Lately we write about, feature and talk about entrepreneurs as if they’re growing on trees or falling from the sky. The numbers are skewed in Portland; in reality, this country is populated with a lot more people working for others. Starting a business is scary and risky, and few among us are predisposed to have a go at it. Eliah Thanhauser, Matt McInnis and Jon Carver are the exception. The three met in 2005 at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, freshmen and matriculating. McInnis shared, “We knew we wanted to start a business, but the reality of obstacles and the fear of losing what little money we had, made us think twice." The three, however, did not let fear get in their way; they started North Spore with very little capital and have allowed the business to grow slowly and thoughtfully.
These three young business partners fondly reflect on their college years. Their shared interest in foraging sent them into the woods; a respite from studying and a chance to do what they enjoyed most. The three graduated in 2009 and went their separate ways, never losing touch. Carver’s intense interest in mycology, a branch of biology dealing with fungi, led him to pursue and acquire a master’s in mycology at University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse. Soon after graduation, Carver accepted a position as a mycologist at Field and Forest Products, a company in Wisconsin — one of the nation’s leading mushroom spawn producers. Thanhauser and McInnis lived and worked in Berkeley, Calif., and returned to Maine in the spring of 2013. The three reunited in Maine and, in the summer of 2014, decided to start a mushroom cultivation, education and specialty business. McInnis was originally from Portland, Thanhauser from Belfast and Carver from Bennington, Vt.
If they’d had their druthers they would have preferred the business to be in Portland. They looked at commercial property in East Bayside and learned that they’d get twice as much space for a whole lot less in Westbrook. They occupied the space they are currently in nearly three months ago. Their operation looks out onto the Presumpscot River. Thanhauser is mesmerized by water and the changing levels of the river, an added bonus none of the three expected. How do the three of them spend their days at North Spore?
Thanhauser tells me with childlike enthusiasm, “I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong interest in organic farming. Even as a child I'd scheme up business ideas.”
North Spore is currently producing four species of mushrooms: Oyster, Shiitake, Lion’s Mane and Chestnut. They plan on cultivating other varieties as their business expands. Ebb & Flow in Portland asked the three if they would grow micro greens for their restaurant. They are growing arugula, tatsoi, amaranth and mild micro greens, solely for Ebb & Flow; a part of their business they may or not grow in the future. In addition, the three are making birch tree bitters. The bitters are made with birch syrup, birch cambium and Chaga mushrooms. I was also surprised to learn that they are producing Chaga tea; Chaga is said to reduce the risk of cancer and strengthen the immune system. No doubt these products will soon fly off their shelves.
The majority of North Spore's production is done in reusable food-grade containers instead of single-use plastic bags. More labor intensive than typical methods, but allows for much less waste. North Spore was recently awarded a Maine Technology Institute grant to continue developing low waste mushroom cultivation methods. These thoughtful business practices set them apart from their competition.
There is one other year-round mushroom producer in Maine and one in New Hampshire; both have been in business longer than North Spore and had much more startup capital. The three partners’ goal in starting North Spore was not only to be a mushroom producer, but to also be a community resource, hosting lectures and classes on mushroom foraging and cultivation and encouraging others to delve into the mycological world.
The group reported, “We are committed to producing mushrooms in a beyond organic, truly sustainable way. We produce as little plastic waste as possible and are constantly innovating and raising the bar on industry standards in order to do so. Other mushroom companies seek to grow without limits and supply mushrooms to national markets. Our vision is to supply high quality sustainably grown mushrooms to local markets.”
The more I have discovered about mushrooms, the more I realized how much there is to learn. I suspect I am like most people who have never ventured further than the portobellos and shiitakes sold at my local supermarket. The guys sell to Rosemont, my corner market. I recently felt empowered to try a variety I had never tasted; the beauty of Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushrooms caught my attention. I did a simple sauté with butter, cognac, sea salt and herbs de Provence. The taste and texture of these beautiful white mushrooms had me wondering why it has taken me so long to try them. They have a seafood like quality and nearly melt in your mouth. The Chinese have used Lion’s Mane mushrooms for medicinal purposes for centuries; its antioxidant effects, cancer-fighting agents and the reduction of blood glucose levels are just a few benefits.
Cultivated mushrooms can be purchased and enjoyed year round. North Spore’s busiest times are around the holidays and at the Common Ground Fair in Unity. Their Oyster Mushroom bucket kits are a huge seller — you can find these kits on the North Spore website,www.northspore.com, along with the chaga tea and other items. Thanhauser, McInnis and Carver share a story you have heard many times before. Running water and electricity in their first production space seemed like a gift. Their struggles have paid off. The three enjoy healthy banter, a slightly messy workspace, and make every attempt to keep their workweek to 40 hours. Their longstanding friendship has remained intact and their love of mushrooms has only gotten richer.
- Published in Feast