Shawn and Jennifer McDyre start texting each other hours before they get home from work every day about what has to be done on their farm west of Kalispell. Each text exchange adds another chore to their never-ending list of tasks. There are weeds to pull, soil to turn and veggies and herbs to harvest.
“When we come home from work, we hit the ground running and we work until the sun goes down,” Jennifer said.
Shawn is a structural engineer and Jennifer is a medical assistant. They also have a 3-month-old boy named Walden. All that, plus a working farm, means the McDyre family is busy — so busy that there’s little time for fun.
But there are plenty of fungi.
Besides growing veggies and herbs, the McDyres’ Sun Hands Farm also grows mushrooms and is on its way to becoming one of the first certified organic mushroom farms in Montana. It’s also one of the only operations in the Flathead Valley that regularly produces mushrooms that can be purchased at local farmers markets. Currently, Sun Hands Farm can produce about 25 pounds a week during the growing season, and the McDyres hope to increase that harvest in the coming months.
Shawn became fascinated with mushrooms a few years ago and said it’s an offshoot of his interest in home brewing. Jennifer said her husband has become so fascinated with fungi that she’s dubbed him “the mushroom man.”
“I’m a nerd at heart and I just love microbiology,” Shawn said.
Shawn and Jennifer grew up near Philadelphia but have always had an appreciation for the wide-open spaces of the West. Shawn in particular became obsessed with Montana following a trip after high school graduation in the early 2000s. He came back every year, and Jennifer started joining him after they met in 2012. It was during a hike to Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park the following year that they decided to move to Montana for good.
The couple first landed in Billings in 2014 because they were able to find jobs there, but they knew it was only temporary. Western Montana is where they wanted to be. Nonetheless, Shawn found ways to feed his interest in microbiology and agriculture in Billings by growing mushrooms out of his garage. It was a crop of trial and error at first, but over time, he got better. By the time the couple purchased a few acres of land west of Kalispell and moved in 2017 to build the farm they had always dreamed of, they were ready to get into the mushroom business.
After turning about an acre of hayfield into fertile ground for crops, Shawn erected a small greenhouse for his mushrooms. Shawn has two methods of growing mushrooms: from sawdust blocks and from hanging hay bags. He mixes the sawdust or hay with a seed, usually ryegrass that has been immersed in a liquid culture to produce specific types of mushrooms, like shiitake or oyster. Both the solid sawdust blocks and the hay are put into plastic bags ahead of the colonization phase. During the colonization phase, the bags are kept in a dark area at room temperature with about 70 percent humidity for two to three weeks. Then they are moved into the greenhouse for the fruiting phase where the humidity is increased to 90 percent and they get natural light. Full-grown mushrooms usually show up two or three weeks after that, depending on the variety.
“We’re taking a waste product that would have ended up in a landfill and we’re turning it into a high-value food product,” Shawn said.
There are three keys to growing mushrooms in the greenhouse: temperature control, humidity and continuous air exchange.
“Mushrooms have more in common with us than they do plants,” Shawn said. “Mushrooms breathe in oxygen and expel CO2. Plants do just the opposite. That’s why we have these vents in here to bring in fresh air.”
Keeping the greenhouse clean is also key because the perfect conditions for growing mushrooms are also perfect for growing unwanted things, like mold. Shawn is constantly ensuring the greenhouse is free of mold, and if he finds any on one of the sawdust blocks or in the hay, he disposes of it.
As the summer heats up, Shawn and Jennifer are harvesting their mushrooms about once a week. Some of them end up in the hands of their CSA members and others are sold to local caterers. They also sell them at the Kalispell Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Bigfork Village Market on Mondays.
In addition to growing and selling mushrooms, Shawn is also preaching the health benefits of fungi. Earlier this spring, he gave a lecture about growing mushrooms at the Free The Seeds workshop at Flathead Valley Community College.
Shawn and Jennifer hope to eventually expand their greenhouse and grow more mushrooms in the future, perhaps even year-round. There are also a few more acres of hayfield that could be turned into fertile ground for more crops. That will mean more work and longer days for the couple, but it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make. For Shawn and Jennifer, working the land and providing food for their community are values they want to live by.
“We believe you need to be present in where you live,” Jennifer said. “We want to be able to give back to our community and our land.”
For more information, visit www.SunHandsFarm.com.