Heartwood Mushrooms fungi farm a labour of love

Oyster mushrooms sprout from their soybean husk and millet nurturing bags. photo by Michael Erskine

LITTLE CURRENT – Shane O’Donnell and Jaime Rowntree found a shared passion for all things mycelium just moments after they met at the Northern Ontario Permaculture Institute (NOPRI) grounds in Honora Bay a few years ago; that passion eventually led the couple to establish Heartwood Mushrooms, a production facility based in Little Current.

“When I met Jamie she was holding the same mushroom textbook in her hands,” recalled Mr. O’Donnell. “I said ‘do you want to grow mushrooms together?’ and she said ‘yes’.”

“I think we gave each other a high five bump,” laughed Ms. Rowntree.

Mr. O’Donnell discovered Manitoulin Island while on a cycle tour with a friend. “We found Justin Tilson and NOPRI though a website called warmshowers.org,” he recalled.

Mr. Tilson, the founder of NOPRI and a strong local food proponent showed Mr. O’Donnell and his friend how to inoculate logs to create mushroom factories.

Ms. Rowntree, meanwhile, had worked at a mushroom farm in Guelph. “I was interested for a long time, but it was not easy to find a place where you could go and find out how it was done,” she recalled.

As a result, a lot of what the couple have learned about mushroom production has been “self taught” but they did get a significant knowledge boost thanks to their association with NOPRI. 

“Justin sponsored us to the radical mycology conference in New York State,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “That really served as a catalyst to get Heartwood Mushrooms off the ground.”

At the conference the couple discovered a whole universe of like-minded mushroom aficionados—among them people who were successfully operating small yield mushroom operations. “That connected us with some people in the field and we realized ‘hey, we can do this’,” said Ms. Rowntree.

“I had an aunt who was interested in wild foraging,” said Ms. Rowntree. “I would message my aunt and she would tell me what it was I was looking at. I became interested in foraging myself.”

No, the photo isn’t blurry, it’s just really misty inside the grow rooms at Heartwood Mushrooms’ Cockburn Street production facility in Little Current. Co-owners Jaime Rowntree and Shane O’Donnell took The Expositor on a tour of the facility.

As for her arrival on Manitoulin Island, it was literally just a matter of luck.

“It was totally in a raffle,” she laughed. “My friend won a raffle for a stay at Freer Point Cottages. She asked me to share the prize with her.”

Both Ms. Rowntree and Mr. O’Donnell discovered a world populated with “incredible people” and a unique ecology and lifestyle that struck a deep chord within each of them.

“We liked what we saw and ended up staying,” said Ms. Rowntree.

Heartwood Mushrooms began with the spore of a concept, but it was a couple of years of planning and research that went into building the business case, and plan, that enabled the couple to obtain funding to start the business.

Then, over the course of a decidedly bitter winter, the couple laboured to erect a building containing the specialized rooms and equipment necessary to produce commercial quantities of artisanal mushrooms. That equipment includes a laboratory where the mushroom strains are nurtured and inoculated into millet packs, a custom mixing unit where carefully measured amounts of soybean husks, water and millet come together to produce the grow medium from which the mushrooms spring. Apparently, unlike the old joke about mushrooms, there is no manure of any kind involved—it’s not all that dark either, just a carefully adjusted environment with indirect light and the perfect humidity to convince the mycelium to send up the mushrooms, essentially the “flower” the organism uses to propagate.

Today, oyster mushrooms grown in the company’s Cockburn Road facility in Little Current can be found at The Island Jar and Andrew Orr’s Valu Mart in Little Current, Gore Bay and are soon to be found in a grocery outlet near you. “We are in talks with some businesses in Sudbury as well,” said Mr. O’Donnell. The couple also attends most of the Island farmers’ markets. “We are actively looking for more markets, so give us a call.”

Expansion plans are in the offing, now that the basic oyster mushroom production has had its kinks worked out, Heartwood is setting out to produce other popular species, including the very tasty Lion’s Mane variety.

Heartwood Mushrooms can be contacted through email at grow@heartwoodmushrooms.ca; through their Facebook page, website or Instagram, or you could contact them by phone at 519-217-9219.