Most people accustomed to Canadian cuisine have likely tried some kind of mushroom but don’t know much about the growing process, health benefits or how to cook with them. Local fungus grower John Findlay, however, dedicated his life to the craft.
Growing and selling mushrooms is a uniquely difficult business. This raises the question, what does it take for someone to get into this line of work?
Findlay was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, where he joined the 49th Field Artillery Regiment in 2001. Three years later, he moved to Trenton, ON, still working for the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The aircraft mechanic was also deployed to Afghanistan for a brief period.
In 2011, when his time in the Canadian Armed Forces ended, he moved back to his hometown without a clear career path in mind.
“I didn't have a concrete plan, I didn't really know where to start. I eventually got a job working in a warehouse where I evolved into a delivery driver over the years.”
Amid his long hours driving, Findlay listened to some podcasts about self-sufficiency. Offering life advice, these podcasts often stress the importance of finding a niche in one’s community that is a) lacking and b) resonates with one.
Meanwhile, Findlay took an interest in farming and visited the Mill Market regularly.
“During this time, the Sault Ste. Marie Mill Market was still fairly new to the Sault. I noticed a fair amount of younger farmers, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” he said.
He noticed, however, that there were no farmers consistently selling mushrooms.
In October 2017, Findlay learned of a 30-day mentorship with mycologist (mushroom biologist) Paul Stamets and signed up.
This was the first step in setting up his soon-to-be business: Findlay’s Fungus.
He grows up to 10 varieties of mushrooms at a time.
To Findlay, fungus growing is part of a healthy community. The Saultite is “fascinated by all the things mycology can offer health-wise.”
Findlay wonders, how can these health benefits be applied to the Sault?
“I know there is talk of the consequences to living in a steel town, and that a lot of people are dealing with a lot of health issues in our community. What if these mushrooms are a part of the ideal situation that gives us back our health?”
But starting a business – even a healthy one – has its struggles.
“There are never-ending hurdles to create any sort of product,” said Findlay. “It's been very difficult. Algoma Public Health unit has limited knowledge of mushrooms, they advise going through Health Canada.”
He finds communicating with Health Canada “quite the chore” sometimes, partly because they refer “to mushrooms as vegetables, which they’re not at all. It needs its own category with its own processes.”
Findlay also pointed to a couple of other issues, including the cost of nutritional facts labels, which costs $1,500.
“When you watch experienced growers talking about their businesses they will tell you it's the hardest thing they have ever done,” he said.
Despite this, according to Findlay, the mushroom business has been relatively unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Being a mushroom farmer, everything is to be kept meticulously: you’re always wearing a mask — either the surgical one-time-use kind that I would use in my laboratory or the half-face mask I wear anytime I’m entering my fruiting chamber.”
“Gloves are worn and everything is always wiped down with a high percentage alcohol to ensure cleanliness.”
He said that the Mill Market is the only one of his work environments that have changed, with vendors wearing masks and barriers being put up.