Mushrooms have their day in the sun

John Oncken
Portobellos are found in main entrees and sandwiches.

Mushrooms have never been foremost in my thoughts although I’ve been a fan of cream of mushroom soup, mushrooms fried in butter on a steak and, of course, the always present mushrooms on my pizza.

Yes, I watched a huge building being built, standing idle for a decade or so and finally being demolished near Sun Prairie. It was a planned mushroom growing facility that apparently “never worked” with investor Rural Mutual Insurance Co. losing big money.

And, I once visited a former dog research kennel complex near Willard in Clark county that I’d heard had been converted to growing mushrooms — maybe so, but, it was vacant when I visited years ago.

Ned Palm readies a case of packages mushroom for for delivery.

At the Farmers Market

Then I met Ned Palm at the Dane County Farmers Market selling boxes of mushrooms to a never-ending line of customers at his Palms Mushroom Cellar booth and, my curiosity was aroused. Especially after Palm invited me to visit his mushroom farm at Helenville in Jefferson county.

Palm is a local Jefferson county native, raised on a dairy farm, who, while in high school, worked on another Helenville mushoom farm that long ago went out of business. He then spent 10 years working for Schweiger Industries, a 105 year old furniture company in Jefferson

Spawn from Pennsylvania is the mushroom “seed.”

Started in 1980

“I started the mushroom company during the last three months of my employment at Schweiger,” he says. “The first two growing rooms were built in 1980."

"I worked at two places - it was long hours and I finally quit the job and went full time into the mushroom business."

“I lost money the first few years Palm,” remembers, “and I spent a lot of time ‘knocking on doors’ seeking customers for my mushrooms. Now they are knocking on my door wanting more mushrooms.”

Palm's Mushroom Cellar now grows and offers White Button, Cremini, and Portobello varieties that are are now sold at farmers markets, grocery stores in Milwaukee and Madison and to restaurants.

Mushrooms are grown in the dark in trays stacked six  high in frames.

It’s complicated

He now has eight growing rooms, several other buildings, eight employees, a fleet of delivery trucks and 37 years of experience and knowledge about the mushroom business — which to say the least — is complicated and requires a good bit of technology.

Mushrooms are grown in compost (not in soil). It begins with straw-based horse bedding brought in from horse farms in Kentucky and Illinois. We get it in big square bales weighing 1 to 1 1/2 tons, Palm explains. This goes through a long process that includes: breaking the bales into piles, adding some chicken litter, and adding water and raising the temperature to aid decomposition which occurs over a 15 day period. This process converts plant and animal products into a mixture of decayed organic matter called substrate which is the growing mix for mushroom production.

This bed of mushrooms is ready for picking.

The compost then goes into ‘the tunnel’ where it is pasteurized over a seven-day period which kills any pests that are present in the substrate. From there the compost goes to the growing trays where the spawn, brought from Pennsylvania is added. During the 15 day colonizing period a layer of sphagnum moss (from Canada) is added and carbon dioxide levels are high as the spores grow. “A week later you begin to see the pinheads,” Palm explains, “and nine days later you get mushrooms. “

Picked by hand

The mushrooms are picked by hand over a three-week period from the trays that are stacked six high in wooden frames.

After the final picking is completed the wooden frames and trays are removed from the growing room with help of an end loader and the trays of compost are emptied and the wooden frames washed.

Piled compost is sold to gardeners and landscapers with any remaining spread on Palm’s home farm — which he bought years ago — where he lives and cash crops.

Mushroom production has ranged from 10,000 to 12,000 pounds per week of but can be affected by any one of hundreds of little things. Currently production is down a bit but Palm thinks he has figured out why and is in the process of correcting it.

Mushrooms are grown in dark, windowless, temperature, humidity and air flow controlled "mushroom rooms." All the factors involved in growing the crop are computerized and available for Palm to view at his office or at home all the time.

After the mushrooms are picked, employees pack them in boxes of various sizes: half and full pound to ten pound boxes — depending on the customer — and put in the cooler until delivery.

Mushrooms are raised in a three months cycle beginning with making compost to final picking. It’s a labor intensive and technical business and there are only three or four commercial mushroom farms in Wisconsin.

Mushrooms are delivered to customers in southern Wisconsin.

Few growers

There are only 346 growers in the U.S. according to the USDA with a total production of 946 million pounds last year. Of those growers, 68 are located in Pennsylvania which produced 63 percent of all U.S. white mushrooms, valued at $554.4 million. Pennsylvania mushroom farms are family-owned and operated, some for as many as four generations. They use both conventional and organic agricultural practices and vary in size.

Stranger still is the fact that southeastern Pennsylvania’s Chester County's 61 mushroom farms account for 47 percent of total U.S. mushroom production, according to Pennsylvania's Agricultural Development Council. This means over 400 million pounds of mushrooms valued at $365 million, with an overall contribution to the local economy of an estimated $2.7 billion.

Good for you too

Mushrooms are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals but do not add many calories to your meal. They provide 25 calories per 1/2-cup cooked serving or 1-cup raw serving. Mushrooms also have the gift of making the foods around them taste better, while adding only very modest quantities of fat, calories or carbohydrates, thus nicely fit into most diets.

Mushrooms are grown in the big building on the left at Ned Palm's operation in Helenville.

Ned Palm has been raising mushrooms since 1980 and he’s getting about ready to take a vacation. “I haven’t missed a day of work in 38 years,” he says. “In three more years I‘ll be 70 and will quit one way or another. I’d like to find someone who would want to learn the business and eventually take it over. I’ll mentor them and teach them everything about running the farm and business. “

That’s called opportunity: A growing business, an under-supplied market and an education leading a profession. (He can be contacted at or 800-439-0858.

Meanwhile. I’ll keep eating mushrooms on my salads, grilled meats and pizza but knowing a lot more about them, thanks to Ned Palm, Jefferson county grower. If you aren’t doing so — you are missing a lot.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at