STARTUP: Prayer Mountain Mushrooms
PROPRIETORS: Andrew Barnes, Heather Gayler Barnes
NOTABLE CUSTOMERS: 610 Magnolia, Lilly’s Bistro, Gary’s On Spring and The Reynolds Grocery Company.
Andrew and Heather hatched their idea for mushroom farming not long after they met, but it wasn’t until 2013 and after years of planning and research they found their perfect setting in Upton and quietly set about putting their dream into action. They purchased the fifty acre farm, began building their greenhouses, and promptly began growing mushrooms. Not just any mushrooms, but gourmet Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms. After spending several hours touring their facilities and talking to them about their business, it occurred to me they are the quintessential American entrepreneurs.
To get their operation going, they invested their life savings in their property and business and they used conventional financing from a bank. They exemplify the concept of ALL IN and they not only have skin in the game – they have everything in the game. I was on my way to conduct my first interview for this column with Heather and Andrew Barnes, the founders of Prayer Mountain Mushrooms, a relatively new boutique agricultural enterprise, hidden away on the outskirts of the bustling metropolis of Upton, Kentucky (population 638). I was struck by the raw beauty of the area, with lush, green, rolling hills framed by patches of hardwoods and an occasional rustic barn. Finding them wasn’t easy because my nav app failed me. Thankfully they had given me written instructions which included turn at the yellow house on the corner. I turned down a well used, winding dirt road and after a half mile or so, I knew I had arrived because I saw four massive greenhouses. Well, that and because the road ended.
Like most startups they began with a business plan, but what sets them apart from many I’ve encountered is that they actually use their plan – almost daily. They didn’t write it to get financing or because that’s simply what you’re supposed to do. They actually wrote it to use as a plan. Imagine that. Their plan is a monster at 200 pages, but it serves them well. They recognize it as a important part of their business and when needed, they make changes. I had the opportunity to read their business plan and while it’s much more detailed than most I’ve read, it is quite frankly, the best I’ve ever seen.
Prayer Mountain Mushrooms have qualified for both Kentucky Proud and Homegrown by Heroes programs in Kentucky. Both programs are designed to help those in Kentucky agriculture succeed by promoting in-state farming operations. Andrew is a veteran of Navy special forces, having served two deployments to the middle east during his six years in his military service, which qualified them for Homegrown by Heroes. His education was centered in science and chemistry. Heather is a former firefighter and has worked in management consulting. They have a seven month old son named Jacob. Let’s just say, their backgrounds have prepared them for the hard work and discipline needed by successful entrepreneurs.
Like many entrepreneurial endeavors, the Barnes’ have encountered some difficult challenges. Some were near devastating setbacks, including the total destruction of one of their greenhouses during construction due to a freak wind and snow storm. An odd set of circumstances left them without the insurance protection they thought they had. Like true entrepreneurs, they overcame that and other obstacles and simply pressed on.
I asked the Barnes’ if they had run into any regulatory hurdles, which can often present barriers to startups. The only barriers they’ve encountered so far is with gaining certification for their produce to be labeled as organic. According to Andrew, “We don’t use any chemicals or fertilizers. We use only three ingredients in our substrate, all of them natural. Those ingredients are water, bran, and sawdust, but there is a chain of custody process that must be documented. “So, was the forest from where the trees to make our sawdust organic? How can you have a tree that’s not organic? It’s processes like these and many others that are required for the certification and right now, we’re not in a position to try to do that. We hope to reevaluate that in the future.”
“We don’t use any chemicals or fertilizers. We use only three ingredients in our substrate, all of them natural.”
The farm they bought wasn’t set up for mushroom farming so there was much work to do to get it ready. They began by building four large greenhouses. And when I say build, I mean they did it themselves and with whatever help they could get from family and friends. They are metal framed, with two layers of specialized plastic and a healthy does of R-14 insulation in between. This was no small feat since much of it was done during Heather’s pregnancy.
Getting the operation going wasn’t all about brawn though. There is some serious chemistry and science going on in this operation. I half expected Andrew to steal a line from The Martian by saying “we had to science the shit out of this.” The process of growing mushrooms requires precise measurement, a contamination free environment, heavy machinery, and uniquely designed equipment. They designed and built their own, proprietary autoclave used in preparation of their product. And they’re serious about their intellectual property too. They had their autoclave covered and wouldn’t allow me to see it or photograph it. You have no idea how badly that made me want to lift up that cover – not that I would have known what I was looking at.
In the burgeoning world of entrepreneurship with millions of dollars floating around from venture capitalists, it seems the attention is nearly always focused on technology. Someone is always pitching a new mobile app that will be the new Facebook, flapping their jaws about B rounds, elevator pitches, valuation methodologies, and debt and equity financing. But lurking in the background are many startups like Prayer Mountain Mushrooms that do it the old fashioned way by bootstrapping their businesses and using traditional financing methods. It might not be tech-sexy, but don’t let that fool you. Underneath this operation of growing mushrooms is some kickass on-the-fly engineering to accompany their science and chemistry.
Over the years, I’ve met and worked with many entrepreneurs. Some were successful, others were not. What I observed in Andrew and Heather were some crucial characteristics often missing in startups. Most startups are based on a passion of one variety or another, but they takes it to another level. Couple that with their intense drive for success, an incredible work ethic, and an obvious dedication to each other and you have that magical soup needed to succeed. I have no doubts about their continued success and look forward to watching them grow.
Prayer Mountain Mushrooms usually has a booth at the Hardin County Farmer’s Market. I stopped by this past Saturday and picked up a bag full of their shiitake mushrooms. Honestly, you really haven’t lived until you’ve had some of these delicious little jewels. I took them home with a few other goodies from the market, then sautéed them and put them on a juicy pork burger with some lettuce and swiss cheese. I nearly cried it was so good.
Prayer Mountain Mushroom Interesting Facts
Here are few other facts your might find interesting about their operation:
- They don’t use traditional advertising and prefer a more organic, grass roots approach through social media.
- They currently sell everything they grow, but have capacity for increased growth.
- They have hired their first employee and will likely hire more as they put expansion operations in place.
- Their model is scalable, allowing for more expansion in the future.
- They harvest their product every day.
- Their mushrooms are identified as premium, meaning this ain’t your grandma’s mushroom. Speaking from my considerable culinary consumptive talents, these things are delicious and not what you’ll typically find in a grocery store.
- Growing mushrooms requires an intimate knowledge of mycology, a branch of biology concerned with the study of fungi, including their genetic and biochemical properties and their taxonomy. I just knew I’d find some tech in this somehow.
- Depending on the variety of mushroom, the product can take from six weeks to six months before it can be ready for sale.