Food & Beverage

Get to Know High Country Fungi

By CML Staff

If in recent months you’ve visited one of our area’s popular farm-to-table dining establishments, you have likely come across High Country Fungi’s product offerings on the menu. Or, if you’ve picked up some fresh or dehydrated mushrooms, or lesser known medicinal extracts, at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market, you may have even rubbed elbows with High Country Fungi’s founder himself, Avery Hughes.

A relatively new addition to the gourmet and medicinal mushrooms trade, High Country Fungi is best described by its slogan: “from spore to shroom, we do it all.” We couldn’t help but want to learn more about how someone can take something as microscopic as mushroom spores and transform them into prized culinary delicacies and highly effective remedies.

CML was thrilled to accept an invitation to meet with Avery Hughes for a behind-the-scenes tour of his impressive High Country Fungi operation in Plumtree, NC. While with Hughes, we asked him to share more with us about his introduction to fungi, how his emerging business has “mushroomed,” and what the future holds.

CML: When did you first become interested in mycology (the study of fungi)?

Hughes: Fungi entered my awareness in my early twenties when I attended a shiitake log growing workshop hosted by the Avery County Ag Extension Office in Newland. My father had signed us up while I was in town visiting from Atlanta, where I was working in the hospitality industry. The workshop touched on growing [shiitake mushrooms] as a business and then we proceeded to inoculate our own oak logs. We were given a bag of spawn and told that within this bag of sawdust was shiitake mycelium. I had no mental framework for understanding what mycelium actually was. I was fascinated. We inoculated the logs with spawn that fall and had mushrooms by the following spring.

CML: What brought you here to the High Country, and how did your interest grow into a business?

Hughes: About three years after that workshop, I moved up to Boone and had taken an interest in farming. I began interning on a farm where they grew shiitakes and found myself consuming more and more of them. At that time I was also seeing an herbalist, who recommended Reishi mushroom tea to improve my health. I was incorporating mushrooms into my diet and supplement routine and my overall wellbeing went through the roof! Soon I was studying other medicinal mushrooms, and met some guys out west who introduced me to an indoor mushroom cultivation course in Oregon. So I flew to Oregon where I learned the ins and outs of the industry. I came back home, found space to start the operation, and the rest is history.

CML: How did you go about launching your business in this market, and what challenges did you encounter?

Hughes: Shortly after getting the operation up and running at a small scale, we applied for a grant through the WNC Ag Options Grant program and were awarded a $3,000 grant, which we used to purchase shelving materials and bulk growing supplies to set us up for our first year. That year happened to be 2020; we had everything in place right as restaurants shut down for COVID. So we spent the better part of last year learning how to grow a few different medicinals, perfecting our extraction techniques, and finalizing other products. As things opened back up and sales resumed, my partner Miika decided to join me full-time in growing the business. From designing our logo to managing the grow room, she does it all and I sure couldn’t do it without her.

CML: Give our readers a basic understanding of your process, “from spore to shroom.”

Hughes: The whole process begins in a sterile laboratory that we constructed in an old pottery studio. The central component to this lab is a hospital grade HEPA filtration unit which blows sterile air over the work surface, ensuring no other microscopic organisms, such as bacteria and mold, contaminate the clean culture of mycelium we are seeking to propagate. When the mycelium of a fungus reaches a certain stage of growth, it begins to produce spores. Think of spores as seeds, and instead of roots, you have what’s called hyphae. The fungal culture grows in petri dishes, then once large enough is transferred to sterilized grain jars where millet grain is added—the culture “colonizes” the millet, expands, and becomes bulk spawn. The spawn is used to inoculate the substrate, or the medium that the mushrooms will fruit out of.

The inoculated substrate blocks are moved into the grow room, cut open, and will begin to produce mushrooms in just a few days—once the mushrooms start to form, they usually double in size every 24-36 hours. It’s a fascinating process to watch. It never gets old.

CML: During our tour, we moved from your sterile lab to the much larger grow room. Describe for our readers how your grow room came to be, and what happens in there.

Hughes: A major part of our success has been our ability to convert the old Blind Squirrel Brewery in Plumtree into our grow operation. The building is equipped with a large walk-in cooler that we have converted into the grow room, or fruiting chamber, that can hold hundreds of substrate blocks. We pump in vast amounts of fresh filtered air and use an industrial sized humidifier to create a foggy mist, keeping the room at around 85-90 percent humidity. This room allows us to currently produce close to 200 pounds [of mushrooms] per week with the possibility of doubling that, if filled to capacity. A big thanks to Cleve Young for his support in this endeavor. We could not be more grateful. 

CML: How many different mushroom species do you cultivate?

Hughes: We currently cultivate King Blue Oyster, Pink Oyster, Black Pearl, Lion’s Mane, Coral Tooth, King Trumpet, Pioppino, Beech, Golden Enoki, and Chestnut. Each of these mushrooms has distinct features in both taste and texture, making them exceptionally versatile in a variety of dishes. The medicinal mushrooms we cultivate include Cordyceps militaris, Reishi, and Turkey Tail. We also sustainably forage for Chaga.

CML: Medicinal mushrooms are becoming more popular with the mainstream public. Tell us how these mushrooms may be beneficial to humans’ health.

Hughes: Medicinal mushrooms are equally a main focus as culinary and a primary reason we got into mushrooms in the first place. I’ve lost multiple family members to cancer and one to Alzheimer’s, and while I believe conventional treatment has its place, I think mushrooms, in conjunction with a holistic health approach, could be used to prevent illness and work in tandem with chemotherapy and radiation. We are excited to see what further medical research will reveal about our fungal allies.

CML: Where can the public find High Country Fungi products?

Hughes: Currently, about 60 percent of the sales of fresh edibles are to restaurants and about 40 percent to the Watauga County Farmers’ Market. We supply 80-100 pounds a week to different restaurants in the High Country, including Lost Province, Over Yonder, Beacon Butcher Bar, The Cardinal, Lily’s Snack Bar, Chef’s Table at Sorrento’s, Rowland’s at Westglow, Coyote Kitchen, Booneshine, and Café Violette. We also deliver weekly, year-round, to Earth Fare and Be Natural Market in Boone.

In addition, we offer our Mountain Medicinals line and Grow Your Own Kits at the markets. If able, we would love to offer classes or workshops at some point next year. We see ourselves as stewards for the Fungal Kingdom.

CML: Thank you, Avery, for the incredibly interesting tour and for sharing so much about your new business venture. We will continue to look for High Country Fungi on menus, at farmers’ market stands, and at our local grocers—and readers, we encourage you to get to know High Country Fungi this fall!

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