RIVERTON — Ten years ago in Idaho, Daniel Stewart discovered a nice little hobby that’s becoming a big business for him in Fremont County.
“I was working for a restaurant and (the owner) bought 20 pounds of morels that just looked like junk,” Stewart recalled.
Stewart knew of a morel patch, thanks to a friend who’d been showing him the foraging ropes, so he hooked the restaurant owner up with some much better mushrooms.
“That weekend I came back with 20 pounds of fresh-cut (morels) and they looked really great,” he said. “She paid me for them, and I was blown away that I could get paid to go camping.”
There were many “camping” trips after that, and it quickly became one of his favorite things to do for fun.
Even today, now that it’s become a little more than a hobby, Steward said he's still enthralled by what he finds in the woods.
“It’s hard for me to focus when I’m out there,” he said. “Just yesterday I was looking around and I was so surprised by the ecology and how many different fungi were growing. I really wanted to study all the other fungi, but I’m like, ’No, we’re here to pick some food and then get back down.’”
From Hobby To Business
Stewart and his wife moved to Riverton during the pandemic, and that’s when a new phase in Stewart’s mushroom hunting/camping hobby began.
“Coming from the mountains into the desert, you know, you’re limited on your wild mushrooms,” he said. “So, I learned how to cultivate.”
Oyster, lion’s mane, shiitake, and chestnuts were among his first cultivated mushrooms. He grew them in a little closet to start out with. Then, as the tiny operation grew in size, he started taking over other spaces in the house, and it wasn’t long before he was selling his excess mushrooms to others.
Stewart continued to develop new wild forage areas as well, places where he could gather things like porcini and his favorites, the chanterelles.
“They require a special relationship with the forest, and usually an older growth forest,” he said. “Somewhere about 60 years old that hasn’t been, you know clear cut. So, I don’t know any cultivator in the world that grows chanterelles. They just cannot be tamed, and that’s why they’re one of my favorites.”
The extra wild and cultivated mushrooms Stewart was finding and growing soon found shelf space at the Fremont Local Market, a business that sells a variety of local food products made by cottage businesses like Stewart’s. There’s everything from fresh-picked corn and goat milk to fresh salsa, tomatoes, honey, and more.
Stewart’s mushrooms don’t stay on the shelves for long at Fremont Local Market though.
“I’ll slice and dry these (porcini mushrooms) so I can offer the dry porcini as long as I have it,” he said. “Last year, we ran out of those by Christmas time. We had picked in September and were sold out by Christmas.”
The popularity of fresh mushrooms in the Riverton market has astounded Stewart.
He’s even had Jackson chefs from various restaurants ask about his mushrooms, but, for right now, he’s a sold-out show in Riverton.
“I can’t sell enough in Riverton to get up to Jackson,” he said. “I’m bought out here all the time. And I love that. I thought at first, ‘Well, these are fancy gourmet mushrooms. They’re only going to sell in places like Jackson. But that’s just not true. Everybody here likes mushrooms and there’s been a great response to our product.”
So great, in fact, that Stewart has a new business plan to scale his business up at least 10 times what it is now.
“We’ve been operating basically out of our house and the shop,” he said. “And that’s been my biggest bottleneck is the amount of space that I have just working out of my home. But so now we’re moving into a facility in the back portion of the Fremont Local Market.”
As part of that, Stewart anticipates he’ll soon have some job openings to scale up his mushroom hobby business into a much bigger business than it’s already become.
New Products On The Way
As part of his expansion, Stewart is developing some new products. Those are going to include biodegradable packaging made from inedible mushrooms.
There’s also a line of mushroom coffees and cocoa, made from his own powdered mushroom blend.
“We formulated a blend of five different mushroom powders,” he said. “So dehydrated lion’s mane, reishi, chaga, cordyceps and turkey tail.”
Cordyceps is a mushroom that people who are familiar with the movie, “Last of Us,” might recognize. The movie features Jackson Hole as the last bastion of civilization left in the world after a cordyceps fungus mutates and takes over humanity.
“The zombie mushroom,” Stewart said. “That one’s really fun actually, because it’s true that it takes over the minds of ants and things, but it’s actually extremely beneficial to our immune system.”
Turkey tail, meanwhile, has been shown to reduce stomach cancer, Stewart said, and reishi is known as an anti-inflammatory mushroom.
“Lion’s mane is known to help mental clarity and focus,” he said. “A lot of people struggling with brain fog from you know, whatever, use it because there’s no caffeine crash.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.