In an old auto garage bay just south of downtown, Sarah Smith and Jeff Magner pluck mushrooms straight from the air.
Plastic bags stuffed with straw dangle from the ceiling on string, with oyster mushrooms springing from holes cut into sides.
Smith and Magner search out the mushrooms ready for dinner plates and drop them in plastic buckets, hoping to send them on to consumers as quickly as possible.
Since January, the business partners at 1034 Mushrooms have been perfecting their process for growing mushrooms indoors.
They want to be able to grow year round and produce a reliable, regular yield of the spongy, popular fungus, an outcome that’s not always easy outdoors. Their dedication to growing indoors is rare in the Triangle.
“We’re always trouble-shooting and figuring out how to do better,” said Smith, 34.
They test whether the temperature is right and the humidity is sufficient in the plastic-sheeted room where their oyster mushrooms live.
They experiment with blends of sawdust and grains that their far pickier shiitakes will grow on.
They keep a sterile laboratory to ensure their goods, which also include lion’s mane mushrooms, get started right.
Smith has a background in microbiology and soil science. Magner, 58, owns MagnerVision, where he designs and builds mixed-media furniture and other work.
It’s a balance of interest and expertise they say has worked well as they’ve grown their business.
They sell through the weekly farmers market at Rebus Works by teaming with Double T Farm and supply mushrooms for The Produce Box, which provides weekly deliveries of North Carolina foods to consumers in the Triangle and elsewhere.
They’re producing 100 to 200 pounds per week, and their biggest barrier to increasing production now is labor. They hope the addition of a summer intern will boost their yield to as much as 300 to 400 pounds per week.
The process of pasteurizing straw, packing bags for the mushrooms to grow in and seeing them through the process can be wet, messy work.
It’s worth it, though, Smith and Magner said.
“It’s not the most glamorous thing, but it’s cool,” Magner said. “And when you see them start growing, that’s your satisfaction.”
From their workshop near Raleigh Reclaimed on South Saunders Street, downtown’s restaurant scene beckons to the pair. They want to work with chefs someday soon, but not until they know they’ve perfected the science and art of growing mushrooms.
“We want a reputation for high quality and for doing things no one else is doing,” Smith said.