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Hall County has a new farm on Athens Highway — and it's not what you're expecting
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Yellow oyster mushrooms grow in bottles on Thursday, Dec. 5, at Green Box Mushrooms on Athens Highway. The new business aims to be a large-scale mushroom farm in Hall County and could eventually supply a wider region within Georgia and the Southeast. - photo by Nick Bowman

Don’t look for fields at the new farm that’s popped up on Athens Highway in Gainesville.

There are no rows to hoe, no crows to scare and no prayers for rain needed here.

Instead, there’s concrete. The quiet hum of breaker boxes and the small hiss of humidifiers. It’s dark, calm, cool: Just right for growing mushrooms.

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Lion’s mane mushrooms grow in bottles in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room on Thursday, Dec. 5, at Green Box Mushrooms. Lion’s mane grows into a large, round mushroom covered in soft spines. John Moon described the inner consistency as something like a marshmallow, and when cooked the outside crisps and crunches. - photo by Nick Bowman

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A close view shows the spines of a growing lion’s mane mushroom on Thursday, Dec. 5, at Green Box Mushrooms on Athens Highway. - photo by Nick Bowman
Like the crops they’re cultivating at the farm, Green Box Mushrooms popped up seemingly out of nowhere this year. 

Owned and operated by John and Elizabeth Moon, the farm is — as you’re reading this — already growing about a half-dozen varieties of mushrooms, including several kinds of oyster mushroom and lion’s mane, a sort of puff-ball covered in soft spines with an interior consistency something like a marshmallow. Others describe it as closer to crab or lobster meat.

You haven’t seen it at the grocery store. Yet.

The Alpharetta couple were retiring from corporate careers in Atlanta and looking for a project to shepherd when they wrapped up their final nine-to-fives. 

After more than 25 years working for operations like UPS, McKesson and Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta, they decided to invest their retirement funds into a massive mushroom farming operation.

“It’s definitely unusual for Hall County,” said Elizabeth Moon, laughing, on Thursday, Dec. 5, at a conference table at Green Box Mushrooms.

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Elizabeth, left, and John Moon stand in one of their growing rooms on Thursday, Dec. 5, at Green Box Mushrooms on Athens Highway. - photo by Nick Bowman

The pair have friends who work as professors of mycology, the study of mushrooms, in South Korea. As John Moon started to think about retirement, he wanted to get into the world of farming, and a family friend suggested they look into mushrooms.

“This farm itself is supported by a farm from Korea — it’s a sort of sister farm,” Moon said. “We also have support from a college that specializes in agriculture. They have a mushroom cultivating (program).”

The farm doesn’t get supplies or products from South Korea, just the know-how and training as they start the farm.

And unlike outdoor farming, the crops at Green Box Mushrooms aren’t susceptible to environmental conditions or pests. The mushrooms won’t have a bad year or suffer from a late frost. Crop yields can be calibrated to meet demand.

It meshes well with the IT backgrounds of the newly minted farmers.

And the Moons believe they’ve identified a hole in the market for a relatively large supplier for exotic mushrooms — or exotic relative to what locals are used to finding on the shelf at Publix.

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Elizabeth Moon walks through a foggy mushroom grow room holding two bottles of oyster mushrooms on Thursday, Dec. 5, at Green Box Mushrooms on Athens Highway. The grow rooms are kept dark, cool and moist to promote mushroom growth. - photo by Nick Bowman

“We know that the mushroom capital of the U.S. is up in Philadelphia,” Elizabeth Moon said. “When we look at mushrooms here in the Southeast of the USA, it’s imported from different states or imported from different country.”

John Moon jumped in: “The main issue is there is no supply. There is a demand, but there’s no supply to supply fresh mushrooms year-round. That’s where we come in.”

Green Box Mushroom is now growing yellow, pink, gray and brown oyster mushrooms — all of which look and taste a bit different — and lion’s mane. They’re not going to bother with the two most common types of mushrooms on shelves right now: shitake and white button.

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Yellow oyster mushrooms grow from a reusable bottle at Green Box Mushrooms. The mushrooms are grown indoors until they’re ready for harvest, and the soil in the bottles can be used as a fertilizer. - photo by Nick Bowman

The challenge for Green Box will be getting their supply in front of the demand. The farm is much bigger than the backyard or small-farm operations filling out area farmers markets but doesn’t yet have connections and name recognition among grocery stores and distributors in the area.

It’s a situation Andrew Linker, co-manager at Northeast Georgia Locally Grown, hasn’t seen before in Northeast Georgia.

“Typically I work with small farmers markets in the area, and it looks like they have the capability and capacity to go into stores,” Linker said on Monday, Dec. 9. “It’s pretty cool — I was excited. It’s very high-tech, and what that translates to is ‘efficient.’ From an environmental perspective, that was very exciting.”

Green Box Mushrooms produces little waste. 

The “substrate,” what is basically soil, used to grow their mushrooms is made from recycled peanut hulls and wheat, comes from farmers in the South and, at the end of their farming process, can be used as a rich fertilizer for both home gardeners and farms.

All of the equipment used to grow the mushrooms is reusable, including the durable plastic bottles that hold the substrate and the young mushrooms.

The Moons contacted Linker earlier in the year to supply him with the fertilizer as a test, and he was surprised to see the scale at which Green Box Mushrooms was launching.

The farm could produce up to 600 pounds of mushrooms each day to start. With some success, that could double.

“That’s the beauty of this business,” Elizabeth Moon said. “We’ve got the infrastructure in place where we could start out really small to meet the demand here, right now, but when the demand grows we’re able to meet that consistently.”

Right now, Green Box isn’t just an efficient farming operation — it’s an efficient business. 

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Elizabeth Moon walks down a corridor near a few of Green Box Mushroom’s 15 grow rooms on Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Athens Highway business. The mushroom farm could produce as much as 600 pounds of mushrooms each day with enough demand. - photo by Nick Bowman

The farm runs 15 growing rooms totaling 10,500 square feet of cooled, indoor growing space out of a large warehouse on Atlanta Highway. Unlike smaller mushroom farms that buy soil already seeded with the spores that will eventually turn into mushrooms, Green Box does that itself.

The soil is trucked in, packed in bottles, sanitized, mixed with spores, left to set and then the bottles are placed in temperature- and humidity-controlled growing rooms and the mushrooms are harvested and boxed by hand at the end of the process.

Thanks to automation on the front end, that process is managed by two employees: John and Elizabeth Moon.

For now, customers can order online and look for mushrooms at local farmers markets, where the Moons are hoping to get their name out and identify customers.

Green Box is registered with Georgia Grown and certified naturally grown. The mushrooms are organic, aren’t treated with chemicals at any stage of the growing process and aren’t genetically modified organisms.

Even the substrate is non-GMO.

“If we started using the corn-based substrate, then it’s a GMO because corn is typically 90 percent GMO anyway,” John Moon said.

In the coming months, the business hopes to organize mushroom-growing classes at the business and work with local Future Farmers of America clubs to host classes at Green Box.

Linker said on Monday that Green Box is in for a bit of a “journey” to find the right spot for the business in the state’s produce market.

“For a small farm to be in between a small farmers market and a huge corporate conglomerate, it’s sometimes really tricky,” Linker said. “I’m excited to see where they can go in this journey and go from zero to seeing it on a Publix shelf.”

This story has been updated from its original version.

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Yellow oyster mushrooms. - photo by Nick Bowman
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