Story County-based Joygrow mushrooms' niche market grows during pandemic

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune
Aaron Johnson, owner of Joygrow in Cambridge, grows a variety of mushrooms, which he sells to fine-dining establishments in central Iowa and to consumers through retail stores, farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture programs and direct sales.

Joygrow mushrooms — a small, niche-market, Iowa business — has been finding strength through the pandemic by connecting with other businesses, like area restaurants that use its local produce.

“I really want to bring awareness to the network of other businesses that make my business possible,” owner Aaron Johnson said, “especially in this time now when everybody is truly struggling. I want to encourage people to support local by eating and buying local.”

Joygrow’s mushroom production has increased to about 150 pounds per week, up from approximately 25 pounds per week when Johnson first started the company in 2015. He’s had an emphasis on diversifying the offerings, and right now, has between a dozen and 15 strains of species in production.

“Oyster mushrooms are the backbone of our operation and what we produce the most of,” Johnson said. But it’s hard for him to name a favorite.

“They’re like my children,” he said. “I can’t have favorites. I love them all equally. But I don’t grow any species that I don’t actually enjoy myself.”

Joygrow offers a selection of at least a dozen varieties of mushrooms, like the piopinno and chestnut mushrooms in the foreground.

Joygrow was located in Boone but nearly a year ago moved to the edge of Cambridge, where Johnson has  retrofitted a large outbuilding to fill his business needs. The new location is spacious enough to accommodate Joygrow’s recent growth and allows plenty of room to expand production.

“The location is important. I’m still close to my Ames demographic and my Ames market where I really started this operation — the town that supported me,” Johnson said.

It’s now more convenient for him to focus on servicing the Ankeny and Des Moines areas.

Joygrow’s building has several different areas for specific parts of the growing process. A production area is where Johnson makes growing blocks, hydrates and sterilizes them.

“And then I actually inoculate them in my lab,” he said. “So that’s where I apply the pure monocultures.”

From there, the blocks move to an incubation area, where they stay for a couple of weeks or a month, depending on the species. Then, finally, the mushrooms are moved to a fruiting chamber, where Johnson finishes the products and prepares them for delivery to area businesses and customers.

Joygrow offers a selection of at least a dozen varieties of mushrooms, like these chestnut mushrooms.

In Huxley, The Local Supply Co., which offers a wide selection of Iowa products, carries Joygrow’s mushrooms.

“It’s a wonderful local store,” he said. “I just recently got a fridge in there for them so they can carry other refrigerated goods from other vendors, and of course, my mushrooms.”

Wheatsfield Cooperative carries Joygrow mushrooms in its produce department and in its deli. The downtown Fareway and the Lincoln Center Hy-Vee both carry Johnson’s mushrooms in bulk. Prudent Produce in Elkhart is also a retailer for Joygrow.

Several Ames restaurants, such as Aunt Maude’s, Stomping Grounds, Bar La Tosca, Ge-Angelo’s, Provisions Lot F, The Cafe and Cornbred, use Joygrow mushrooms in dishes on their menus. The Open Flame steakhouse in Gilbert also uses Joygrow products.

“Open Flame makes some delicious fried oyster mushrooms,” Johnson said.

Joygrow offers a selection of at least a dozen varieties of mushrooms, like these gray oyster mushrooms.

Several Des Moines restaurants, such as Alba, Django, Tursi’s Latin King, Clyde’s Fine Diner, Proof and HoQ, have also discovered Joygrow’s products and have incorporated them in dishes.

The Ames Main Street Farmers’ Market is a good source of sales for small businesses like Joygrow, with outdoor markets during warm weather months, occasional indoor markets and online purchases available as well.

Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Ames Main Street Farmers Market is holding a socially distant indoor market at 500 Main St., the former Hy-Vee Drugtown location. Joygrow will be one of the vendors participating in that market.

The culinary school at Des Moines Area Community College is also a significant customer for Joygrow, Johnson said.

Johnson’s mushrooms are also in six locations of the Iowa Food Co-op, an online ordering system for Iowa-produced goods.

“That’s a really good, accessible way for people to get their own customized orders without going to a restaurant,” Johnson said.

Joygrow also has its own community-supported agriculture membership — a program where a membership buy-in gets a consumer regular deliveries of mushrooms. And Johnson takes orders directly from consumers by phone at 515-298-2224 or through his Joygrow Facebook page’s messaging system.

Joygrow offers a selection of at least a dozen varieties of mushrooms, like these oyster mushrooms, which are all the same species but are different strains.