By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Eric Pearson would be the first to tell you that his mushroom farm doesn’t look very impressive from the outside, describing the structures as a bit of a “hodge-podge” set up.
Don’t be fooled.
Take one step inside the grow room, a refrigerated shipping container that Pearson converted into a climate-controlled chamber, and the exterior quickly becomes insignificant. The shelves are lined with Blue Oyster, Yellow Oyster, Lion’s Mane and Shiitake mushrooms in 100 percent humidity and a maximum temperature of 65 degrees (temperature sensors are used). It is a carefully balanced ecosystem engineered by Pearson, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida. He controls temperature, air flow and light in the grow room to maintain a seasonal variety of gourmet mushrooms at his Palm Valley family business, Son & Skye Mushrooms.
Pearson was working at a coffee shop when he first started to research the idea of a small farm. He and his wife Catherine stumbled upon mushrooms and soon realized that this was the perfect way to bring food closer to people – the couples’ ultimate goal.
“It checked a lot of boxes for us,” said Pearson, who grew up in Jacksonville Beach. “We started a family at the same time, so that really gave me the impetus to start a business.”
The Pearsons’ first mushroom sale took place in March 2015 after years of research. The company name is a pun inspired by their three young children — the sons of “Son & Skye” are Simon, 7, and Joey, 2 ½. Their daughter’s name is Skye, 5.
“The work fits us as a family — we have flexibility in our schedule, we can grow things and tinker and eat well. We get a lot of appreciation from people at the markets and restaurants; however, it is physically demanding work, and it is difficult to get away for even a few days,” said Catherine Pearson, who was born in Philadelphia.
Eric Pearson says the best way to describe the farm is a “controlled growing system” as opposed to hydroponics or a field of mushrooms — two things he has heard folks mention when they imagine his livelihood. He began his business on his back porch by growing the oyster mushroom on straw.
From there, he talked to chefs around town to gauge their level of interest in his product and found a positive response. In fact, Pearson now sells to 20 to 30 local restaurants and usually produces about 100 pounds of mushrooms a week. During the busy season and prior to the pandemic, Pearson would produce 250 pounds a week, and 90 percent of his sales came from standing restaurant orders. Pearson said summer months tend to be the slowest time for the farm.
The Pearsons now lease land in Palm Valley off Roscoe Boulevard where he or a staff member works every day to maintain the mushrooms. The first step at the farm is making bags that contain soy and sawdust. Water is added to the bags, and then they are then placed in a steamer for sterilization for six to 12 hours. Next the bags move to what the Pearsons refer to as the “lab area” where inoculation takes place in a very sterile environment with a consistent air flow to prevent contamination. The mushroom spawn, which the Pearsons currently purchase, is then added to the bag and sealed. It is referred to as a “block” at this point. These blocks next head to the incubating room for different amounts of time depending on the mushroom type, but the goal is for it to turn white, creating a white mold known as mycelium. Without mycelium, there would be no mushrooms. The Shiitake mushroom takes a longer time to incubate at 70 days. The last stop is the grow room where the mushrooms flourish in “flushes” within 10 – 14 days for most, and each block could have two to three flushes. It is at this point that harvesting takes place, and the mushrooms are placed into boxes and into an industrial refrigerator before being sold. Oyster mushrooms are the fastest growing, and the Blue Oyster accounts for 60 percent of the sales. Typically, mushrooms cost $5 for four to five ounces or $16 – $20 a pound, said Pearson.
Catherine Pearson, who holds a bachelor of science degree in biology, works the farm’s booth at local farmers markets and often talks people through what to do with a mushroom once they purchase it, offering vetted recipes and simple advice.
“Before Covid, we would deliver to the nicest kitchens in Jacksonville, and it was an honor to be involved with these restaurants,” she said. “Now the business on that end has significantly decreased. We have been at the Beaches Farmers Market weekly since March, and it has been inspiring to be around the other vendors. They are enjoying running their own farms and businesses, like us, and bringing such quality goods that really sell themselves. It has also been invaluable being at the market, interacting with the people who are going to eat the mushrooms.”
The Pearsons also sell the mushrooms to a local Grassroots Natural Market with plans to expand to other stores, and their goal is to integrate all their buildings into one facility and offer other mushroom products such as mushroom jerky.
For more information about Son & Skye Mushrooms or to purchase a grow kit or mushrooms, visit sonandskye.com.
Photo courtesy Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Son & Skye Mushroom Farm owner Eric Pearson holding a Lion’s Mane mushroom in the grow room. (Pearson took off his face mask just for the photo.)