Fort Ripley mushroom farm continues to grow and bloom

A row of logs growing shiitake mushrooms.
A row of logs growing shiitake mushrooms.

Matt Ratliff and his wife Chrissy are not originally from the Fort Ripley area. In fact, they grew up in St. Cloud with little to no agricultural background. However, that hasn’t kept them from becoming one of the most productive mushroom farms in the state of Minnesota while also developing a business as suppliers of inoculant and other equipment to allow consumers to grow their own mushrooms at home.

“My wife and I had a chance to move up to Fort Ripley to take over an old family property, We’d never gardened before, so we decided to give it a try. The first year everything failed,” said Ratliff.

The couple was not deterred and they spent their free time learning everything they could about various forms of horticulture. Eventually Matt went back to school for a degree in horticulture and Chrissy would obtain a degree in viticulture, which focuses on growing grapes.

Beyond gardening, the couple also became involved in aquaponics, raising Tilapia. “It was when we started aquaponics that we became a commercial farm,” Ratliff said.

Shortly after this time, Matt was laid up for three months after a full knee reconstruction. “I was laid up with nothing else to do but read. I’d really started taking an interest in mushroom cultivation, so I dove right in and started researching while my knee was recovering,” he said.

“I really developed a passion for mycelial restoration and remediation,” Ratliff said.

Over the course of six years the farm, now known as Fruits, Nuts and Vegetables Farm LLC, has continued to grow and develop on the 10-acre property near Fort Ripley. While the farm does sell some general produce, like tomatoes and peppers at regional farmer’s markets, they have come to specialize in producing mushrooms for markets and regional restaurants as well as selling mushroom growing kits on a wholesale level.

A pink oyster mushroom.
A pink oyster mushroom.

On the farm they produce a wide array of mushrooms, including eight different types of shiitake, 14 different types of oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane mushrooms, maitake mushrooms, and three different varieties of morels.

“I remember when we first started selling pink oyster mushrooms at the farmer’s markets. At first people thought it was some strange kind of pink flower,” Ratliff said.

Selling mushroom kits through mail order in major gardening catalogs has also been a source of continued growth for the farm. “We sell mushroom kits, inoculants and mushroom growing equipment nationwide. Most of these are for mushrooms that grow on logs or other medium. We don’t grow portobello or button mushroom kits,” explained Ratliff.

“Growing your own mushrooms is actually a lot easier than you might think,” said Ratliff. “One of our biggest hits is our Ready to Fruit kit available in six different varieties of oyster mushroom. You just punch holes, the mushrooms start to grow and you can harvest them in a few weeks.”

“We jokingly call it Instant Gratification in a Box!” he said.

For people that are interested in getting more involved in the process, Ratliff offers some advice for successful log cultivation of mushrooms.

“Make sure to keep your plugs refrigerated and do not open the bag until you are ready to inoculate your logs. You should never use larch or tamarack logs. The best log selection will vary depending on the type of mushroom you want to grow. Walnut, elm, black locust and ash are often the most successful option for mushrooms that want to grow on hardwood logs,” explained Ratliff.

Oyster and chicken of the woods mushrooms prefer to grow on less dense hardwood logs like aspen, poplar and cottonwood.

“Harvesting logs only from trees which are alive and healthy is vital to your success. Rotting, diseased, or trees that have any mushroom already growing should be avoided, as well as trees already with a fungus growing on them,” Ratliff added.

Logs should be 4 to 7 inches in diameter for all shiitake and oyster varieties. Larger diameter logs generally take longer to colonize, but are well suited for larger mushroom species like maitake, lion’s mane and chicken of the woods.

“The best time to cut logs is from the late fall, after the leaves have fallen, until spring, right before the buds appear. During this time the sugar content is the highest, thus giving your mushrooms what they need to grow,” said Ratliff.

Ratliff also explained that very early spring is the best time to inoculate as it will allow all summer for the culture to colonize the logs. If you inoculate in the early spring your logs may give your first batch of mushrooms in late fall. You can inoculate anytime during the year, as long as you keep in mind that you will not get any mushrooms until at least six warm months have passed.

Inoculant kits also include instructions for plugging, shocking and watering the logs if it is pertinent to the type of mushroom to be grown.

Ratliff also cautions that some people have unknown allergies to mushrooms. Before trying a new type of mushroom, people need to be sure to cook it thoroughly to make sure they don’t have an allergic reaction. No matter how careful one is about sourcing the best log possible or keeping other fungus out of a plugged log, it is sometimes possible for another fungus to get into a log. People should never eat a mushroom that they cannot identify.

The future looks bright for Fruits, Nuts and Vegetables Farm LLC, as they look to purchase additional land nearby in hopes of growing grapes to start a farm winery. Ratliff also continues research and development on new species of mushroom or rare mushroom species that can be remediated.

“One of my biggest projects right now is developing a species of morel mushroom that will fruit in the fall,” said Ratliff. “I think it would be really great to be able to provide morels when they’d otherwise be out of season.”

Ratliff is passionate about helping people be successful with growing their own mushrooms.

“I teach through the University of Minnesota Extension Office and NDSU. Anyone interested in learning how to grow their own mushrooms can follow our Facebook page for information and tutorial videos,” said Ratliff.