- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

KERSEY, Colo. (AP) - With glasses fogging over from the 90 percent humidity and only a headlamp to steer through the darkness, clearly seeing Julie Hanscome’s work at hand might be difficult.

In addition to growing food, Hanscome is giving Weld County’s ag industry something rare - a mushroom farmer.

In recent months, Hanscome has been operating out of four tractor-trailers in her large shed south of Kersey, monitoring and harvesting white buttons and brown criminis. They are grown indoors for three to four weeks in the dark and under constant 60- to 75-degree temperatures and 85 to 95 percent humidity thanks to thermostats, humidifiers and other climate-controlling equipment.

In the dairy business for 25 years, Hanscome said she got to a point where the physical demands of her 600-milking cow operation became too much. She wanted her second life in the agricultural world to be less labor-intensive and one with future growth potential.

Dawn Thilmany, an agriculture economist at Colorado State University, said figures show from 1994 to 2011, mushroom sales saw a 34 percent increase in value.

Starting the endeavor in September, Hanscome’s operation, Eagle Tree Mushrooms, is already selling to a handful of restaurants in the Greeley and Fort Collins area, and has been a hit at the Greeley Winter Farmers Market, organizers of the local market say.

“That’s what really steered me in this direction,” Hanscome said. “There seems to be a lot of demand out there.”

While there’s growth potential for mushrooms, there are few farmers in Colorado supplying the product.

There is one large grower in neighboring Larimer County, Hazel Dell Mushrooms near Fort Collins, which produces shiitake and other mushrooms.

Currently, Pennsylvania accounts for about 65 percent of the total volume of sales in the United States, and second-ranked California contributes about 15 percent, according to the National Agricultural Statistic Service.

“I’m really optimistic for the future,” Hanscome said. She said with outdoor farmers markets about to kick into full swing, she’s planning to sell at farmers markets in Weld, Larimer and Boulder counties.

She’s also talking with more restaurants and would like to eventually sell in grocery stores, which would require more compliance with federal and state regulations, and more time and money.

While the new business is showing potential, she said it’s still taking some getting used to.

“We’re still figuring some of this out as we go,” said Hanscome.

She said she still misses the dairy business she once operated with her husband, who died of cancer in 2006, but the indoor work has its advantages.

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