In this edition of the Laker Log, we interviewed Ben Deuling ’17 about his newly formed gourmet mushroom farm in Montana, what it was like to start a business during the COVID pandemic, and how his education from LSSU prepared him for this challenging venture.
What is Spore Attic?
SporeAttic LLC is a commercial gourmet mushroom farm that we’ve started up here in Bozeman, Montana. We grow and sell a wide variety of specialty mushrooms to local restaurants, grocery stores, and direct to consumers via farm stands and farmer’s markets.
How did Spore Attic come to be?
In 2017, after graduating from Lake State, I moved out to Bozeman, MT to start working towards a Ph.D. in Microbiology at Montana State University. After about 2 years in the program, I came to accept that I was absolutely miserable and depressed with this direction I had taken with life but knew I couldn’t live with myself if I threw away 7 years of studying the sciences to do something completely different.
In January of 2019, while teaching a general microbiology lab, I met one of my students who had owned and operated a commercial gourmet mushroom farm in Mississippi, and he was basically in Bozeman looking for a partner to startup his next mushroom farm. I told him we should talk, haha.
Over the next 6 months or so, we began scheming this idea of starting a mushroom farm in Bozeman, and what that could look like. He had the business experience, and I had the lab expertise from years of working in the sciences. Gourmet Mushroom farming is a lot like working in a microbiology lab, so I had suddenly found an excellent opportunity to put all those years of lab work to use, and rather than staying in academia, I could use my skill set to grow food!
In August 2019, I converted my basement laundry room into a fully automated mushroom lab that was able to produce a variety of gourmet mushrooms including oyster mushrooms, king trumpets, lion’s mane, and several others. Building this prototype allowed me to learn the ins and outs of mushroom farming and, importantly, fail small before expanding to a commercial scale.
By Fall 2019, my business partner had some health complications come up, forcing him to withdraw from the business. Initially I figured that was the end of it, but it turned out I was hooked by that point. He got the ball rolling, and nothing was going to stop me.
In October 2019, I entered a business pitch competition through the MSU business school to try securing some startup capital, and ended up taking first place, winning $1,500. This was a relatively small amount of money, but more importantly it was major validation that I actually had something here. The judges were a panel of very wealthy and successful venture capital investors and entrepreneurs, including Jake Jabs, founder of the MSU Jabs school of business, and CEO of American Furniture. That same week, I submitted a grant application to the Montana Dept. of Agriculture, asking for $11,290 which, at that time, I believed was half of the total startup cost (I was WAY OFF… it ended up being more like $75,000).
After submitting the grant and realizing I had been MIA from grad school for about a week and a half, I met with my Ph.D. advisors and presented them with my business plan, which they had absolutely zero clue I was working on. After the initial shock of this news that I was miserable and depressed in grad school, both of my advisors (Dr. Seth Walk and Dr. Douglas Kominsky) told me “Ben, you need to do this! We’ve never seen this fire inside you as long as you’ve worked for us”. The allowed me the opportunity to wrap up a masters’ degree the following semester so I could get out with something to show for my time in grad school. They even insisted that I write my master’s thesis on mushrooms, as opposed to the gut-brain-axis stuff I had been working on for the last 2 years. Love those guys with all my heart. They easily could have said “You don’t want to stay in grad school? There’s the door”, but they were great advisors who knew it was more important that they help me chase what’s right for me, rather than force myself to suffer through grad school.
In February of 2020, I was invited to pitch my business plan to the Dept. of Agriculture in Helena, MT, and succeeded in securing the grant funding.
The next 8 months were spent refining the business plan, understanding business financials, honing in my cultivation skills, wrapping up my master’s degree in microbiology and graduating, securing land and community partners, raising more startup capital, and in the Summer of 2020, we built our facility from the ground up on the land of a local organic farm, Three Hearts Farm.
In that time, I also competed in a handful of business pitch competitions and secured additional funding through a number of grants and fellowships. All in all, I raised $36,000 in competition and grant funds, and brought in an additional $30,000 working odd jobs all around Bozeman – everything from construction, painting, lawncare, picking up dog poop, roofing, etc… you name it. Anything I could do to make money, I did it from sunup to sundown. This allowed me to close the funding gap and officially launch on October 31st, 2020 without taking on any outside loans or investors.
In the 8 months that we’ve been in business, our team has grown from myself, to a team of 5 incredible and impressive individuals.
We are currently growing between 300-400lbs of mushrooms every week, and sell to 11 different restaurants, one grocery store, one luxury-resort (The Yellowstone Club), a handful of private chefs, 3 local food aggregators that offer doorstep delivery services, a weekly farm stand, and 2 different farmer’s markets, every week. We have also developed a line of mushroom grow kits, enabling people to grow their own gourmet mushrooms right at home, as well as a variety of value-added products including dehydrated mushrooms, powdered mushrooms, jerky, chips, mushroom seasoned salts, and mushroom stock.
What was it like starting a business during a pandemic?
Simple answer is that it was TERRIFYING. I was walking away from the security I had in my Ph.D. program, and I sunk every single dollar I had to my name into this business. There was so much uncertainty and fear, but I was past the point of no return, and I had no plan B, so it HAD to work.
How has your education from Lake State helped you in running the business?
My time at Lake State helped shape the persona I have become. My interest in the sciences and in food was shaped by all the incredible and inspiring professors I had while studying Biology and Human Nutrition. These incredible professors taught me to chase my dreams, do what makes me happy, and never settle for less.
My 5 years competing and coaching the LSSU Cross Country and Track & Field teams really helped build my work ethic and determination. It also shaped my ability to make the best out of a less than ideal situation. These experiences taught my how to be a leader, and if I’m being honest, it allowed me to fail at being a leader, and understand what not to do.
Most importantly, however, my time at Lake State helped me uncover a variety of passions and skills that I never knew I possessed. Most of this took place OUTSIDE of the classroom. For example, I was a captain of the Cross Country and Track & Field teams, and in my 5th year I became the assistant coach for the Cross Country team as well an Residential Advisor.
I faced my fear of public speaking and honed that skill throughout the years of giving presentations and giving 2 TEDxTALKs. Heck, I can even attribute some of my salesmanship to the 5 years I spent selling chuck-a-pucks at every single home hockey game.
What were your favorite parts about attending Lake State?
I had the incredible opportunity to be mentored by a number professors that weren’t consumed by their research and were able to invest into helping me find my passions. I think that one-on-one attention is something you just don’t get at larger research institutions. I also loved taking classes outside of my program of study such as abnormal psychology. I always found myself more engaged in these classes because I was taking them out of curiosity and interest, rather than just focusing on what was required.
Where do you see yourself and your business moving in the future?
We have a 4-year lease agreement for our current space at Three Hearts Farm, which will come to an end November 2024. By that point, the plan will be to expand into a much larger and more permanent space that will allow us to expand into new markets and maybe even diversify into other crops. I’d like to develop the technology to grow into closed-loop vertical agriculture, which in theory could be implemented in high-rises in densely populated cities that don’t have much in terms of available farm-land.
Developing our online sales platform is one of our many goals for the next year. While shipping fresh mushrooms isn’t really possible, we’ll be able to sell our value-added products, mushroom grow kits and other cultivation supplies to other mushroom farmers around the country.
What’s your favorite mushroom recipe?
I love making really elaborate ramen out of our mushroom stock and shredding king trumpets into mushroom noodles (more like calamari). When I discovered this, I ate it for 8 days straight! haha