Danielle and Peter Ralston think big with Tiny Tinks Farm
Peter and Danielle Ralston’s backyard is a 4,000-square-foot wonderland. With mushrooms growing inside and out of their home, colorful nasturtiums blooming, and 17 varieties of heirloom produce all around, it’s a beautifully unique landscape, and not what one would expect in a suburban backyard.
Mowing the lawn was Peter’s least favorite thing about owning their house. He’d always dreamed about having a large vegetable garden. He asked Danielle, his wife, “Are you going to be OK with me taking up most of the backyard for a garden we may or may not be able to make succeed because I don’t know what I’m doing?” As a parent to a growing family of boys (including one just born this July), Danielle told him to go ahead. “At least we’ll be able to use all the produce for ourselves and cut down on our food bills.” The couple broke ground on their joint lifestyle venture that blends the professional and personal, incorporating their children in the work to make their organic urban micro farm run. This is their third season at Twin Cities metro area farmers’ markets.
When we met for our interview, Peter was just taking a break from the in-house mushroom incubation room. The colors and shapes of the mushrooms are as beautiful as their names: pearl and golden oysters, lions mane, pioppino, and shiitakes. Like humans, fungi inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. As they grow, they produce warmth. Making sure that they don’t overheat is as important as providing the right food. The cultivated mushrooms grow from a mix of hard oak sawdust and organic soybean hulls. The strains come from a secret mushroom growers guild whose members share successful cultures much like bakers share sourdough starters.
Peter, the force behind Midwest Mushrooms, was drawn to mushrooms because of their unique personalities. After being laid off from a St. Paul engineering firm three years ago, he took out several loans and launched a mini mushroom farm in the basement. He and Danielle are also licensed foragers through the Minnesota Mycological Society, which allows them to offer local seasonal items at market.
Peter enjoys outreach and education. “We want to inspire other people, whether it’s urban farming or more organic practices for their own yards.” He’s been working with a professor at Dakota County Technical College to document their best practices so that others can replicate their model. They have a camper in their driveway where people interested in establishing their own micro farms can spend a packed week living and working with them with continued mentorship afterward.
Danielle, the compact workhorse and graphic designer behind Tiny Tinks Farm, didn’t really care for mushrooms. She was in favor of the garden so that there would be things she wanted to eat. Now an ardent advocate for the versatility of mushrooms, she cooks them frequently. “I’ve grown to really like mushrooms in each dish. I’m kind of bummed when we sell out. Then I’m like, how are we going to make our pasta sauce?”
Tiny Tinks’s offerings include a range of unique vegetables for the local community. Including micro greens was a logical fit, said Peter. “They’re tiny little sprouts with little true leaves and our urban farm, our micro garden, is also very small. And Danielle is also very small.” Danielle seeks out unusual produce that she’s excited about. New items this year include tiara cabbages and Mexican gherkin cucumber–also tiny items. The uncommon produce can be a conversation starter with a market-goer unfamiliar with their products. It also caught the eye of local celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who featured their produce on an Instagram Live program last summer.
Another richness of their micro farming lifestyle is the communities they’ve found: mushroom guilds, farmers’ markets, CSA members, and their own employees. Peter reflected, “We didn’t see that coming. We thought we were just going to start a mushroom farm and try to sell the stuff at markets.” Danielle especially enjoys the farmers’ market community, “My favorite part is being able to be outside and socialize with other people besides my toddler! I also love to cook so it’s fun to tell people recipes and get them excited about cooking. I also get to learn from the other vendors and explore what they’re growing.”
They have found new personal food favorites through the market community. Peter’s eyes lit up as he described Great Harvest’s flour milling process that results in lemon sugar cookies that he loves. While she enjoys making her own salsas, Danielle is a big fan of Mean Green’s mango hot sauce. At home, they love cooking from the classic The Silver Palate.
Try some new mushrooms to make the Ralston’s go-to pasta sauce. This is a rich mushroom sauce where all the flavor from the mushrooms goes into the cream.
Tiny Tinks Umami Mushroom Sauce
1/2 pound Tiny Tinks Farm Mushrooms (Pioppino, Pink Oyster, Italian Oyster, Shiitake or other Umami rich mushroom)
butter, garlic, salt
3 Tbsp. Dry White Wine
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Cream to taste
Chop mushrooms and saute with butter, salt, and garlic at medium low heat.
(Do not wash mushrooms, store in fridge in a paper bag.)
Once mushrooms have softened and cooked, add white wine and cook for 1 minute or until alcohol is cooked off.
Add parmesan and cream and stir until it has a smooth consistency.
Add over the top of chicken or fettuccine or both!
Meet the Minnesota Makers: Land of 10,000 Treats is an occasional feature by freelance writer Michelle M. Sharp. email her at: [email protected]
Midwest Mushrooms, LLC
Midwest Mushrooms, LLC
16330 Flagstaff Avenue West
Disclaimer: The views, suggestions, and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Herald Quest journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.