player in the Lower Mainland.
And the best is yet to come, the single father of three boys avers.
“If I can take just 10 per cent of the imported mushroom market, I’ll be very, very happy,” he said.
Any mushroom-fancier worth their salt will tell you at a glance that MYCA’s product, brought to market after an eight-month growing span, are far from your average supermarket varieties.
The ultra-colourful, photogenic fungi – virtually an art form in appearance alone – are definitely ‘gourmet’ mushrooms that are winning raves from chefs at plant-based and mainstream restaurants alike (MYCA is a regular supplier for Vancouver vegan mainstays The MeeT on Main and Chickpea, and just scored a contract with the Cactus Club Café chain, including the South Surrey location.).
Much of the company’s initial efforts were based in perfecting indoor growing techniques based on replicating an ideal natural environment, using soy husk and hardwood substrate (the nourishment base for mushrooms growing wild in the woods).
Among the exotic mushroom varieties Thomas is championing are lion’s mane and chestnut oysters, as well as striking pearl, pink, blue, yellow and white oysters from wild cultures acquired from master growers in B.C. Washington state, Hawaii and Tennessee.
MYCA’s product is non-GMO, and despite the appearance, no growth hormones have been used – and Thomas’ clean-growing process leaves out animal products, pesticide sprays or other chemicals, and results in only minimal waste water.
Thomas’ current efforts have been focused on maximizing production for wholesale, but he hopes to focus increasingly on building his individual customer base by continuing to promote his products at the White Rock, Fort Langley and Delta farmers markets, as well as by offering tours of his farm and special culinary events with professional chefs to promote mushroom-based cuisine.
The nutritional benefits are huge, he maintains. For example, meaty lion’s mane mushrooms, which lend themselves to many culinary styles, also provide 20 grams of protein for every 100 grams of mushroom.
But he also believes that, while the clean growth process is higher cost than other mushroom operations, by increasingly adopting economies of scale he can keep the price to consumer in a range competitive with run-of-the-mill Asian imports that he describes as “McMushrooms.”
“And ours will be fresh, rather than flown in in nitrogen bags,” he said.
With a core staff of five, including his middle son Aidan, 18, he’s currently using some 2,000 square feet of canopy space, which he aims to increase to a full 5,000 square feet, boosting production from around 3,000 pounds of mushrooms per month at present, to 12,000 pounds by the end of the year.
He’s learned the business from the ground up, he said, with a particular interest in permaculture farming – a holistic approach aimed at high yields and productivity, while emphasizing sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices.
He’s also studied best growing practices from around the world – including Japanese shiitake hardwood growing techniques – and honed his acquired knowledge with old-fashioned, practical trial and error.
“I’m the kind of a guy who, when I want to achieve something, I go after it 100 per cent, 18 hours a day,” he said. “I haven’t taken a vacation – aside from a day off here or there – in close to two years.”
A fresh start
No one should doubt Thomas’ determination – his story is not only one of entrepreneurial flair but also of hard-won recovery.
He freely admits that some 25 years ago he was a heroin user, living on the streets of the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
And Moving to Vancouver when he was only 16 years old after his parents divorced, he soon fell into substance abuse and a high-living lifestyle based on quick profits from growing and selling marijuana.
It all fell apart after some rip-offs and bad deals, Thomas, said, and he ultimately found himself homeless, addicted and stealing to support his habit.
By then a father, he knew he had to break the cycle somehow, but it was hard not to slip back into using. But after being apprehended on a series of “failure-to-appear” charges he knew it was his chance to stop the nightmare scenario.
“I got a spiritual awakening – went before the judge and asked for my full nine-month term,” he said.
“I got help, took all the programs, took all the advice,” he said.
After three months he was off heroin, and thanks to yoga and exercise programs in jail, was feeling better than he had in years.
Once he was released he took the opportunity to turn his harrowing experience into a positive by becoming a counsellor for others with substance abuse problems.
Ultimately he spent 20 years working for Fraser Health as a mental health and addictions counsellor – and winning two awards from the RCMP for his work.
But the fentanyl crisis and a heavy caseload eventually took its toll on him, he said, leading him to look for a fresh career.
He knows he’s found his calling with mushrooms, he said.
“I think I’d always fantasized about having a farm, even though I didn’t know anything about it,” Thomas said.
“My great grandfather was a big farmer in the Victoria area and one of my fondest memories as a child was going to visit my grandpa and grandma on their farm in Happy Valley on Vancouver Island.
“So I guess everything comes full circle, eventually.”