Mushroom business, Buddhist retreat live side by side in Georgia mountains

Howard Berk, co-owner of Ellijay Mushrooms in North Georgia, poses with a log of oyster mushrooms amidst the eerie mist and blue light in one of the greenhouses on the farm. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Howard Berk, co-owner of Ellijay Mushrooms in North Georgia, poses with a log of oyster mushrooms amidst the eerie mist and blue light in one of the greenhouses on the farm. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Ellijay Mushrooms sells ‘fancier’ types to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants.

Driving north from Atlanta to Ellijay on a late summer weekday feels like skipping school.

The trip via I-75 to I-575 and Ga. 5 rolls past evocatively named towns, such as Ball Ground, Jasper and Talking Rock, before arriving at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Along the way, apple orchards, market stands, and vineyards dot the landscape. And as the altitude rises, and the air pressure drops, you soon catch a breath of cool mountain air.

The city of Ellijay (elevation 1,280 feet) is the county seat of Gilmer County, and known as the “Apple Capital of Georgia.”

But winding up Old Flat Branch Road, and trailing off onto a rutted dirt drive, you come upon a sign that reads “Ellijay Mushrooms.” Beyond lies a family-owned, sustainable food business built around a 170-acre plot, founded as a Buddhist learning center.

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Freshly harvested shiitake mushrooms sit in a bin and await packaging and shipping in the packaging building of Ellijay Mushrooms' farm in North Georgia. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Freshly harvested shiitake mushrooms sit in a bin and await packaging and shipping in the packaging building of Ellijay Mushrooms' farm in North Georgia. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Perched on lawn chairs in the shade of a tarp, Ellijay Mushrooms’ co-owners, Howard Berk and Megan Cai, tell the story of how they came together to grow and market what they call “magical fresh mountain ‘shrooms.”

“Megan, her sister and her husband purchased the land, and donated 140 acres back to the America Dhamma Society,” Berk said. “So except for during COVID, we have monks and nuns who come from all over the world to meditate and pray at the top of the mountain. And then, 30 acres are dedicated to the farm.”

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Megan Cai (right), co-owner of Ellijay Mushrooms, talks about the beginnings of the farm, the history of the property and some of the future projects for the land and buildings. Co-owner Howard Berk is with her. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Megan Cai (right), co-owner of Ellijay Mushrooms, talks about the beginnings of the farm, the history of the property and some of the future projects for the land and buildings. Co-owner Howard Berk is with her. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

When Cai, who practices Pa Auk Buddhism, began exploring businesses that could help fund the work of the retreat, she noticed mushrooms growing all around the property, and surmised it could be a good place to farm fungi.

To explore the possibility, she ordered a mushroom kit from 2FUNGUYS in Atlanta, which serendipitously turned out to be Berk’s first DIY mushroom company.

“I just gave him my idea, and what I wanted to do,” Cai said. “And then I took him up here, and he showed me how we could run this business.”

One of the projects underway at Ellijay Mushrooms' farm is the construction of new bigger and taller greenhouses for the mushrooms. As co-owner Howard Berk described, they learned early on that shorter greenhouses held way too much heat inside, which was not conducive to the dark, moist, cool environment that mushrooms require. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
One of the projects underway at Ellijay Mushrooms' farm is the construction of new bigger and taller greenhouses for the mushrooms. As co-owner Howard Berk described, they learned early on that shorter greenhouses held way too much heat inside, which was not conducive to the dark, moist, cool environment that mushrooms require. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

The site has been a work in progress ever since. That’s meant moving mountain dirt, building more roads, and adding greenhouses, Berk explained, as he led visitors on a tour of the operation.

“We grow food that we would want to eat ourselves,” Berk said. “We’ve been in the corporate world, but now we get to make the rules. We want to create change. One, by the environment we have for the people working here. And two, by changing one taste bud at a time.”

Oyster mushrooms bathe in the mist, darkness and blue light of one of the greenhouses on Ellijay Mushrooms' farm in North Georgia. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Oyster mushrooms bathe in the mist, darkness and blue light of one of the greenhouses on Ellijay Mushrooms' farm in North Georgia. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

To help farms increase production, the BioInnovation Laboratory at Kennesaw State University is partnering with growers like Ellijay, and providing technological assistance in the field of controlled environment mushroom agriculture.

That includes sensors, and containers with automated systems that monitor heat and humidity, giving the farmers the capability to grow “fancier mushrooms,” including the likes of lion’s mane and chestnut mushrooms, Berk said.

Currently, Ellijay is growing mushrooms year-round in double-layered greenhouses, with two sets of shade cloth that can be adjusted to allow more or less sun and heat, depending on the time of year and the time of day.

Greenhouses on Ellijay Mushrooms' farm have blackout material covering them to help keep the temperatures low for the mushrooms. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Greenhouses on Ellijay Mushrooms' farm have blackout material covering them to help keep the temperatures low for the mushrooms. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

The ideal temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees. And some greenhouses have heaters. But production is slower in the winter and much faster in the summer.

The first Ellijay mushrooms were harvested in October 2018, after a year spent developing the site, and propagating a crop of shiitake mushrooms.

The shiitakes are grown on substrate logs, which are a mix of hardwood sawdust, bran and shiitake mycelium, while oyster mushrooms are grown on wheat straw logs.

“Sometimes in the middle of summer, we have to harvest twice a day,” Berk said. “When we put the logs out, it’s five to 10 days in summertime. In wintertime, it’s anywhere from seven to 14 days before you can start harvesting.”

Shiitake mushrooms grow on one of the "logs" in Ellijay Mushrooms' greenhouses. They're grown on the logs until the logs lose their nutrients; then the logs are composted for future projects. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Shiitake mushrooms grow on one of the "logs" in Ellijay Mushrooms' greenhouses. They're grown on the logs until the logs lose their nutrients; then the logs are composted for future projects. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Stepping inside one of the greenhouses is a heady sensory experience. Row upon row of logs blooming with bright blue oyster mushrooms ready to be harvested glow through an eerie atmosphere of foggers and grow lights. The earthy aromas of wood and soil conjure a dank, rainy forest.

Berk describes oyster mushrooms as having a delicate seafood flavor, while shiitakes are more earthy and meaty. As far as “changing one taste bud at a time,” recent data on increasing mushroom consumption bodes well for the business. But there’s more work to be done, especially among people who think of mushrooms as slimy or weird-tasting, Berk allows.

Blue oyster mushrooms grow on "logs" at Ellijay Mushrooms' farm in North Georgia. When the logs are spent, they are composted for future projects. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Blue oyster mushrooms grow on "logs" at Ellijay Mushrooms' farm in North Georgia. When the logs are spent, they are composted for future projects. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

“We talk a lot about the health benefits of shiitakes,” he said. “They’re one of the mushrooms that have natural vitamin D, and they have tons of amino acids. Shiitakes are the other magic mushrooms. They lower your blood pressure. They lower your cholesterol. The health benefit of shiitakes is off the charts, with iron, zinc and all kinds of things.”

Thinning and harvesting mushrooms is delicate and difficult manual work, because the biggest, freshest, best-looking mushrooms are what chefs and markets want. Of course, those mushrooms tend to be the best-tasting, too.

“We say we have the Rolls-Royce of mushrooms, because of our mountain water,” Berk proclaimed. “It really makes a difference. That’s why the crepes in Paris are better, and the bagels in New York are better — because of the aquifer at both places.”

Ellijay Mushrooms co-owner Megan Cai (right) works with husband Li Cai in the packaging building of the farm. They are trimming the stems off the shiitake mushrooms just prior to boxing and shipping. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Ellijay Mushrooms co-owner Megan Cai (right) works with husband Li Cai in the packaging building of the farm. They are trimming the stems off the shiitake mushrooms just prior to boxing and shipping. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Ellijay Mushrooms enjoys a host of certifications, including Georgia Grown, Naturally Grown, and Appalachian Grown, but Certified Organic is the most difficult pinnacle the company has attained.

For wholesale, retail and restaurants, the mushrooms are meticulously cleaned and packed in 5-pound, 3-pound and 3.5-ounce recyclable cardboard boxes, and stored in a refrigerated walk-in.

Whole Foods is Ellijay’s biggest grocery account. But you can find its mushrooms at DeKalb Farmers Market, Oak Grove Market, Sevananda, Farmer & Fisherman and other neighborhood markets.

At Ellijay Mushrooms, 5-pound boxes await shipping in the packaging building on the farm. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
At Ellijay Mushrooms, 5-pound boxes await shipping in the packaging building on the farm. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

The company also sells to wholesalers, such as Royal Foods and Fresh Point, and direct to many Atlanta restaurants, and most Ellijay restaurants — including River Street Tavern, where you can order the hefty Tavern Burger, topped with sauteed shiitakes from just up the road.

Looking ahead, Berk envisions more growth and many more changes. “We’re about to finalize the purchase of the house across the creek, and we are going to have our certified kitchen there,” he said. “We’re going to start doing proper tours, and then, eventually, we’ll have a u-pick, too. Also, in the front of the pasture here, we’ll have food trucks and music, with a focus on education.”

For more information about Ellijay Mushrooms, visit ellijaymushrooms.com. Find more stories about Georgia farmers and recipes for their products at ajc.com/georgia-on-my-plate.

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