Scientist finds new career in fungi

Nancy Tarnai

When June Sun Lan decided to relocate her family from their home in University West it was not for a better view, nicer neighborhood or a higher resale value.

It was all about the mushrooms. Lan was seeking a perfect location in Fairbanks to grow mushrooms and she found it in Vue Crest on the opposite side of town in a wooded forest near Birch Hill.

While Lan has dedicated her life to scientific research she is surprised at the turn of events that led her to become a mushroom farmer.

Photo courtesy of Golden Umbrella Mushrooms
The oyster mushroom has a graceful elegance.
Growing up in China in the big city of Xi’ an, her first encounter with mushrooms was at the tender age of 5 when she was visiting her grandparents in the country. Her grandfather brought her something pretty like a little umbrella that he had found in the horse stable. Her grandmother worried that it might be poisonous so the grandfather tried a bite first to be sure it was OK.

“I had never tried such a delicious thing,” Lan said. “It impressed me very deeply. It was so flavorful and colorful. It was like a mystery.”

As life went on she forgot that delectable encounter until she was in graduate school and her supervisor picked mushrooms and cooked them for the students. “They were chewy and delicious and I asked him for more,” she said of that culinary round with shitake mushrooms.

After earning a doctorate in molecular biology at Northwest University in China, Lan conducted research at Arizona State University, Washington State University and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Through family introductions she met and married her husband Ping Lan in 2006. He was ensconced in Fairbanks so she reluctantly moved here, even though she feared she would find nothing but ice-covered scenes. Lan worked in labs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a while and then with her husband’s encouragement she decided to try something new.

“Alaska gave me such a good idea,” she said.

Touching mushrooms
Photo courtesy of Golden Umbrella Mushrooms
June Sun Lan shows off a large oyster mushroom.

Like any scientist, Lan did a lot of researching and studying before launching her mushroom endeavor. She achieved very good results last year growing oyster mushrooms but found the University West location less than ideal. The Lans scouted the area and settled on a new home in Vue Crest.

“I thought it would be too cold and dry but Alaska is a very good place for mushrooms,” Lan said. The Lans set up a greenhouse solely dedicated to mushrooms.

Last year Lan gave away the mushrooms to friends and neighbors and used them in family meals. She tried selling her crop at the Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market but found it too time-consuming. Her biggest supporter is Lavelle’s Bistro.

Unlike the common button mushrooms Americans are so accustomed to buying, the oyster mushroom must be cooked. Lan recommends simply sautéing them with butter and salt. “Mushrooms are very good for your health,” Lan said. She has also tried freezing and drying them and even made “mushroom candy,” where she coats the mushrooms with sugar and cinnamon and bakes them. “It looks odd but people like it,” she said.

Her vision is to turn the new home into a bed and breakfast, give tours of her mushroom growing operation and eventually have a full-scale mushroom farm, adding other varieties to the oyster staple.

Photo by Nancy Tarnai
June Sun Lan sautees oyster mushrooms.

The key to mushroom growing is keeping the temperature and moisture at the appropriate levels and Lan’s scientific nature pays off in that regard. “You have to find the points,” she said. “I do it in a research way so there are less mistakes. I collect the information and follow the procedures. There is a lot of work to do.”

One challenge that Lan has faced is that she is used to using her brain more than her body but she is becoming accustomed to the physical labor. She is dedicated to following organic growing methods, using no chemicals in her operation.

Asked to share advice with other potential growers, Lan turns humble. “I am still in the experimental stage,” she said. “I am not qualified now.

“I want to let people know Alaska is a good place for growing mushrooms,” she said. “We are not just a land covered by snow all the time. How amazing it is to grow mushrooms in Alaska.”

Contact information:
Golden Umbrella
(907) 452-6686
June Sun Lan

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.