Ammunition bunkers may be nurseries for shitakes
Dozens of earth-covered bunkers near Hawthorne that once stored ammunition for the nation’s military might find new life in a commercial mushroom-growing operation.
The proposal is one of several plans — some of them involving indoor agriculture — that are on the drawing board to develop civilian uses at the sprawling military facility in central Nevada.
Those proposals range from hydroponic growth of gluten-free grain to storage of fireworks, said Shelley Hartman, executive director of the Mineral County Economic Development Authority.
Sierra Delectables Specialty Mushrooms, a startup spearheaded by Reno businessman Rudi Wiedemann, is looking to raise $50,000 to launch a pilot project to grow shitake mushrooms at the Hawthorne Army Depot.
If that’s successful, the company would need to raise another $150,000 to $200,000 to begin full-scale production.
In Eastern states, large-scale shitake-growing operations generally are located in caves, Wiedemann said, and the ammunition bunkers provide the same sort of light, moisture and climate control.
The bunkers don’t have electrical power, so Sierra Delectables plans to construct small solar units to provide the power that’s needed for small amounts of lighting and air-handling within each bunker.
A small shitake grower in Washington State has developed proprietary techniques to grow shitake mushrooms in a sterile medium created from softwoods — East Coast producers rely on hardwoods — and Sierra Delectables has partnered with that grower.
The desert climate of Mineral County reduces the challenges of invasive species or potential contaminants into the mushroom-growing operations, Wiedemann said.
“It doesn’t take a lot of water,” he added, noting that the mushrooms will be grown in a self-contained environment within the bunkers.
The mushrooms would be certified as organically grown.
The company estimates that each bunker could produce about 1,500 pounds of mushrooms a month. Shitakes sell for about $8 a pound wholesale.
The company’s first markets, Wiedemann said, are expected to be restaurants and grocers in Las Vegas and Reno — Hawthorne is roughly halfway between the two cities — as well as northern California.
Refrigerated shipments by air could reach customers around the world as Sierra Delectables steps up production, its founders say.
The company would grow the business in units of seven bunkers — there are about 2,500 of them scattered across the Hawthorne Depot — and it’s won approval from the Army for its plans.
The Army is looking for alternate uses of facilities at the depot, which is by far the largest employer in Mineral County.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials who are eager to encourage job-creation in rural areas also have thrown support behind the Sierra Delectables plan.
Another food-related company, Smile Foods of Las Vegas, is in the midst of a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise $250,000 for a processing plant on the base property. The facility would process teff into gluten-free flour.
Smile Foods also hopes to conduct trials involving hydroponic techniques to grow teff in enclosed spaces such as those available at Hawthorne Army Depot.
While none of the projects currently proposed for the buildings at the base are big employers, Hartman said local officials are willing to take a step-by-step approach, adding a few jobs at a time to the Hawthorne-area economy.
Sierra Delectables would employ only a handful of workers, Wiedemann said, but spinoff benefits to the community might include the possibility of boutique-styled businesses that create products using mushrooms purchased from Sierra Delectables.
The company also is looking at the possibility of growing other varieties of mushrooms, both for nutritional and medicinal markets, at the Hawthorne facility.
Once its financing is in place, Sierra Delectables could be selling shitake mushrooms within four to six months, Wiedemann said.