After a health disorder made it dangerous for John Bakker to continue his long-haul truck driving job, he set off on a new business venture: growing gourmet mushrooms with medicinal benefits.
JCB Gourmet Mushrooms, based in Kinburn, Ont., was founded by Bakker in 2020 after a friend recommended that he make medicinal mushrooms part of his diet to help with his essential tremors. Bakker describes his medical condition, which he’s had for more than half a decade, as a progressive form of Parkinson’s disease. It can impair anything from his vision, to the movement of his head, to his ability to walk.
“I tell people not to read my body language, it’s not accurate,” Bakker says. “I’ll be saying, ‘This is really good’ and my head will shake side to side, implying that this is bullshit.”
Bakker admits he didn’t like mushrooms at first, but saw them as an opportunity to eat healthier. Some oyster mushrooms have been shown to boost the immune system, heal the nervous system and help with weight management, he says. Eating them a few times a week hasn’t eliminated his tremors, but he says the fungi have helped limit the intensity and frequency.
He was also attracted to the flavours: he sells pink oyster mushrooms and black king oyster mushrooms, which, when fried, taste like bacon and scallops, respectively.
Yet these varieties are not common in Ottawa. Most grocery stores don’t sell them since growing them is labour-intensive, Bakker says. Information about them online is also scarce, so Bakker provides recipes for each mushroom on his website.
“I’m educating people on the medicinal side of the mushrooms and that they do not have to taste like eating an eraser,” he says.
Bakker grew up on the family farm near Ottawa. He studied agriculture at college and taught it to young people in Zambia, where he first started to experiment with edible mushrooms. As CEO of JCB Mushrooms, he’s supported by his wife, Cathie, chief marketing officer.
With a market gap identified and a formal education in agriculture, Bakker took a two-pronged approach to his business: he sells mushrooms at farmers’ markets and also kits that allow clients to grow their own mushrooms.
The mushrooms and kits originate from the same growing room, located in the woodworking shop of a decommissioned school in Kinburn. Bakker makes a growing medium out of hardwood pellets and soybean hull in a polypropylene bag before adding homemade spawn. He then adds millet, rye, and oats — the last of which he intends to phase out because it’s too bulky — and leaves the bag in a climate-controlled room for several weeks or even months to create mycelium.
For the kits, each bag is then placed into a box with detailed instructions on how to grow the type of mushroom included. The kits also provide a humidity tent, which maintains the proper growing environment, and a mist spray bottle.
Bakker decided to include these tools based on what was lacking in other companies’ growing kits.
“They were all super simple, but they would say you need misting and wouldn’t supply the humidity tent,” he says. “If all you do is cut the bag and mist once or twice during the day, you may as well be misting the room. You have to contain the humidity close to the block and the mushrooms or you never get a proper yield, so adding the tents was a no-brainer.”
If the kits aren’t sold or used in time, the mycelium begins to eat at the growing medium, reducing the yield. Bakker eventually brings older bags into a second room and cuts them open to generate mushrooms.
“The bag simulates the bark and the mushrooms grow out from the bag. They need the higher moisture content in the air,” he says.
The kits are sold for $30 each, while the mushrooms themselves are priced from $17 to $25, depending on the variety.
Bakker sells around 1,000 kits to people across the country each year and he’s looking to expand into the U.S. He also provides a free consulting service: clients who are unsure about the growing process can call him for advice. He says he spent thousands of dollars over the first year of the business to teach himself how to produce mushrooms, so he wants to help other people avoid the hassle and get to the fun part of watching them grow.
“It’s a lot more challenging and a lot more difficult than just boiling up some grain, adding spores to it and hoping like hell it’s going to work,” he says. “You know the expression ‘failing forward’? I’ve perfected it.”