Niche mushroom farm best kept secret in town

Shiitake mushrooms sprouted from the food block held by farm manager Chris Knipstein are ready for harvesting. (Rod King)

For IN|FW Publications

FORT WAYNE — Windrose Urban Farm is probably one of the best kept secrets in Fort Wayne. Only the 18 restaurants that buy their product and farmers market regulars know what really goes on there. Thousands of cars and trucks pass the light blue warehouse on South Lafayette across from the back of a post office daily, but the building is so inconspicuous it’s hardly noticed. There’s only a small sign on the door that gives the name.

Inside the 50-by-100-foot building is another building. It’s a 20-by-40-foot frame structure covered with plastic resembling a greenhouse. Inside that are two long rows of wooden shelves packed with 1-foot-square blocks of a mixture of sawdust, soybean and cotton seed hulls. Protruding from holes in the plastic are gourmet mushrooms.

Farm manager Chris Knipstein says “it’s technically a hoop house, but we refer to it as a grow house.”

Explaining what goes on inside the “grow house” to visiting Goshen College students is Windrose Urban Farm manager Chris Knipstein. Three kinds of mushrooms (shiitake, lion’s mane and oyster) are grown on wooden shelves in a climate-controlled environment and sold to 18 local restaurants. (Rod King)

He said Windrose cultivates three kinds of mushrooms, including the Asian shiitake variety. “Another is lion’s mane which looks like pompoms and oyster which grows wild in the woods of Indiana,” Knipstein said. “There’s no soil involved in the process. They get their nutrients from the cellulous and lignin in the hulls and we supply the moisture they need via a mister.

“The toughest part is to maintain a constant temperature no matter what the weather is outside. A fluctuation of 2 or 3 degrees can quickly wipe out a crop. Also extremely important is ventilation. We use two exhaust vents to remove the mushroom spores and one intake pipe to bring in fresh air. If everything isn’t just right, they won’t grow.”

Knipstein, who grew up on a farm on the Allen/Whitley county line, is a self-taught mushroom expert. He served as an adviser to Windrose for a year prior to the introduction of mushrooms and also gave presentations on mushrooms and growing them. He graduated from Homestead High School, studied tool and die at Anthis Career Center and worked at Neff Engineering before going back to farming.

Long wooden shelves are packed with 1-foot-square blocks of a mixture of sawdust, soybean and cotton seed hulls which are the food supply for the mushrooms. Harvesting is done nearly every day and deliveries to customers are made a couple times a week. (Rod King)

After four months of researching, experimenting, testing and retesting, Windrose sold its first batch of mushrooms at the Fort Wayne Farmers Market in January 2018. Last month was its one-year anniversary selling to three local restaurants: Tolon, Junk Ditch and Club Soda. The mushrooms are harvested nearly every day and deliveries are made a couple times a week to 18 area establishments.

“Ellen Bauman is the face of Windrose,” Knipstein said. “She’s our sales manager and is in charge of our farmers market booth. I’m the behind-the-scenes person, along with four other paid employees.”

“We’re definitely a niche market,” he added.

Oyster mushrooms cover the food block. In the Indiana woods they can be found growing on dead trees. (Rod King)

Because Windrose is a not-for-profit organization, Knipstein points out that being a commercial mushroom supplier just facilitates its mission which is to provide jobs for individuals with employment barriers. “We initially hired some people with varying degrees of autism but that was not successful so we’re now eager to find persons with a variety of disabilities who would be interested in urban farming,” he said.

“Farming is not for everyone,” Knipstein said, “especially in August when temperatures get in the high 80s and low 90s. We’re adding a vegetable garden on the property we bought behind the warehouse. Dirt has been hauled in and people are needed to plant, care for and harvest the crops that will be sold at the farmers market to support Windrose. In addition, they’ll help prepare, move and compost the mushroom food blocks. We also hope to grow luffa sponges. Because of the spring rains this year all we’ll probably get done is to get the beds ready for next spring. We may even try growing micro greens which are used in restaurants for garnish.”

Windrose’s footprint in the Summit City is minimal. After harvesting the mushrooms, the food blocks are opened, broken down, run through a shredder and composted. The mixture goes into the vegetable garden. Plastic tubs used to deliver mushrooms to restaurants are returned, cleaned and reused. In other words, nothing is wasted.

Windrose may not be so anonymous in the future because it has received a $15,000 matching facade grant from the city. The grant will be used to paint the building and add a sign and a mural.

Looking like pompoms are these lion’s mane mushrooms. Windrose sold its first batch of mushrooms at the Fort Wayne Farmers Market in January 2018 and made its initial restaurant sales in June last year. (Rod King)