The homegrown heart of the rapidly flourishing fungi frenzy is right here in St. Francisville
In the heart of West Feliciana Parish, Baton Rouge natives Maggie Long and Cyrus Lester—two halves who together make up Mushroom Maggie’s Farm—nurture their mushrooms from spore to spoon, producing fresh, flavorful fungi varieties such as blue oysters, lion’s mane, shiitake, king trumpets, and chanterelles, to name a few.
The couple, thanks to Long's previous career as a produce buyer for Whole Foods Market, already knew many farmers around the region and had long dreamt of joining their ranks by producing a homegrown labor of love of their own. “We felt like the hard work they did was not only important, but appreciated, too,” Long says.
Wanting to start small and carve out a niche for themselves, the couple conducted lengthy research on cost and cultivation methods, and spoke with area chefs and other farmers to gauge where there were gaps in locally grown produce. So when they started their business in 2016, they decided to focus on a crop no one else in the region was growing—mushrooms.
“We didn’t want to step on anyone's toes, and we noticed no one else was really doing mushrooms, which are also one of the most profitable cash crops to grow,” Lester says. “It just felt meant to be,” adds Long.
Overcoming the Odds
Unlike vegetables or grains, mushrooms require minimal space to grow, needing only square footage rather than open acreage. So the couple spent a year outfitting a small barn on Lester’s family land. All was going according to plan until an unexpected setback halted their progress in early 2017. An accidental barn fire landed Lester in the hospital and damaged the newly converted facility. Lester and Long spent the following year healing, rebuilding, and preparing to grow once more, receiving an outpouring of support from family and friends. By 2018, they were selling their specialty fungi full time. Mushroom Maggie’s quickly became a popular vendor at the Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge, often selling out, and the couple had begun distributing their locally grown gourmet mushrooms to boutique restaurants throughout the Capital Region and Greater New Orleans.
Lester and Long were harvesting about 1,000 pounds of mushrooms per week when the coronavirus pandemic struck last March. With most of their restaurant clientele closed, or open for curbside only, and the farmers market canceled indefinitely, they lost 90% of their normal revenue, Lester says.
Lester and Long worked with BSF Vice President of Commercial and Mortgage Lending Aimee Cook to apply for the most recent round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding provided by the Small Business Administration (SBA). Though they couldn't supply the prerequisite paperwork in time to qualify for the first round of funding last year, being such a new small business as they were. This time around, they reached out to BSF and Cook helped them get all their documentation in order to be eligible for funding.
“We love supporting local businesses whenever possible, of course, but it's really a no brainer with BSF,” Long says. “They're just so good to work with.”
Now as business slowly returns to normal, orders are starting to pour in again. As production steadily increases to its pre-pandemic pace, Lester and Long anticipate demand doubling, and potentially even tripling, its previous volume within the next year.
The Future of Sustainable Food
Currently, the pair produces between ten and fifteen different mushroom varieties on the farm during any given season, all of which are popular among customers for both their savory flavor and the many mental and physical health benefits they yield. Integrating mushrooms into your diet is proven to help prevent cognitive decline and impairment as you age such as with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, and reduce inflammation in the body.
“It's been so interesting, I like the fact that they are natural decomposers,” Long says, referring to the sustainable growing material, or fruiting blocks, that produce the funky fungi. “They're just these beautiful things growing off of agricultural waste products.” Long and Lester use sawdust sourced from a local mill and soybean hulls as growing material.
As Mushroom Maggie’s continue to expand operations, Long and Lester are bringing two more full-time farmhands onto the team, and are planning to purchase their own plot of land to build a permanent farming facility in the not-so-distant future, which they'll continue working with BSF to secure.
"Ideally we want to be making these moves by this time next year and have grown three times over," Long says. "However, this is projected based off of talking to people, watching the industries change, and seeing how we can fit into that, how we can help out and still be successful."
To learn more about how Bank of St. Francisville can help establish, grow, or expand your business, call 225-635-6397 or click here to schedule an appointment. To get more local stories like these in your inbox, sign up for our monthly e-newsletter here.