TAMWORTH — Eric Milligan studied theater while in college, but in a serendipitous twist, he now finds himself as one of the most successful fungi farmers in the Granite State.
Born and raised in Rumford, Maine, Milligan, 41, is the primary owner of the New Hampshire Mushroom Co. LLC.
Opened in June 2012, the business has taken off, Milligan said, and sales, are, well, mushrooming, with the company producing about a 1,000 pounds of choice fungi a week, up from 150 pounds just six years ago.
The mushroom grower, located on Gardner Hill Road within a mile of Barnstormers Theatre, is an easygoing, drop-in kind of place where Milligan and his staff of half a dozen full- and part-time employees work hard to grow 10 species of gourmet mushrooms. Varieties include bear’s head, king oyster, chestnuts, elms, blue oyster, shiitake, yellow oyster, pink oyster, Phoenix oyster and Piopinni oyster.
The company’s mushrooms are hand-delivered to hundreds of restaurants from Jackson in the north to Boston in the south, as well as to farmers’ markets in between. They can be purchased at the farm, too, and at some selected stores.
Milligan also leads foraging trips for wild mushrooms, which are what got him into the mushroom business in the first place.
A 1995 graduate of Rumford High School, Milligan enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono, where he discovered theater and found stuff “that clicked.” He developed his chops as an actor, a stage carpenter, and, when he left UM four years later, as a producer.
He did some regional theater, but as a self-described “country kid,” he eschewed the big cities and took a variety of jobs, some years doing seasonal construction as far away as in Texas, taking the rest of the year off to learn more about the world, including backpacking through Europe.
He also worked at a now-defunct mushroom farm in Freedom, where he suffered an on-the-job injury.
One day, while visiting his mother in Tuftonboro, Milligan read an article about mushrooms and decided to go for a recuperative hike.
While on the hike, Milligan encountered chanterelle mushrooms and other fungi that proliferate in the New Hampshire woods, and he had an epiphany that changed the arc of his life.
Awestruck, Milligan began a vigorous study of mycology, and during a stint as a boat cleaner at the Melvin Village Marina, he met two fellow foragers — Dennis Chesley and Keith Garrett — who not only reinforced his passion for mushrooms, but eventually helped him found New Hampshire Mushroom Co.
The owners, of which there are eight, drew up a business plan, studied the best place to launch the business and then “we were able to jump off a cliff” and go into production, Milligan said.
The name of the business was easy to come up, Milligan said.
“We wanted to attach the idea of New Hampshire – the White Mountains, hard work and Yankee ingenuity – and secondly, we wanted Internet searches to find it instantly.”
The mushrooms are grown inside a 5,000-square-foot building, and attention has to be paid to them 24-7 in terms of temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide, he said.
“Mushrooms exhale carbon dioxide,” Milligan said, which makes them “closer to human beings than to plants.”
But they grow differently, beginning life in a polypropylene bag filled with sawdust and soybean hulls and just the right amount of water. The mixture is hand-inoculated with the spores of the desired species of mushroom, and, depending on the species, the resulting mushrooms are harvested from between 15 to 65 days later.
Milligan said he believes in living where you work and play, and supporting local businesses.
He said the growing bags are made by a company in Ossipee, while the sawdust comes from a mill in Henniker. Tamworth is not only a great place to live and grow mushrooms, he said, but from a commercial point of view, it’s also equidistant to Burlington, Vt; Portland, Maine; and Boston.
“We continue to gain clients by producing the highest quality mushrooms we can,” said Milligan, who, while declining to divulge annual sales, said his company sells “every pound” of mushrooms it raises per week, which sell for a retail average of $15 per pound.
“We’re here in this area to stay,” Milligan said, adding that the New Hampshire Mushroom Co. has plans to expand in Tamworth.
Milligan said being a fungi farmer scratches many of his metaphorical itches.
“This career allows me to do a lot of different things. It allows me to be a farmer and a teacher, and I’m still a performer, and I get to be an inventor and engineer, which also means I’m an HVAC guy, plumber and janitor.”
For more information about the New Hampshire Mushroom Co. go to www.nhmushrooms.com.