Editor’s Note: This is the first of a new homesteading column, which aims to share information on do-it-yourself skills in the home and garden. Often it will tackle skills once taken for granted by our grandparents.
Just inside the back entrance of an unassuming warehouse just west of Carrboro, Rob Jones is weighing pallets of oyster mushrooms. Jones sells to local chefs – they like having a mushroom guy, he said – and at farmers markets. Just a few hours earlier, he had an unexpectedly busy morning at the one in Durham. Mushrooms, as he’s learned, are good business.
Still, he gets the occasional mycophobic question – that is, one reflecting a fear of mushrooms.
“At least once a week someone comes up to the stand and says, ‘These aren’t poisonous, are they?’” said Jones of Understory Farm. “It’s kind of a ridiculous question. Why would I have poisonous mushrooms at the farmers market? That seems like a terrible way to go about having a business.”
Granted, some viciously poisonous mushrooms, such as the lethal (and dramatically named) destroying angel, grow wild in North Carolina, but Jones focuses on gentler fungi. He has three species of oyster mushrooms sprouting in two climate-controlled grow rooms: grey dove mushrooms, native to North Carolina, alongside Italian oysters and pink oysters native to substantially warmer latitudes. He’s one of numerous farmers who’ve made mushrooms their business, starting a tradition of cultivation where one really hadn’t existed before.
Home growing, he said, is no harder than mixing spawn with wood chips and spreading this mixture on garden paths or around perennials as mulch. The fungus will sprout – just wait. Mushrooms, his attitude suggests, aren’t as alien as they seem, just misunderstood. So no, these mushrooms aren’t poisonous. They may even be good for North Carolina.
“We have conducted major breeding research on shiitake and we have new strains, so many that our laboratory has the largest stock of shiitake culture strains on the whole of the North American continent,” said Omon Isikhuemhen, a professor at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.
Since 2002, this mushroom expert has spearheaded efforts to transition farmers from tobacco production to shiitake farming. He ran into some mycophobia at first, but that faded. Today, he has trained hundreds of farmers and provided them with spawn, the mushroom equivalent of seed.
“We have strains that do well at higher temperatures – we’re talking about 75 – and we have strains that do well at 65,” Isikhuemhen said. “When we set up a farmer, we give them all the strains.”
As the seasons and temperatures change, different strains fruit. In the dead of winter and height of summer, though, they don’t produce. Isikhuemhen’s working on that, and hopes to roll out indoor growth kits within a few years. He’s brought A&T’s schools of tech and design into the research as well, and they’re cooperating to develop smaller and simpler year-round setups than the one Jones uses at Understory Farm.
Granted, Jones can grow edible mushrooms in about 21 days, but in interconnected, sealed rooms built like restaurant walk-ins. His incubation room, where bags of straw-based substrate sit for their first week, is minimally ventilated and rich with carbon dioxide. The pressure difference between his farm environment and the outside world is enough to make the door to these rooms feel heavier than it really is.
Yet Jones’ indoor farm is a commercial operation geared toward producing lots of mushrooms in very little time. Home cultivation is a more passive process. Still, historically, there’s not been much of a tradition of mushroom farming in North Carolina – not compared to tobacco, cotton or corn. Most of the East Coast’s mushrooms, Jones points out, are grown in a single small Pennsylvania town, Kennett Square. Couple that absence of tradition and generational knowledge with an ingrained fear of poisonous varieties, and you get a state without a sizable mushroom industry.
“It’s not something that people grew up doing. You don’t have a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, my grandfather used to grow mushrooms in his garden,’” said Jones.
There’s no history, true, but there might be a future. “It’s not super-complicated,” he said.
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How to Grow Mushrooms
▪ Where to buy spawn. Spawn, typically myceliated grain or sawdust, can be bought via sites such as Mushroom Mountain (mushroommountain.com), Asheville Fungi (Ashevillefungi.com) or Field and Forestry Products (fieldforest.com), said Rob Jones of Understory Farm in Carrboro.
▪ Go to a workshop. “The first thing a person should do is contact the ag extension agent for the county and ask if there is a mushroom planting workshop coming up,” said Omon Isikhuemhen, a professor at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro. Visit ces.ncsu.edu for a list of all county extension centers.
▪ Try shiitake. If you do it right, shiitake grows well in North Carolina. The best logs, according to Wake County horticulture extension agent Jeana Myers, are red oak, white oak or sweetgum, cut in late winter or early spring. Let the logs sit about 10 days before drilling holes and plugging them with spawn.
▪ Inoculate your garden paths. Shiitake logs may be the best-known cultivation method, but Jones recommends inoculating fresh hardwood chips with spawn and spreading them on garden paths or around perennials as mulch. Jones recommends king stropharia or oyster mushrooms for this approach.
▪ Know your strain’s weaknesses. Oyster mushrooms are more susceptible to insects, so Isikhuemhen discourages growing them outdoors. Avoid this problem by using oyster strains that fruit in cooler weather.
▪ Be patient, but be observant. “The thing about the logs is typically they take six months to a year to do anything,” Jones said. “Often you forget about it, you leave the log off in the woods somewhere and the mushrooms come and go.” So don’t be impatient, he said, and put your mushrooms somewhere you’ll see them if they fruit. They do so quickly and are easy to miss.
▪ Don’t forage without an expert. Cultivation is the topic here, but the other side of edible mushrooms is foraging, or collecting safe varieties in the wild. “That is what we encourage no one to do unless they have expert guidance,” Isikhuemhen said. “Many people have died.” Go with an experienced forager at first, and don’t hesitate to take a picture and send it to an expert if you’re not sure what species you’ve encountered.
Take a Class
▪ Durham Public Schools Hub Farm is hosting a mushroom inoculation workshop from 1-4 p.m. Feb. 13. Cost: $20 per person, $15 for college student or $10 if you donate your log; free for Durham Public School students. Attendees learn how to prepare logs, inoculate them and store them in a way that promotes growth. Bring a power drill with a 5/16-inch bit and a hammer or mallet. Info: facebook.com/DPSHubFarm.
▪ Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord is hosting a mushroom-growing class 9-11 a.m. March 5. Cost: $60. Class description: Curious about shiitake or oyster mushroom cultivation? Learn by doing at this two-hour course, with practical lessons in what tools you’ll need, what kind of wood to use and how to proceed through every step from preparation and inoculation to harvesting and crop storage. Every participant will prepare and take home their own log, with all material costs included in the registration fee. To sign up, contact Allison Kitfield at 704-216-3546. More info: rccc.edu (view calendar to find listing); lomaxfarm.org