Ryan Welch is an enthusiastic and energetic young farmer working his family’s land on Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Walden Peak Farms was established in 2010, and, as a 23-year-old newlywed, Ryan began the Chattanooga Area’s first mushroom operation. When asked where he found his inspiration to begin farming, Ryan replied he took a class in college on Nutritional Anthropology that changed the way he thought about food systems. This class led to further reading of authors like Paul Stamets, which encouraged him to explore mushroom cultivation.
Ryan began by growing blue oyster and shitake mushrooms. Working with a low budget, he uses mainly recycled materials and even created a makeshift laboratory out of an old well house. During his first spring, he made about $14,000 from the mushrooms alone, selling half at the farmers’ markets and half to local restaurants. His lovely wife, Brittany, helps with the marketing and delivery.
When choosing where to sell, the Welches identify restaurants in the area that boast locally-sourced ingredients and take them samples of the product. It’s easier to sell at some locations than at others due to the differing insurance requirements. Some of the more corporate locations, like the local health food store, require expensive liability plans. Other restaurants don’t require any coverage.
Last spring Ryan was forced to reconsider production strategies when a pest problem threatened the mushroom crop and the financial sustainability of the farm. The spent mushroom blocks (composed of soyhust, wheat straw and hardwood sawdust) were composted and have since attracted a large worm population. Ryan now has a vermicompost system that provides prime planting substrate for his newest endeavor, microshoots. Half of the green house is planted with trays of pea and sunflower shoots. The production of these tender sprouts has proven to be quite lucrative, and the demand is high both at the farmer’s market and among local restaurants.
For the remainder of the year, Ryan will be focusing on the construction of his newest project, an aquaponics tank. “We plan on making large wicking beds, which water from the tank will cycle through, and the greens we plant in pots will sit in the water channel and uptake water as needed.” He hopes to use a similar method for tomatoes. “I also want to experiment with deep water channel culture of greens and herbs; let’s hope for winter greens from the aquaponics system!”
Ryan’s farm management techniques are driven by his humble personality and innate creativity when working with the land. He finds ways to create treasure from trash, whether it’s rescuing wild tomato plants sprouting from a compost pile, picking over the a local nursery’s throw-away plants, or reconsidering the old blueberry bush and apple tree in the front yard. After selling 150 pounds of apples and planting 100 new blueberry clippings, Ryan says he’s “starting to realize the great assets which I have inherited from my family.”