Jim Shaffer shows off king trumpets.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN
The story begins with an RV barn and no RV.
Jim Shaffer and Stacy Andrews were living along the outskirts of Yucca Valley, looking for something interesting to do. Their eyes kept going back to this empty structure on their property.
They discussed a few ideas for the RV barn. Some kind of vertical garden, maybe, so they’d have fresh produce all winter long. Perhaps microgreens? Sprouts?
Shaffer, a software programmer, and Andrews, a retired elementary school teacher, were also hoping to make a little extra income. There were already people growing microgreens, and the couple didn’t want to compete with existing businesses.
But there was something nobody else was doing: mushrooms.
“We both come from Michigan, which is bountiful with fresh mushrooms, and we missed that,” Shaffer says. “It seemed unbelievable we couldn’t get that here.”
Over long, rambling walks in Pipes Canyon with their dog, Sadie, on a trail that runs alongside a small creek, the idea began to take shape.
They ordered a couple of kits from a mushroom farm — blue oyster and lion’s mane — just to see how it would go. Then they bought books, watched YouTube videos, and reached out to established mushroom farms for advice. Shaffer’s mushrooms took over one room in the house while he constructed the necessary spaces and shelving system inside the barn. Finally, they named the venture Canyon Creek Mushrooms, after the canyon where they spent so much time hiking.
The business seemed to balloon as quickly as the mushrooms did. Canyon Creek’s first mushroom crop grew in September 2019. By January 2020, they had a stand at their first farmers market. Restaurant sales quickly followed, with Farm, Trio, and Workshop Kitchen + Bar in Palm Springs and Giant Rock Meeting Room in Landers clamoring for fresh fungi.
While they figured out their system and determined the yield, the couple grew far more mushrooms than necessary to ensure they had enough to sell and meet demand from restaurants.
“We ate a lot of mushrooms in the beginning. I was canning them, we were dehydrating them, we found every creative use for mushrooms,” Andrews shares. “We were giving boxes away.”
The demand grew, but the space didn’t. Canyon Creek Mushrooms had reached its capacity in Yucca Valley. It was time to take their spores elsewhere.
It’s fair to say that mushrooms everywhere are having a moment.
Besides the creeper cordyceps fueling the postapocalyptic HBO series The Last of Us, the fungus is popping up in places you might not expect. Natural foods stores are rife with mushroom “coffee” and mushroom “hot cocoa.” Powders power up morning smoothies and infused moisturizers fight the signs of aging. Luxury designer Stella McCartney recently launched a line of garments and handbags made from lab-grown mushroom leather. And architects and engineers around the world have been experimenting with sustainable materials made with mycelium, the network of fibers from which mushrooms grow.
The demand is also driven, perhaps more expectedly, by those who consume mushrooms as a plant-based food option. A rich source of vitamins and minerals, mushrooms have long been used for their healing properties. They’re beneficial for building immunity and helping the body adapt to stress, and the modern wellness industry has begun to tap into this. Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, for instance, has his own brand of functional mushroom blends for athletes, as well as a partnership with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams.
Altogether, the global mushroom market reached $63 billion in 2022, according to the International Market Analysis Research and Consulting Group. They predict the market will reach $90.4 billion by 2028 — impressive for a humble fungus.
“When we first started, there weren’t that many mushroom farms,” Shaffer says. “Now every medium-sized town has at least one. The industry has really taken root.”
The current ’shroom boom also had an assist by the documentary Fantastic Fungi, by award-winning filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, in which stunning time-lapse footage takes viewers into the world of the living substratum beneath our feet.
“There was a boom building up, and that film pushed it right over the edge,” says mycologist Dylan Evans, who works at Canyon Creek. “Now everybody wants to be around mushrooms.”
That includes Canyon Creek production manager Tom Silva, who was inspired to break into the industry after watching the documentary on Netflix.
“Within 15 minutes, I was at the edge of my seat,” Silva recalls. “That same night, I opened my laptop and started searching for mushroom farms.”
Canyon Creek Mushrooms relocated to its current home, a warehouse in Palm Desert, in July 2021. There’s a retail shop in the front, where customers can stop by for fresh mushrooms and housemade goodies like dehydrated mushrooms, powdered lion’s mane, and oyster mushroom jerky.
The business focuses on 11 strains of tree-based fungi. That is, nothing is grown in manure. Instead, the mushrooms begin in one of the back rooms at the warehouse — the lab — where the work is conducted in front of HEPA flow hoods, the same kind of filters you’d see in surgical rooms. A sterile environment is important so that mold and bacteria aren’t introduced.
First, mushroom cultures are placed on agar inside small petri dishes. After the mycelium has expanded to cover the plate, that network of fungi is migrated to bags of sterilized sorghum. Mushrooms, it turns out, love grain, so after about two weeks, the contents of the bag are almost completely fuzzy and white.
Eventually, that grain spawn is broken up and added to blocks of substrate — Canyon Creek makes their own blocks from sawdust and soy hulls — and transferred into a cool, humid grow room. That’s where the mushroom magic happens.
“We take a lot of pride in being able to do this in the desert. It’s a very anti-mushroom climate.”
When the fully colonized bricks become white, the tops of the bags are sliced open, allowing all that fungi energy to be channeled into pin sets, which is the first stage of mushroom formation, and then fruiting bodies, what we recognize as fully grown mushrooms. This maturation phase happens so fast, Canyon Creek harvests twice a day.
“We take a lot of pride in being able to do this in the desert,” Shaffer says. “It’s a very anti-mushroom climate.”
Right now, the farm harvests about 700 pounds of mushrooms per week. Any fresh mushrooms that aren’t immediately sold are used for the company’s dried mushrooms, jerky, and powders. Future plans include a line of mushroom-infused butters and vegan bacon bits made from pink oysters. There’s also room to expand. “When I say this is a hobby that got away,” Shaffer says, with a laugh, “I’m not exaggerating.”
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