NEW LEBANON, Ohio – In a small humid tent, rows and rows of fungi in countless shapes, sizes and colors, line the walls as cultivators collect the day's harvest. In the not-too-distant future, they’ll be on grocery shelves or in restaurants across Ohio.
For founder David Sparks, a veteran turned full-time mushroom grower, it’s been a whirlwind to see how a hobby he picked up a few years ago has turned into a full-scale co-op business and he hopes Guided by Mushrooms will only grow from here.
Sparks said it began as a fascination. He wanted to learn a little bit more about mushrooms and try his hand at growing, fully understanding it wouldn’t be a typical gardening process.
“I went to the internet,” he said. “I saw other people doing it on social media.”
The more he read, the more interested he became. Soon Sparks was mixing substrates in his garage, usually a little bit of wood pellets and water for the fungus to consume. Then he started introducing cultures, hoping the fungus would colonize the wood. Then he’d take it to a warm, moist tent and watch the magic happen.
“Depending upon the kind of mushroom they are, some will be a week-long, some will be two weeks,” he said.
Eventually, Sparks said he had enough tasty Oyster mushrooms and other varieties he was willing to share.
“I had a friend who was a chef, and so I took a bag to her. She took that bag into work and before I knew it, there were chefs knocking and calling me and they said these mushrooms are amazing,” he said. “We just kept growing, and the numbers worked out.”
From there, Sparks just kept growing, taking on the mushroom-growing business full-time around late 2019, selling to grocery stores and restaurants. Then the pandemic hit.
“That knocked out most of our restaurant clients,” he said.
Undeterred, Sparks started looking for other ways to get his mushrooms to market, experimenting with growing medicinal mushroom varieties and creating seasonings. Now those products have opened up a large online direct retail market that’s helped the business grow, eventually exceeding the potential of Sparks’ own home.
“We were growing 300 lbs of mushrooms out of there and we kept getting customer after customer after customer,” he said.
In 2022, Sparks moved Guided by Mushrooms into a new home in New Lebanon, and with a growing staff, the co-op has expanded their output tremendously, even recruiting a few converts to the mushroom business, like co-owner Michael Goldstick.
“I actually was a mushroom hater,” he said. “I used to work in a pizza place and I was the deluxe, no mushroom guy until David started messing around with mushrooms in his garage that I started getting interested in the actual cultivation side of it.”
Besides growing the business, Sparks said he’s been proud to include a charitable side to his work, donating thousands of pounds of gourmet mushrooms to Dayton’s House of Bread Community Kitchen, and opening up a portal on their website to keep donations coming.
“It’s getting healthy food into the bellies of people who need it like we all do,” he said.
For now, Sparks said his goal is to keep expanding access to his mushrooms across Ohio, though he’s happy to have found a nationwide market through his shelf-stable products.
Sparks said out-of-state mushroom sales may come down the road, but until then, his focus is growing the best mushrooms he can, creating a few proprietary strains, and learning as much as he can about his favorite fungi.
“It’s really something that you get to know as you get your hands dirty with it and you just learn more and more and more and you never stop learning about mushrooms,” he said.