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In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Mexico, Matthew Fien Gretton landed what he considered to be a dream job: an agricultural coordinator position at Jemez Pueblo.
The role blended his passions for environmental education, greenhouse management, health policy and other skills.
At least until 2020 rolled around.
“Nothing went according to plan, because coronavirus came up in the middle of it and just destroyed everything we were trying to do,” Fien Gretton said.
The pandemic caused Fien Gretton’s role to change overnight, placing him on the frontlines of battling COVID-19 in a vulnerable community. Fien Gretton, who is not a member of the pueblo, was tasked with securing and distributing food donations, helping set up testing centers and other duties that were very different from the job he thought he had taken.
“And we knew that, if we stopped, all it would take was one foothold in that community, and then coronavirus would just kill all the elders,” he said.
A year in, Fien Gretton was trying to balance a stressful job, a newborn baby and, on the side, a passion project 15 years in the making: operating a mushroom farm.
Something had to give.
“I almost killed myself with how much I was trying to do at once,” he said.
In the end, Fien Gretton chose his child and his hobby, opting to leave his job on the pueblo in July and pursue growing mushrooms full time. And so, Matt’s Mushroom Farm was born in the back of a rural cul-de-sac in Los Ranchos.
“When that chance came, my options were either jump on it, no matter how risky it was, … or let it pass and just resign myself to the fact that it was never going to happen,” he said.
Fien Gretton first fell in love with mushrooms after taking a mycology course through the State University of New York in Syracuse, New York. He came to appreciate the fungus’ consistency and quick growing cycles, and the ways in which the industry is ripe for innovation.
From a food sustainability standpoint, Fien Gretton said mushrooms are one of the few crops that can be grown productively in a small space, allowing them to feed communities without easy access to fresh produce.
“It’s a way to get fresh food into people’s hands that want it, that value it,” Fien Gretton said.
Before you ask, mushrooms sold at Matt’s Mushroom Farm don’t have any psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in some wild mushrooms. The farm specializes in growing mushrooms that thrive in woody conditions, including oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms.
The farm grows mushrooms in biodegradable bags filled with damp sawdust and beet pulp pellets, letting the mushroom starts take root in a cool, damp room. Fien Gretton said some clusters of mushrooms can grow to the size of a basketball before being harvested.
Matt’s Mushroom Farm sells to specialty food stores like Talin Market, as well as to local restaurants like Scalo and Campo at Los Poblanos. Fien Gretton said the company also appears at local farmers markets and has also launched a CSA, or community supported agriculture, model for people looking to upgrade their local mushroom selection.
“It’s all about freshness,” Fien Gretton said. “… Any time they’ve had to go for a ride that’s taken more than a day, you’re going to have a big drop-off in the quality of the mushrooms.”
Even now, Fien Gretton has doubts about his choice to pursue his fungi fantasies full time. Starting a small business is never easy, and he said his staff has battled COVID-19 cases and loss of demand during restaurant shutdowns. Because the business was formed during the pandemic, Fien Gretton said it wasn’t eligible for many of the state and federal stimulus programs that cropped up in 2020.
Without a big investor supporting the business, Fien Gretton said he’s had to get creative when seeking funding, asking friends and family for money, taking out “questionable” loans and pursuing obscure federal grants few others might know to look for.
Even with that, he said all the money he makes goes right back into keeping the business afloat. He credited his family for support, and thanked his employees – a collection of “passionate weirdos” – for being willing to work with him on scheduling and other issues when times get hard.
“I am now living (my dream), but it’s not like I’m making money out of it,” Fien Gretton said.
Despite the challenges, however, Fien Gretton said demand for the mushrooms currently outstrips his supply, and the company is looking to add capacity to better meet the needs of customers.
“As long as you can reliably produce the mushrooms, people want them,” he said.