with Chefs and Bees
By Summer Miller
Photography by Alison Bickel
A good day in the woods, a little free time and a few strong connections led Matt Noble to create Bee Grateful Gardens, a Missouri Valley, Iowa, business that supplies some of the metro area’s favorite restaurants with mushrooms and honey.
Like most food entrepreneurs, Matt tried a few things before he settled on what worked best for him. He was raised in Nebraska but lived in Florida after college. He returned to the Midwest in 2011 to take care of his mom, who at the time was fighting a losing battle with cancer. Then in 2013, he rented a farm in Missouri Valley, Iowa, with the intention of selling produce and honey through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
“I grew produce and had beehives. The goal was to feed 20 people. It was a tremendous amount of work that was only marginally successful. I was able to provide food for all of the people who signed up for the CSA, but I was working for like, 14 cents an hour,” says Matt.
Working so hard for so little ended his interest in growing produce for others, but the experience did cement his passion for bees, and later mushrooms.
“Every bee works together for the greater good of the colony. Each bee has a role and they all contribute to make it thrive,” Matt says. “In that unity, I found a lot of intrigue. Wouldn’t it be great if people could be that harmonious with one another?”
While Matt was experimenting with ways to earn a living that married his creativity and his deep sense of curiosity, he and a longtime friend, Eli Bloom, spent plenty of time wandering through the woods foraging for mushrooms. In 2013 (the same year as his CSA experiment), the weather was perfect and the haul was a success––together they brought in more than 100 pounds of morel mushrooms, and an idea was born. “You just can’t eat that many yourself,” Matt says with a smile.
The cooperative nature of a bee colony fascinated him, and served as the spark to learn more about them, while the consistency of foraging and later cultivating mushrooms better suited his entrepreneurial ambitions.
Matt happened to have a good connection to the local food world through Eli, whose mother owns and operates Blooms Organic, a local food business that sells produce to area restaurants. Using her connections, they sold much of what they brought in and discovered an untapped market––chefs wanted local mushrooms but had few supply options they could utilize.
He spent the next two years foraging for local varieties, learning as much as he could and experimenting with cultivating mushrooms for the restaurant market.
“We first started selling to Matt Moser and Ben Maides at the Market House [the restaurant closed due to the January 2016 fire at M’s Pub]. They were our first really consistent client,” says Matt.
Transitioning from foraging for mushrooms to cultivating them has been a journey of trial and error. Matt is a classically trained painter and sculptor, though to hear him speak you’d think his professional training leaned more toward science than art. His interest and know-how in mycelium comes from reading, watching seminars on YouTube and “one million failures.”
Today, he splits his life and business between Des Moines, where his partner is attending medical school, and the Missouri Valley farm, where he fruits his mushrooms. He takes samples from locally foraged mushrooms such as reishi, oyster and lion’s mane and cultures them in a petri dish in his Des Moines home. He then adds the cultured mushrooms to sterilized red winter wheat berries. Once the bag of berries has been fully inoculated, he travels to Missouri Valley on a weekly basis to finish the process, where the mycelium “fruit,” which is to say they grow into the mushrooms we eat.
Depending upon the mushroom, he either spreads the inoculated berries onto pasteurized straw or sterilized sawdust. The straw is stuffed into large tube-like bags, poked with holes and placed on a shelf in a temperature-controlled building he constructed to mimic the environment perfect for fruiting mushrooms. The sawdust mixture is stuffed into smaller bags that become bricks of mushrooms and are placed into the same room. It can take anywhere from five to eight weeks from the original culture until the mushrooms are ready to harvest.
“Mushrooms aren’t complicated, they are just particular,” Matt says. “They know what they want. If you provide that for them, they will grow.”
Mushrooms also play a role in the health of Matt’s bee colonies. In 2015, he watched a TED Talk given by Paul Stamets, a self-taught but well-decorated mycologist, who developed the idea of feeding mushroom tinctures to honeybees.
“Mushroom mycelium is the way to increase the health of the colony. In a nutshell, bears scratch trees, mushrooms colonize the wound, the bees suck the juices from the mycelium or move into the hole of the tree,” Matt says. “Oxalic acid is what they are getting from the mushroom mycelium. A tree is hollow where there is rot, and where there is rot, there are mushrooms. If you think about it, they are surrounded by mushroom mycelium in the wild as opposed to kept populations living in a box.”
Essentially, the bees get an immunity boost from the mushrooms, which protects the hive against a deadly invader: the virus carrying varroa mite, which has devastated U.S. beehives for decades and is a suspected culprit, along with other environmental toxins, in colony collapse.
After watching Stamet’s TED Talk, Matt started sharing the value of mushrooms not only with top chefs in our community but also with a few thousand bees in Missouri Valley, Iowa. He’s not willing to draw a conclusion as to whether the mushroom supplements have an overall impact on the successful outcome of his hives, especially when there are so many variables, but he looks at it like taking a daily vitamin. It’s not difficult to do, and it could help, so why not?
For the rest of us, we simply get to enjoy the fruits of his labor knowing that our favorite mushroom dishes are fresh from the forests (and petri dishes) of Iowa.
Summer Miller is a freelance food journalist, recipe developer and author. Her work has appeared in Eating Well, Grit, SAVEUR, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Edible Omaha and Edible Feast. Her book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans of the Great Plains, was awarded a 2016 Nebraska Book Award and was heralded by Oprah Winfrey’s private chef as “more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland.”