Karen and Brian Wiseman carefully cultivated their careers. Both spent years at Boston-area bio-tech and pharmaceutical companies, dedicated to the advance of health, wellness and medicine.
“I was a chemical engineer, working on the early development of protease inhibitors, now used to treat HIV,” Karen recalls. At another point, she managed multimillion-dollar projects for a pharmaceutical giant, where she met fellow employee Brian.
But, as the Wisemans’ Peaceful Harvest Mushrooms website explains it, “we wanted to weave the fabric of our lives back together in a different way; one that was truly in line with our values.”
So in 2010, Karen recounts, they left their big jobs and home in southern New Hampshire to become mushroom farmers in central Vermont.
“Our friends thought we were crazy,” she remembers.
With their backgrounds in pharmaceuticals, they knew of the health benefits associated with mushrooms. “Statins,” Karen notes, “which are used to treat high cholesterol, were based on components from the Reishi mushroom,” one of the varieties Peaceful Harvest grows. Mushrooms and herbs used for thousands of years in Eastern medicine have in fact been synthesized to provide the bases of many successful Western pharmaceutical brands, she says.
“Lion’s Mane mushrooms are known for neurological benefits, and Cordyceps mushrooms support lung and immune functions,” she says, “Nature works in this amazing, complex way.”
They cashed out their retirement funds and bought a property in Worcester, fitting the home and outbuildings with a commercial kitchen, sterile lab space, and a climate-controlled, humidified room.
“Mushrooms need about 90 percent humidity to grow,” Karen says, “and the space has to be sterile so other organisms won’t develop.”
Brian set to work growing mushroom varieties, while Karen handled marketing, distribution and more. “I’d drive for hours, making deliveries to Stowe, then Middlebury, Montpelier and Burlington to sell just 3 to 5 pounds of fresh mushrooms.”
If selling fresh mushrooms presented certain market obstacles, the Wisemans, undaunted, began to cultivate another idea: dried mushrooms. Easier to transport, less spoilage and, from a marketing perspective, there were few competitors producing dried mushroom tinctures and powders, a clear competitive advantage.
After careful development of an introductory line, Karen packed up her Peaceful Harvest medicinal mushroom supplements and hit the road. At a single retail site, a small food co-op, she sold out her entire stock. “We’d found a niche,” she says.
Deliveries were quicker, shelf life was longer, demand was growing fast. “We developed a following and it was profitable.”
Karen and Brian continued to immerse themselves in the study of herbalism, anatomy, physiology and more. They also learned that federal regulations mandated a larger space for their operations.
By the time they’d located the ideal property just minutes down the road in Worcester, they’d already considered various financing strategies.
“We weren’t a viable business model for angel investors who wanted to see rapid growth,” Karen recalls. “We knew of businesses that failed after growing too fast. And we weren’t interested in taking on debt we couldn’t pay back.”
On the advice of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program, the Wisemans reached out to the Vermont Community Loan Fund.
The loan fund’s SPROUT loan program serves start-up and early-stage businesses like the Wisemans’, providing the flexibility that have allowed for the phased development of their business. The Wisemans’ SPROUT loan provided capital for fit-up and renovations to their new growing and production buildings just down the road from their home.
“We had a lot at stake, our homestead and our business that we’d put everything into,” Karen says. “The Loan Fund wasn’t interested in pushing us to grow too rapidly, or in taking our home. They were interested, like we were, in building community.”
By the time the COVID crisis hit in the early spring of 2020, Peaceful Harvest had a sizable enough inventory to satisfy a growing customer base seeking to boost health and immune systems with medicinal mushrooms. Throughout the ongoing health crisis, Peaceful Harvest’s business has been, well, mushrooming.
“We’ve come full circle,” Karen says. reflecting on goals that have long been central and meaningful to her and Brian. “We’re helping people, growing food, feeding people, supporting our community. It’s everything we’ve always wanted to do.”
The Vermont Community Loan Fund, a nonprofit, alternative, mission-driven lender benefitting lower-wealth Vermonters has loaned $1,371,936 so far in 2020 to Vermont’s small businesses, developers of affordable housing, community facilities and early care and education programs. Among the other businesses the Vermont Community Loan Fund provided financing to during the first half of the year:
• My Favorite Things Food Truck, Jeffersonville.
My Favorite Things chef and owner Lea Ann Macrery first borrowed from the loan fund in 2019 to buy the vehicle from which she operates her food truck and catering business. Committed to sourcing local ingredients at a sometimes-higher price point, Macrery borrowed again from the loan fund to cover these and other seasonal operating costs. The loan preserves one full-time job. facebook.com/myfavoritethingsvt.
• Wilson Herb Farm, Greensboro (2 loans).
Wilson Herb Farm grows organic culinary and medicinal herbs for the value-added products it sells online, at wholesale, retail and farmers’ markets. When Wilson bought another nearby organic produce farm and farmstand, it came to the loan fund for financing to purchase inventory and develop the site into a seasonal marketplace offering local, organic, sustainably grown food and products. The loan preserves two jobs and creates two new ones. wilsonherbfarm.com.
• The loan fund, because of its relationships with the Small Business Administration and other organizations, was able to help a number of businesses obtain federal Paycheck Protection funds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them are The Kids’ School in Stowe and the Round Hill Kids Child Care Center in Hyde Park.