They are neither plants nor animals. They have potent chemicals that might cure disease. They spend almost their entire existence living underground. And they’re delicious.
They’re mushrooms. And they’re at a farmers market near you.
Small scale mushroom farmers are sprouting up like fungi all over the South Sound. On Saturday and Sunday, many of them will be at the Pacific Northwest Mushroom Festival when it returns to Lacey with informational displays, cooking demonstrations, music and children’s entertainment.
Despite dozens of edible varieties that grow wild or in cultivation, the common white and brown button mushroom (Agaricus) makes up 83 percent of the $1.1 billion mushroom industry in the U.S. It’s like walking into a florist’s shop and finding only white and red roses for sale.
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Ostrom’s, the large-scale Lacey mushroom company, only grows the two varieties of Agaricus. That’s mostly due to customer demand but also because cultivating mushrooms requires almost operating-room like sterility. Spores from one species can interfere in the growing of another.
“It really needs to be a separate growing operation,” said Fletcher Street, director of marketing and sales for Ostrom’s. “You can barely grow brown Agaricus (crimini/Portobello) and white Agaricus in the same growing room.”
While specialty mushrooms aren’t the focus of Ostrom’s business, the company buys from and encourages the smaller operators. The major hurdle, Street said, is just getting people to increase their mushroom repertoire.
“If (growers) can get people to try it then they’ll want to buy it,” she said.
PROVISIONS MUSHROOM FARM
Not many farmers can boast both wild and cultivated crops on their acreage. But that’s the situation Christian and Ria Kaelin have on five acres near Rochester.
The couple own Provisions Mushroom Farm, a company that grows what’s generically called gourmet mushrooms – everything except buttons. Most of their property is wild forest. In 2013, the Kaelins harvested 100 pounds of wild chanterelles there.
The bulk of the business, however, are the mushrooms Christian carefully cultivates — anywhere from five to ten species at a time.
The Kaelins contribute mushrooms to a CSA (Community Support Agriculture) share with Helsing Junction Farm in Rochester. Each member gets about one pound of mushrooms a week.
They sell mushrooms at the Olympia and Proctor (Tacoma) farmers markets and Olympia Food Co-ops. They also sell mushroom “patches” — kits that contain a growing medium inoculated with spores — as well as inoculated plugs that can be inserted into logs.
Year-round, Christian grows oysters, shiitake and lion’s mane. Seasonals include enoki, pioppino, maitake, nameko and different kinds of oysters. He also grows medicinal varieties like reishi, cordyceps and turkey tail.
In addition to the chanterelles, Christian will forage for cauliflower, matsutake, lobster and porcini varieties. Some mushrooms require 30- to 50-year-old forests in order to grow. Others, like morels, prefer a freshly burned forest.
“The more diversity of forests, the more diversity of mushrooms,” he said.
Ask specialty mushroom growers such as the Kaelins why they grow them and you’ll get the same three answers: Taste, nutrition and medicine. But dig a little deeper and you’ll start to hear words like “fascinating,” “unusual” and “weird.” There is little about mushrooms that is comparable to other life forms.
“There is something naturally intriguing about mushrooms, even if people don’t like to eat them. They come out of nowhere. So there’s this mystery about them.”
Mushrooms – sometimes called toadstools – are the fruiting body of a much larger unseen life form called mycelium. Growing beneath the forest floor, in a dead tree or in a commercial substrate, it’s the thread-like mycelium that makes up the “body” of the mushroom. Imagine an apple tree that grows completely underground – roots, trunks and branches – and only reveals itself when apples suddenly spring from the earth, and you’ll have a good idea of what a mushroom is about.
Mycelium often has a symbiotic relationship with tree roots in which they exchange nutrients. While alive, trees produce a substance that prevents fungal growth inside of the wood. But within a few weeks of a tree’s death, the substance disappears and the mycelium can invade the wood and begin to feed off of it. If you see mushrooms growing on the trunk of a tree, you don’t even need to look up to know it’s already dead.
Mushroom growers such as the Kaelins mimic and manipulate the natural lifecycle of mycelium to produce mushrooms that they can sell. It’s a tricky business and requires a keen understanding of the often mysterious ways of mushrooms.
Christian is a native of Utah and Ria is from Arizona. In 1995, Christian was living on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. It was there that he read a book by Shelton-based mushroom guru Paul Stamets, owner of mushroom grower and purveyor Fungi Perfecti. Stamets is an internationally known mushroom authority who studies the medicinal and ecological benefits of mushrooms. He also lectures on them and holds mushroom growing seminars.
It was one of those seminars that led Christian into the mushroom world. In 2004, Christian moved to the area and went to work for Stamets. In 2007, he left Fungi Perfecti and started Provisions.
Christian’s growing process begins with his laboratory where he keeps mushroom tissue in cold storage. Some of the mycelium he has in various petri dishes and tubes is five to 10 years old. He calls it his master culture.
The lab runs under positive air pressure. HEPA filters keep out insects, bacteria and mold spores. The process is more similar to medicine than it is horticulture, Christian said.
Each mushroom variety requires its own particular growing process. But all of them require a sterile growing medium usually made from a combination of sawdust and grain product. That mixture provides the growing mycelium with carbohydrates and sugar.
The specialty mushroom industry really took off in the 1980s when plastic bags were widely introduced. The bags hold the mycelium and allow the mushrooms to fruit from the top or from holes cut in them.
The Kaelins’ operation involves different buildings used for various stages and varieties.
“We’re teasing nature to be happy at first,” Christian explained of the nutrient rich bags. Then, a little trickery comes into play. Temperature and moisture levels are changed, stimulating the mycelium to produce mushrooms. Like most mushroom growers, he is reticent to reveal his exact and hard earned formulas and processes.
From the time the mycelium infused medium is placed in the incubators and grow houses until the mushrooms are ready to harvest varies from 14 to 45 days. A fruiting can occur quickly and isn’t always predictable. “You really have to be on top of shiitake,” Christian said.
After the bags have fruited some varieties, like oysters, will produce more flushes. Shiitake must be dried out and then soaked in water to produce another flush. Eventually, enough of the energy in the growing medium will be used to the point that they are no longer viable. The spent material is dumped in the Kaelins’ fruit and vegetable garden where sometimes shiitake will sprout another crop of mushrooms on their own.
“Thousands and thousands of those blocks have gone in to this,” Ria said of the garden. The earth is spongy underfoot. Here and there shiitake springs from the earth.
All mushroom growers face a hurdle: the education of the public. The Kaelins are often asked how to cook their “exotic” mushrooms compared to the “normal” varieties. (Answer: exactly the same way.) For many people their use of mushrooms amounts to only salads and pizzas.
“Texture is such a big thing for people,” Christian said, acknowledging that not everybody likes the feel of a cooked mushroom. “If you can cook the mushrooms hot and fast and get them crunchy, people enjoy them more. You can broil them, bake them and grill them.” The Kaelins put them on steaks and use them as side dishes.
Buoyed by success, the Kaelins are expanding. A new barn with a laboratory has been built and an eight-foot long autoclave for sterilizing growing medium will soon go online.
Adam and Astrid DeLeo live in the family home he grew up in near Key Center. But the house has changed a bit since he was a boy. It has two refrigerators – one with food and the other full of petri dishes. Mason jars full of grain colonized with various mushroom strains fill an area just off their bedroom.
“It used to be a washer and dryer,” Adam said of the space. “I hauled those out not too long ago.”
Adam met Astrid, a native of Denmark, at an ecological learning community in Scotland. In 2011, Stamets came to the village to give a presentation on mushrooms.
“He said, ‘I’m from Olympia, Washington.’ I’d never heard of him before,” Adam recalled.
Hooked, Adam soon began growing mushrooms at the Scottish community. The DeLeos moved back to the U.S. in late 2013. A former commercial fisherman, Adam decided to make mushroom cultivation his new career.
“I knew I could grow mushrooms. I didn’t know if I could sell mushrooms,” Adam said.
The couple soon established a relationship with Green Mountain Mushrooms, a Key Peninsula based wholesale specialty mushroom farm. The couple sells Green Mountain’s products as well as their own.
On his family’s Key Center property, Adam has built an eight by 16 foot mushroom grow house.
“When I went to Home Depot and told them I was building a grow house they gave me quite a look,” Adam recalled.
Adam handles the production while Astrid handles sales. They usually have shiitake and oysters on hand. His favorite, king oysters, are hard to grow in summer when temperatures are high. The DeLeos sell at farmers markets including downtown Tacoma, Sixth Avenue, South Tacoma, Gig Harbor and Steilacoom. They also sell to local restaurants like Brix 25, The Green Turtle, Marrow, Marzano and Maxwell’s.
Adam is just starting to grow medicinal turkey tail mushrooms, originally harvested from the wild on his property. The shelf fungus, which resembles its namesake, can be soaked in hot water for a tea or in alcohol. Medicinal mushrooms have a higher profit margin, Adam said. But he’s also a believer in their health benefits.
“I get a lot of satisfaction out of what we’re doing in knowing that the shiitake and oyster mushrooms we’re growing here have a positive effect on the immune system,” Adam said.
Mushrooms, and their extracts (Stamets’ Fungi Perfecti has a large line of supplements) are often promoted for their medical qualities. While much research still needs to be conducted, the results so far are promising.
The American Cancer Society states, “Studies in animals have found antitumor, cholesterol-lowering, and virus-inhibiting effects in compounds in shiitake mushrooms. However, clinical studies are needed to determine whether these properties can help people with cancer and other diseases. It is reasonable to include shiitake mushrooms as part of a balanced diet.”