Tanner Sanness Finds Niche in Mushroom Biz

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Tanner Sanness
Tanner Sanness is pictured in his Reconnected Farms grow space with a batch of oyster mushrooms ready for harvesting.

When Tanner Sanness ’19 graduated from Viterbo, he jumped right into his field of study—marketing—with a full-time job as a marketing consultant at a company where he interned as a senior. He has since pivoted to running his own business, and it’s off to a great start. You might even say it’s mushrooming.

Sanness grew up on a farm near Dorchester, Iowa, right on the Minnesota border. After graduating from Spring Grove High School, where he was a standout football player, he decided higher education was his ticket away from the hard manual labor that goes with farming and a chance to use his brainpower.

He started his studies at Western Technical College and took advantage of the articulation agreements between Western and Viterbo to complete his bachelor’s degree at Viterbo’s Dahl School of Business. His senior year, Sanness got an internship at River Valley Media Group, which, as often happens, turned into a job opportunity after he graduated.

Before long, though, Sanness discovered that hunkering down in an office all day wasn’t what he wanted either. So he quit his consulting job and took a leap of faith to start his own business that combined what he learned at Viterbo and his farm background.

“I really liked all the professors at Viterbo and learned a lot about business, things I still use every day,” Sanness said. “One of the best lessons was the principal of differentiation in the marketplace.”

As an athlete, Sanness developed an interest in good nutrition, and the benefits of mushrooms for good health intrigued him, particularly lion’s mane mushrooms. Plenty of companies were selling nutritional supplements containing dried lion’s mane mushrooms, among others.

The thing about nutritional supplements is you really can’t be sure what you’re getting. He couldn’t find lion’s mane mushrooms for sale anywhere, so Sanness decided to try growing his own. “I kind of fell down the rabbit hole after that,” Sanness said with a laugh.

Tanner Sanness LMM
Lion's mane mushrooms have a distinctive look to them, true to their name.

He took an online class on mushroom cultivation through Cornell University, and as he learned more and more, he realized there was an unfilled niche for mushrooms that have superfood qualities. He had his “differentiation in the marketplace,” and his company, Reconnected Farms, was born.

In his research, Sanness found that there weren’t any companies in this area growing mushrooms that are a nutritional step above the typical “button” mushrooms people eat. Those mainstream mushrooms, which include portabella, cremini, and canned button varieties, are secondary saprophytes. They feed on organic matter in an advanced stage of decomposition.

Primary saprophytes, like the lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms Sanness grows and sells, get in on the feeding at an earlier stage of decomposition, when there are more nutrients to be gained.

Despite starting his new business just as a pandemic was unfolding, Sanness is off to a stellar start. He has his mushrooms available in 13 grocery stores, and they are on the menu in seven restaurants, so far.

He also regularly has Reconnected Farms mushrooms for sale at five area farmers markets. Employees take care of most of the markets, but Sanness usually comes himself to the Cameron Park farmers market in La Crosse, not far from his old Viterbo stomping grounds.

By June, Sanness will have a new grow room ready in a converted refrigerated semitrailer that will more than double his capacity. With the extra space, he plans to add shiitake mushrooms to his product line. He does have competition in the fresh shiitake arena, but the ones in area stores now come from farther away so there’s added transportation costs. His lower prices give him an edge, and Sanness already has seven stores committed to carrying his shiitake mushrooms.

Sanness has enjoyed combining agricultural work and the business and marketing skills he learned at Viterbo. Looking into the future and the growth prospects for Reconnected Farms, he might have to let somebody take on more of the mushroom cultivation and packaging part so he can concentrate on cultivating customers.

“Running a business is a lot of work, but I’m having some fun with it,” Sanness said. “The uniqueness of it really helps.”

Tanner Sanness
So far, mushrooms from Reconnected Farms are in 13 area grocery stores and seven restaurants. Sanness has plans to add shiitake mushrooms in the near future.