By Jessica Byerly
At not quite noon, it’s already pushing 80 degrees as I pull up to Three Hearts Farm, located at the northwest edge of Bozeman. Dotted with several raw wood buildings that blend seamlessly with the surrounding grassland and an expanse of greenhouses opaque with condensation, Three Hearts’ acreage spills forth life in abundance. And SporeAttic, its newest tenant and the booming fungus-inspired brainchild of microbiology misfit Ben Deuling, is no exception.
When Deuling moved to Bozeman in 2017, his intentions were clear: he would enter the Ph.D. program in microbiology at Montana State University and all would be as it should be. But, after two and a half years of study, with his coursework and student teaching nearly complete, Deuling finally accepted that a doctorate wouldn’t open any doors he would be happy to walk through. It was then, in January of 2019, that he had an interesting conversation with one of his students who had moved to Bozeman on a G.I. Bill with the intention of starting a new iteration of his Mississippi mushroom growing business.
“Something just felt right in my gut,” Deuling said. “I liked science and I wanted to grow food—I knew we had to talk.”
Inspired, Deuling spent the following year outfitting his laundry room into a makeshift grow lab and making connections in the farming industry. In October 2019, he met Ali Moxley, who shared his fascination with fungi, and partnered with him in a pitch to MSU’s Big Idea Challenge. That night, the pair put together materials for a business pitch competition due that next day. Out of the 42 teams that applied, 12 were accepted, and SporeAttic, LLC took first place.
“That was the day of ‘holy cow, this is real,’ maybe I’m not just growing mushrooms in my basement,” Deuling said. “They saw something even I didn’t.”
Next, came the State Growth Through Agriculture grant, a competitive grant and loan program, intended “to strengthen and diversify Montana’s agricultural industry.” Moxley and Deuling decided to tackle them both simultaneously, and spent the following seven sleepless days planning and securing all facets of the business.
“We submitted the grant that Friday at 8 a.m., fueled by coffee, La Croix and a dream,” Deuling laughed.
When he arrived at the lab that morning for the first time in over a week, Deuling pulled his advisors aside, handed them each a copy of his business plan and told them he’d been working on something. Despite initial concerns, by Monday they encouraged him to get out of the doctorate program, to chase his dreams and to never settle for anything that made him unhappy.
Deuling has been living that ethos ever since. He completed one last semester to wrap up a master’s in microbiology, which included an intriguing professional paper on the purported neuroprotective cognitive benefits of lion’s mane mushroom. He bootstrapped SporeAttic’s initial startup through a number of grants, odd jobs and “sweat equity.” With design and logistics expertise from Josh Hicks, owner of Hicks Woodworking and co-owner of Three Hearts Farm, Deuling built the 940-square-foot SporeAttic facility to spec.
“We make use of every square foot of this place to pump out over 400 pounds of mushrooms a week,” Deuling said.
SporeAttic officially launched on Halloween of 2020, with a costumed Deuling working a Bozeman farmers market booth, and three local restaurants committed to regular deliveries. For the first six months, Deuling put some effort into growth, but those days are long past—now, they’re seeking him.
Ten-pound boxes to two dozen restaurants, grocery stores, private chefs and catering companies in Bozeman and Big Sky account for about 85 percent of business. Each of Bozeman’s weekly summer farmer’s markets demands another 50 to 75 pounds. Deuling just launched his website, sporeattic.com, as well, which ships dried mushrooms and a growing number of related products—from spice blends to lion’s mane cocoa—nationwide.
SporeAttic has proven to be the perfect platform to achieve what Deuling wants in life and, ironically, it has nothing to do with mushrooms.
“I don’t hardly ever talk about mushrooms,” Deuling joked. “They’re interesting, but I’m not particularly passionate about them.”
Growing mushrooms has been more of a conduit, allowing Deuling to put his lab experience to use and to provide ample opportunity to experiment and play. Currently, SporeAttic grows 12 different kinds of mushrooms, including four types of lion’s mane, black pearls, chestnuts and six different oyster varieties.
“We have a lot of freedom to grow whatever we want, and Bozeman has really embraced us,” Deuling said. “We sell everything we grow.”
His team has likewise grown since they first opened two years ago, tripling in size, and “scratching a lifelong itch” to become a leader and teacher, to employ lessons learned from decades in cross-country and track in the support of others. But Deuling’s not interested in growth for growth’s sake.
“I don’t want to ever prioritize financial gains over all the other things that are important to me, like producing the highest quality product, building a team of people I love and care about and being a part of the community,” Deuling said. “All of these things can get washed away as business gets too big.”
It is, perhaps, in this that Deuling shares the true nature of himself and what he has been cultivating all along.
“My goal with this business was to become an integral member of the Bozeman community,” Deuling said. “I want to know everyone. I want to have a family in Bozeman, a community in Bozeman.”
With energy like an electric undercurrent—that constant hum in the background noticed only when the power is out—frenetic and expressive, Deuling is a passionate force intent on changing the paradigm of employment, business, intention and community, one happy little mushroom at a time.
Lion’s Mane Nuggets
Recipe Courtesy of Far West Fungi
10 ounces lion’s mane mushroom
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup panko
Pull the lion’s mane apart into bite-sized pieces (approximately the size of a golf ball) and smash flat. In a small bowl, combine the flour and spices. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Put the panko in a third bowl. Roll each mushroom piece in the flour mixture, then dip in the egg, and roll in the panko. In a saucepan set to medium/high, melt enough coconut oil so it is about half an inch deep. Once the oil is hot, add a few of the nuggets in a single layer. Don’t crowd the pan. Fry on each side for about a minute, or until golden brown. Transfer nuggets to a paper towel to remove excess oil. Repeat in batches until all the nuggets are fried. Enjoy with your favorite dipping sauce!