It's a bustling harvest day for Ramsey County's newly honored family farm of the year.
About a dozen crew members with R&R Cultivation gather and package fresh gourmet mushrooms — all grown indoors in an unassuming suburban Roseville warehouse.
The urban organic farm, just a mile from Roseville's shopping district, produces 1,500 pounds of mushrooms each week that are served up at local restaurants and sold at area farmers markets, co-ops and grocery stores.
"We are proud to be an urban farm growing year-round," said R&R Cultivation owner Nick Robinson, who co-founded the farm with friend Lance Ramm less than three years ago. "This is a different model of farming."
The Ramsey County Board honored R&R Cultivation this month as its 2021 University of Minnesota Extension Farm Family.
"It is truly an amazing story," Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said during the awards presentation. "We are really thrilled with the work you are doing. The love and caring really shows though."
Robinson and Ramm, both 38, started the business in a small grow tent in Robinson's Roseville basement in 2018, selling at local farmers markets and then expanding to restaurants. When the COVID-19 pandemic slowed restaurant sales, they changed their focus to grocery stores and the wholesale market.
Now sales are booming in all three areas, and they're cultivating 11 mushroom varieties — including oyster, lion's mane and shiitake — in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. Their 100% USDA-certified organic products are sold in stores including Hy-Vee and Lunds & Byerlys.
French Meadow Bakery & Cafe uses R&R mushrooms in their specials. "They are excellent and varied and very high quality," said Joshua Nordine, general manager of the restaurant's St. Paul location on Grand Avenue.
The fact that they're organic and locally grown are important values, Nordine said.
"They also have incredible customer service," he said.
Robinson grew up in New Brighton with scant farm experience beyond watching his dad grow cherry tomatoes in the backyard.
"I wish I had a cool origin story," he said, noting that he wasn't even particularly fond of mushrooms before he started growing them.
Burned out after a career in sales peddling everything from roofing to gym equipment, Robinson said he decided to take a chance on urban farming with dreams of growing a sustainable business that would help people eat more locally sourced, high-quality foods.
"I said, let's do something I like doing and something people actually need," he said.
Ramm, who previously worked as a graphic artist, said they thoroughly researched mushrooms, "geeking out" on everything from cultivation techniques to recipes.
"Mushrooms are one of the few types of produce that add depth to a meal. They call it umami," Robinson said.
They also studied the mushroom market. While gourmet mushrooms were wildly popular on the coasts, the market here was less developed. Could Midwesterners see the appeal, beyond a mushroom Swiss burger?
They felt confident there was a growing market, especially as more people seek out organic, locally grown and vegetarian food options. They decided to go organic because "it forces us to run a really efficient operation," Ramm said.
The mushrooms are grown in plastic bags filled with a pulpy wood and soy mixture and placed in climate-controlled grow rooms. Mushrooms can take from one to three months to grow, depending on the variety. Shiitakes can take as long as 16 weeks to grow, Robinson said.
One of the biggest challenges now, he said, is meeting demand.
As the business grows, the pair said they are working on organic packaging and sourcing supplies and materials as close to home as possible. They are hoping to buy wood pulp from a southern Minnesota supplier. They would also like to expand employee benefits.
Ben Kucera, who serves on Ramsey County's extension service committee, praised R&R's innovation at the Ramsey County board meeting.
"They are leading the change in removing urban food deserts and making wholesome, fresh food accessible to everyone," he said.
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037