Mushroom Farms Are Indeed Magical
I’ve spent the past several months learning about the magical world of mushrooms. No, I haven’t been tripping on psilocybin and watching cartoons all day. I have been reading, eating and learning about how to find, identify and cultivate those delicious morsels from the woods. I’ve always been a fan of the mushroom and have eaten them since I was a child. I remember eating fried morels in Indiana when my Great-Grandmother (affectionately called ‘Bammer’) and my Grandmother used to arrive back from the hunt with bags full. And I’ve always been excited about eating them as an adult – especially in different parts of the world such as Provence, Piemonte and Central Europe where they are a much more substantial part of the traditional diet.
Despite their popularity in many parts of the world – mushrooms are one of the top foods in the USA that people fear/dislike the most, ranking up there with fish. I don’t know why but my guess is that many children have inherited their parents distaste for the fruit of the woods through years of brainwashing at family mealtime. Or, even worse – they have eaten mushrooms from a can. Those insipid, slimy, evil little grey things that pass for mushrooms are truly awful. True, they were once a mushroom. But now they’re in a can. Put there by a man. In a factory downtown… But now they represent malignant little growths that emerge from a primordial slime in canned form and find their way to your plate. That experience alone is enough to frighten even the most adventuresome 6-year-old diner and scar him or her for life.
Living in the Pacific Northwest
I happen to live in an area unrivaled by most others for its welcoming climate to the humble mushroom. The combination of ideal weather patterns and forest growth in the Pac NW offer an ideal environment for fungi fun. From the lovely morel to the bountiful chanterelle to the coveted matsutake – they are all here. It’s a veritable melee of mushroom madness. Earlier this year I joined the Puget Sound Mycological Society (yes, this exists and for a mere $30 your family can join over 1200 other members and have access to field trips, mushroom identification sessions and all sorts of workshops and other mushroomy info.
In September, I picked up a copy of Langdon Cook’s latest tome – The Mushroom Hunters. The title reminded me of when I was living in the Czech Republic and my friend Honza asked me if I’d like to go mushroom picking with his family one weekend. I replied, “you mean mushroom hunting”? To which he broke out in laughter and mimicked running around the woods shooting mushrooms with a fake gun. I guess the term was lost in translation… Anyway, I’d read Cook’s earlier book ‘Fat of the Land’ which focused on foraging in the Puget Sound region and loved it. It’s beautifully written based on the seasons and what can be found in and around our area – complete with recipes for your find. I pored through Cook’s latest book which centers primarily on the commercial mushroom trade and his education via Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles. Jeremy is easily one of the hardest working people in the food business and Cook’s account of his enterprise is one of tireless effort, frustration, the secrecy of the trade and the manic pursuit of mushrooms. It also dives deep into the economics of the commercial mushroom business and gives a gritty portrayal of season hunters, backwoods bandits, southeast Asian families and the dangers of foraging alone on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a must read.
Cook’s book turned me on to the ‘bible’ of mushrooming – ‘Mushrooms Demystified’ by David Arora. This thing is a brick. It’s an eponymous tome. It weighs 10 pounds. And it easily has everything you ever wanted to know about finding and identifying mushrooms. It is not for the faint of heart or a quick read though. That said, it has a terrific process for helping the reader to identify their find through process of elimination. If you are serious about getting into the world of fungi you must buy this book. Admittedly, I’m only through the first 100 pages and my head is still spinning.
Salvation is Here – Provisions Mushroom Farm to the Rescue
Now everyone who knows anything about hunting for mushrooms knows that no fungi forager worth his/her salt will tell you where to go to find treasure. These secrets are guarded and sometimes handed down from generation to generation. This is made abundantly clear in Cook’s book. So what do you do if you want great mushrooms but don’t have the wherewithal to hunt for your own? Well, there’s always Whole Foods or the Farmer’s Markets but that’s too easy. Here’s where Christian Kaelin from Provisions Mushroom Farm comes in…
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Christian in mid-December at his farm near Olympia, Washington. It was a typical light gray late fall day in western Washington complete with drizzle and mist. I pulled into Christian’s driveway and was joined by about 20 others who had made the trek there to learn about the process of farming mushrooms. After we had all signed in, Christian talked through his background, business model, love of fungi and plans for the future. It’s clear the man is passionate about his trade and about the multi-purpose nature of mushrooms citing everything from food source to medicinal to oil spill cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico as potential uses. After spending a couple of years working in a bike shop he was turned on to the science of mushrooms by a co-worker which he then parlayed into a job with Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti renown. Christian learned his craft from Paul over the course of about two and half years and then started Provisions in the late summer of 2006. Since then, he’s been able to grow the business to satisfy a weekly demand of 100-140# of mushrooms to support CSA subscriptions alone.
Christian went on to explain the business model in further detail which is basically split evenly 3 ways across Retail/Wholesale business, CSA subscriptions and local Farmers Markets. He stated that demand is by far greater than supply and his greatest limitation right now is the ability to grow more product. To this end, he’s nearing the end of a barn/outbuilding remodel which will greatly increase his lab space for cooking and storing cultures as well as grow space. Christian also went on to explain his plans to set up a co-op and act as a central distribution hub for other mushroom growers while supplying them with the cultures they need to farm successfully.
Starting a mushroom farm is no easy task. Besides having the know-how to cultivate, you also need space and a host of equipment. Christian has made do with 2 high tunnels, a simple 12 x 12 outbuilding used as a lab, and a large garden area for composting spent mushroom materials.
It all starts in the lab where Christian grows his cultures using agar which is ideal as it resists growing bacteria like gelatin will. Agar-based fungi cultures can be kept refrigerated for 5-10 years which is quite impressive. Each time he wants to start a new batch of mushrooms, he takes a slice of agar from the fridge and then transfers it to a petri dish where the culture will grow. Once the cultures are mature, they are transferred to a mixture of sterilized grain and sawdust. The grain is soaked overnight and then cooked in a pressure cooker for 3-4 hours at 15 psi and ~250 degrees. Christian prefers wheat bran, oats and other carb-loaded nutrients for his mixture. The sawdust must also be sterilized before being mixed with the grain (in a cement mixer) and formed into shapes roughly the size of cinder blocks. Once the blocks are formed, they offer the perfect basis for the agar-based cultures to grow.
The blocks are then inoculated with the mushroom cultures, bagged in plastic and sealed with a breathable strip to allow for air flow and placed in one of the two high tunnels on the property. There’s also a pretty cool shipping container that Christian has retrofitted as a grow room. The tunnel and container are kept at ~65-70 degrees and are equipped with HEPA filters to purify the air. Humidity is kept at 80-90% by way of a humidistat and Aquafog hydro machine. Blower fans keep the air moving through the tunnels and container as needed.
Once the blocks have been moved to the grow rooms the fruiting cycle for each species varies. Christian said it takes about 2 weeks for Shiitake to fruit and 4-6 weeks for Oyster and Lions Mane. With each variety you can pick and expect the block to re-fruit under the right conditions. In his opinion, Oysters are the easiest to grow at home for the layman like you or I. Provisions farm grows several varieties of mushrooms including Shiitake, Oyster, Lions Mane and Hedgehog. Check out the farm’s website to see some pretty awesome photos of mushrooms that Christian and family have grown and foraged.
Growing Your Own
After the tour, Christian leads the group to his new barn/lab to try our hands at making our own mushroom logs. He tells us that the ideal hardwood for growing mushrooms is oak with its thick, gnarly bark that will hold up for 5-6 years or more. The substantial bark helps to keep moisture in the heartwood of the log which feeds the mycelium. The more fresh the heartwood, the longer the mycelium will thrive. Today we’ll use some freshly cut alder which will do just fine as oak is harder to come by in Washington. If using cut wood, the sooner you inoculate it the better as it will dry out and be unusable. Christian suggests no more than 2-4 days from cutting for alder and up to 2 weeks for oak.
First, Christian leads us to the work area where there’s a stack of logs, a melted bucket of candle wax, two cordless drills, some hammers and a couple of bags of 1 inch dowels. The dowels have spiral ridges cut into them and are to the point of sterilization and then combined with the mushroom cultures. Today, we’re able to choose between Oyster and Shiitake dowels for our logs. Christian takes a log and starts to drill 5/8″ holes about an inch deep in each quarter: alternating 3 holes, then 2, then 3, then 2 as he spins the log. Then, he hammers dowels into each hole until they are flush with the surface of the bark. Once complete, he finishes the process by using a paintbrush to layer on wax over each of the cut sides of the log. The group each takes turns picking, drilling, hammering and waxing their logs until we’re all set. Fortunately, there are so many that we are all able to take home two. So I do one of each variety of course.
After we’ve finished, Christian informs us that our logs will start fruiting between 14-16 months from now and that we should soak the logs overnight for 8-12 hours in the spring and fall to help induce the fruiting process. Yes – that’s Spring of 2015!? I’m excited to see these logs burst into mushroom covered stumps but man, a year and a half seems like a long time. I guess good things will come to those who wait. I’ve put them next to the gnomes in my garden for inspiration.
On the Hunt in 2014
There is still so much to learn about mushrooms and mushroom farms. 6 months ago I didn’t know that there are only about 5 varieties of mushrooms that can actually kill you if you eat them. Of course, knowing those 5 is of utmost importance and following the rule that “when in doubt, throw it out” is probably very prudent. I’ve started to notice more mushrooms and fungi around as I walk through the woods or even the park. Who knew you could find chanterelles in Green Lake Park in Seattle if you know where to look? I’m looking forward to Spring when I can start to test my skills and perhaps even convince someone in the know to take me out to their secret treasure trove for morels. And you can be sure I’ll be researching where the forest fires were this year so I can hunt down those precious morels as they typically follow seasonal burns in coniferous forests.
Maybe I’ll see you there?
If you enjoyed this recipe then read more about food, farming and eating locally in Seattle by Jason Price at TheHungryDogBlog.com!