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Liz Nail has a confession: When she went to college, she sorta, kinda, didn’t like mushrooms. But one night at a potluck dinner with friends, she saw her peers eating chanterelles and thought maybe they were worth trying again. That bite altered her life’s trajectory. “I realized I totally loved mushrooms,” she laughs. “I was just hanging onto a five-year-old mentality.”
Fast-forward 18 years and now Nail and her husband, Michael, bring a wide range of gourmet mushrooms to tables across the Front Range through their seasonal farm, Mile High Fungi. They offer both cultivated varieties like shitake, oyster, king trumpet, and pioppini, as well as wild-foraged options like morel, porcini, and lobster. “Looking back, it’s a healthy reminder to keep an open mind because you never know where trying something new might take you,” Nail says.
Nail’s life-changing chomp happened at Evergreen State College, where she met Michael her freshman year. Both were “modern day, farm, hippie nerds” studying agriculture in Olympia, Washington, an environment ripe for mushroom hunting. After overcoming her mycology-related biases, Nail began spending weekends foraging for fungi. She and Michael even tried their hand at growing oyster mushrooms in the woodchip-littered paths behind the house they rented with some other friends. “You’d get these beautiful fleshes of oyster mushrooms pretty easily,” Nail remembers. They weren’t commercial grade, but they were “great for the backyard gardener.”
When the pair moved back to Nail’s home state of Colorado in 2010, they struggled to find meaningful work in their chosen field. Starting a farm remained their life’s dream, but with land near their new home in Denver at a premium (and a lot of land is needed for vegetable cultivation), they weren’t sure how to make the dream a reality. In 2014, inspiration hit. “I looked over at Michael and was like, ‘What if we grew mushrooms?’” Liz says. “And he was like, “Huh, what if we did grow mushrooms? How do you even turn those into a farm?’”
Upon looking into the endeavor, the Nails realized growing mushrooms is well-suited for urban agriculture. The process uses vertical space and turns waste products like sawdust and woodchips into fungi food. The idea became a game of “chasing the rabbit down the hole,” Nail says. They bought some fruit-your-own mushroom kits (something Mile High will soon start selling), began reading up on the processes, and started experimenting. They also took classes on fungi cultivation and set up a couple of shipping containers in their backyard to serve as a growing space. In 2015, they began selling the mushrooms at the Union Station Farmers Market and earned an overwhelmingly positive response.
Throughout the process of getting their farm up and running, the couple was also tackling a home renovation project even Chip and Joanna Gaines would have flinched at. Having bought “the ugliest house on the nicest block” in the Highlands neighborhood, the construction novices dove head-first into frame carpentry and custom woodworking. The process was difficult, but highly worthwhile, both in the financial return and the skills they acquired. Selling the property in July 2016 provided a significant chunk of the seed money necessary to buy the 35 acres of “raw land with nothing on it” in Conifer that Mile High Fungi now sits on—land upon which Nail and Michael have since built a 2,400-square-foot, agricultural barn to house their mushroom-growing operation (not to mention a house). They did more than 95 percent of the work themselves.
The entire barn build-out process took about a year. By summer 2017, the facility was up and running, housing all phases of their mushroom farm as well as post-production processes. Enter the warehouse-esque metal building and you’ll find mushroom-fruiting rooms (dubbed Larry, Curly, and Moe) where the fungi are grown, an incubation space where the mushroom’s mycelium eats its food source in order to reproduce, and then sterilizing areas, a walk-in cooler, and space to prep the mushrooms for sale.
As with so many of Colorado’s small businesses, the past 18 months forced Mile High to alter its business model. Pre-pandemic, it sold mushrooms equally to restaurants, community supported agriculture (CSA) shares, and at farmers’ markets—but when COVID-induced restaurant closures halted that revenue stream (“Our restaurant contracts evaporated overnight”), the Nails focused more on their direct-to-consumer outlets. They boosted their partnerships with CSAs and farmers’ markets, and with the surge of home chefery, “the void was immediately swallowed up,” Nail says.
In the future, Mile High is eager to partner more with other local businesses (perhaps on a mushroom-powder-infused coffee product), offer classes on fungi farming, and open its space to farm-to-table dinners by reservation. First on the docket, though, is finalizing their online store, which is set to launch in the next couple weeks.
Reflecting on the evolution of Mile High, Nail sees the similarity between her own journey toward overcoming a distaste for mushrooms and the process of starting a fungi-focused business. “You can try something once and if you don’t like it, you can still try it again. [It’s about] being open minded enough to do something new or do something different and also to do something hard,” she says. “[You have to] jump in, take that chance, and have a certain amount of faith that you can learn new things, learn from your mistakes, and fail forward.”
Where to get the ’shrooms: Mile High Fungi sells mushrooms at both South Pearl Street and Highlands Square farmers’ markets on Sundays. It also partners with a handful of CSA programs, namely Go Farm, Sprout City Farms, Denver Botanic Gardens, Acres at Warren Tech, Roost Farms, and Fleischer Family Farm.