"We have a sterile lab where I do all my cultures. We have to shower before we go in and wear scrubs. We start out with test tubes and a tiny little piece of what looks like a cobweb near the root of the mushroom," he said.
The painstaking process is done at the farm, located in Potts Camp, Miss., and is necessary to make sure no there are no other fungi in the environment. In addition to the sterile lab, the facility had to have special humidifiers and cooling systems.
Dickey said when he first started growing mushrooms, about seven years ago, he did so on logs, outdoors, seasonally. Now he and his wife Nichole grow them, year-round, on 5-pound wood blocks that have been through an autoclave.
Dickey, previously a culinary instructor, cooked with mushrooms for years before starting to grow his own. The couple did a vast amount of research including a trip to Washington state, where they met with Paul Stamets, a nationally renowned mycologist and creator of http://www.fungi.com. Mycology is the branch of botany that deals with fungi. Stamet was happy to share with them the tricks of the trade and more about the benefits of eating mushrooms, Dickey said.
"He (Stamets) told us that his mom had been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and given three months to live when he started supplementing her conventional treatments with the turkey tail mushroom. This was six, seven years ago, and she's still alive," Dickey said.
Much of their sales are to restaurants like the Elegant Farmer, in Memphis. They have also added mushroom teas, seasoning powders and tinctures (alcoholic mushroom extracts) that they sell along with their fresh and sun-dried mushrooms at local farmers markets.
Among their wares are gourmet Lion's Mane, King, Golden, Pearl, Phoenix, and Pink Oysters; Shitake, Pioppinos and Morels.
Sherri McCalla of Nesbit first purchased mushrooms from the Dickey's at the Memphis Botanical Gardens market.
"I always like to talk to the people who grow what I'm eating and hear about the care they take in growing. Ben and Nichole are both very knowledgeable. It's not the cheapest route, but it's local," she said.
McCalla, an assistant horticulturist at the Botanic Gardens, said buying locally grown foods is very important to her.
"Food that is shipped in from other countries I know has been irradiated to reduce mold, and that's like standing in front of the microwave when cooking we really don't know what the long-term effects of that could be. Then they package it and store it then burn so much fuel to ship it. To me, the Dickey's local grown mushrooms just taste fresher and the texture is so much better," she said.
McCalla said she likes the Farm's Shitakes and the powdered sun-dried mushrooms, which she likes to add to soup. She also likes the fact the couple also gives out recipes and cooking instructions.
"When we started we also grew some heirloom vegetables, but a lot of people do that, there really are not a lot of people that are dedicated to just growing mushrooms because the science knowledge you need. Starting up a lab takes a lot of research and learning," he said.
Business is going so well that the Dickeys are continually expanding. What started as a hobby is now a thriving business supplying mushrooms to the Tri-State area.
The Dickeys also teach seminars on mushrooms, their health benefits, how to grow them, how to cook them and how they can be used to benefit the environment. For example, Dickey said, mushrooms planted after a forest fire help restore the ecosystem more quickly.
Dickey Farms, http://www.dickeyfarmsmushrooms.com or www.facebook.com/dickeyfarmsmushrooms