The fungus among us: Sumano’s Organic Mushrooms fills a mycological niche

Oyster mushrooms are a big seller for Sumano's.
(Via Edhi Ortiz)

Sumano’s Organic Mushrooms sells about 40,000 pounds of mushrooms a month, and you can find them not only at the likes of New Leaf but also at the New Natives organic microgreens booth at a number of Santa Cruz County farmers markets.

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What do buttons, trumpets and oysters have in common? You can probably find them lurking together in an I-spy book or featured on the cover of a National Geographic magazine. But more important for food lovers, they’re all varieties of mushrooms.

Brothers Luis and Edhi Ortiz, of Sumano’s Organic Mushrooms, are quite familiar with these flavorful fungi. Sumano’s, a San Juan Bautista farm founded in 2017, is one of the only farmers market sellers that exclusively grows mushrooms, but you won’t find its booth at Santa Cruz County farmers markets.

Sumano’s sells about 40,000 pounds of mushrooms a month. To put that in perspective, that’s about the weight of an elephant’s worth of fungi each week.

A majority of Sumano’s mushrooms are sold wholesale to grocery stores and to shippers/handlers like Coke Farms and Charlie’s Produce, which act as intermediaries between growers and other businesses. Most of their sales go to retailers in San Francisco, but in Santa Cruz you can find their mushrooms at groceries stores like New Leaf Community Markets and Watsonville’s Coast Produce.

You can also find them at the New Natives organic microgreens booth at farmers markets across the county. Looking to sell organic mushrooms, New Natives reached out to Sumano’s to form a partnership in 2011, when Sumano’s was known as Ortiz Mushroom Farm, giving the business access to a key community outlet.

Farmers markets were an integral part of Sumano’s business growth from the beginning, initially making up 80% of sales, and providing it the essential boost it needed to grow. Though now farmers markets make up only about 10% of sales, without the markets, Edhi Ortiz says, “I don’t think Sumano’s Organic Mushrooms would exist.”

Currently, Sumano’s grows five varieties: pink, black and yellow oyster mushrooms, as well as shiitakes and lion’s mane. Shiitake is the most popular, says Edhi, followed by lion’s mane and oyster. Next year, he hopes to tackle king trumpet mushrooms, an infamously difficult variety to cultivate.

Luis (left) and Edhi (right) Ortiz of Sumano's Organic Mushrooms
Luis and Edhi Ortiz of Sumano’s Organic Mushrooms.
(Via Edhi Ortiz)

“Mushrooms are so healthy,” says Edhi Ortiz. “They have amazing medicinal benefits.” Among other things, mushrooms are said to reduce inflammation, relieve anxiety, boost the immune system, and even protect against dementia. Ortiz is often surprised to learn the diverse ways that his customers use them — for instance, adding dried lion’s mane to coffee for an extra medicinal kick.

Though the land and business are owned by Ray Sumano of Sumano’s bakery in Watsonville, Esteban, the oldest Ortiz brother, started the business, while Edhi and Luis, the middle and youngest brothers, respectively, manage the day-to-day operations. In fact, Sumano’s Organic Mushrooms was originally named Ortiz Mushroom Farm, when Esteban opened the business believing mushroom cultivation would be a good investment. Luis and Edhi later took over, before uncle Ray bought the land and business, thus providing additional capital and a new name.

Like their mushrooms, however, the Ortiz brothers were initially in the dark. Lacking a mycological background, mushroom cultivation wasn’t an easy process to jump into.

“Mushroom growing requires a lot of knowledge,” explains Edhi Ortiz. “They are really delicate, really difficult to grow.”

And how does Sumano’s cultivate its mushrooms? In general, it goes through a four-step process, beginning with the base, or substrate, a sawdust mixture which the mushroom spores colonize. Mushrooms then go through three phases before they are harvested: inoculation, incubation and growth.

Today, 16 greenhouses stretch across 3 acres, and the operation has 7 more acres it can expand into. Twelve of these greenhouses are incubators, while the other four are growing houses for the already-incubated mushrooms. As Sumano’s sees more demand, Luis and Edhi expect to build two more incubator greenhouses next year. Thirteen full-time employees maintain these greenhouses, and more could be hired in the next year.

As it turns out, mushrooms are a finicky crop to cultivate. Not only are they delicate, but the growing process is long (at least three months), and it’s difficult to tell when something is going wrong in the first couple weeks. When it comes to shiitakes and oysters, malignant bacteria can develop at any stage of the inoculation process.

As Ortiz explains, “The system is really difficult, because you won’t be able to tell until two to three weeks later if the mushroom has been contaminated.”

Sumano loses about 3% of its crop a year to contamination, which Ortiz explains is par for the course. While the substrate and inoculation phases of cultivation require complete sterilization, it’s impossible for growers to sterilize 100% of their materials and environment all of the time. The unsterilized bacteria then flourish and interfere with a mushroom’s growth. A small percentage of contamination is expected: “Three percent is good and [we can] still be successful.” On the other hand, over 5%, Ortiz explains, and a grower is in danger of losing profit.

Sumano's Organic Mushrooms incubated mushrooms
Mushrooms incubating in one of the twelve incubating greenhouses
(Via Edhi Ortiz)

Another thing that makes mushrooms tricky? Each variety requires a different environment and growing process. For instance, shiitakes prefer growing in the light while oysters don’t.

What helped the most? “Research,” says Ortiz, who admits he “didn’t know anything” when he started out. But by studying the process, attending seminars and asking other growers, he was able to experiment with different mushroom growing techniques until landing on a reliable system.

Despite initial difficulties, Ortiz maintains, “I fell in love with the system. I fell in love with the process of how they grow.”

Find Sumano’s mushrooms at New Natives stand at the downtown Santa Cruz, Westside and Live Oak farmers markets.