Delicious Sustainability

On a cold morning late in February, David Wells, Jon Ramirez, and a small crew of local hands gathered under a carport at Ramirez’s Thriving Earth Farm to give inoculations. Not to people, but to about 500 sweetgum logs sustainably harvested from the forest on Ramirez’s land. The workers got busy drilling angled holes into the small, straight logs, filled them with mushroom spawn-laced sawdust, and then covered the openings with paraffin wax. Wells, owner of the mushroom business Henosis, had provided the shiitake mushroom spawn from the Henosis lab. Ramirez and Wells sold nearly all of those shiitake-bearing logs at the Nashville Lawn and Garden Show in early March. The happy buyers are looking forward to several flushes of shiitake this fall.

“If you inoculate your logs in cooler weather — winter, early spring, late fall, they will fruit the next fall,” Ramirez explains.

But the mushroom business isn’t just about the commercial market for Ramirez and Wells; they are both quick to point out the ecological importance of fungus in the big picture of a healthy planet, especially when it comes to soil regeneration.

“Sustainable forest products can actually add value to the forest,” Ramirez says. “The mushroom logs we use we can put right back into the forest after use to become compost.”

Wells adds, “Ten inches of substrate wood chips [on which mycelium, the network of fine white filaments which are the vegetative part of mushrooms, has been growing] can become two inches of topsoil in four years.”

For both men, growing mushrooms is one piece in a larger effort toward developing permaculture (agricultural systems that are ecological, sustainable, and permanent) in Middle Tennessee. Psychedelic jokes aside, Ramirez and Wells both believe the region is a great place for mushroom cultivation, especially as part of an overall emphasis on agricultural diversity.

“We have so many possibilities for local, diverse agriculture here, and we’re heading in that direction, with more farm-to-table,” Wells observes. “We just need to do more.”

When Ramirez was growing up in Queens, New York, like most city kids, he wasn’t thinking about becoming a farmer. “I went away to a senior military college aiming for an officer’s commission,” he says. “But then I had a big change of heart.” That change led him from military aspirations to sustainable farming in Tennessee.

“I was looking at all the problems in the world then, and they seemed unending. So I went looking for solutions,” he explains. Ramirez found some of those solutions by apprenticing with the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (C.R.A.F.T.), a network of organic, sustainable farms in New York and Massachusetts. He spent some time co-managing a farm that served 250 families through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) business model. Then about four years ago, he and his wife, Heather Sevcik, a midwife, purchased 18 acres near Nashville’s Beaman Park and founded Thriving Earth Farm and Development.

Ramirez grows shiitake mushrooms as part of Thriving Earth’s farm-to-table effort. “Shiitakes last the longest and are easiest to grow,” he says.  Part diverse market garden, part silvo-pasture for raising small farm animals, part forest, part regenerative land development and natural building company, Thriving Earth Farm has begun to offer solutions to some of the problems, like deforestation and aggressive commodity farming, that drew Ramirez to agriculture. “A big part of the solution has been to get back to the land, to get the land back by farming in a sustainable way in order to reclaim our health and the health of the earth.”

Like Ramirez, Wells came to agriculture in search of solutions to some of the same problems. Henosis, located in Whites Creek, is just a few miles from Thriving Earth Farm. The neighboring mushroom growers offer proof that more than just subdivisions are springing up out there on Nashville’s suburban rim.

Why did Wells choose to focus on growing mushrooms as opposed to some other food? Well, it wasn’t the culinary aspect that first drew him to fungus cultivation.

“Initially, my interest in mushrooms was sparked by learning about the interdependence of fungus and plants, and about the mycoremediation aspects of mushrooms and ecology,” he explains.  Mycoremediation, a form of environmental restoration that relies on fungus to draw out toxins from contaminated areas of earth, has been used to mop up things in the soil that endanger its health, like heavy metals, dioxins, herbicides, and industrial waste. And while that was where Wells’ enthusiasm for fungus began, he also saw a backyard economic opportunity in sustainable agriculture.

“Of course studying and growing mushrooms lends itself to market gardening, and you can scale it to a level that’s appropriate for home growing too,” Wells says.  He founded Henosis (the name is a Greek word meaning unity) in 2013, in part to offer mycoremediation services, but also to grow mushrooms for sale at farmers markets and to local eateries. Currently, Wells is focusing on growing varieties of oyster mushrooms. Henosis also supplies other growers with mushroom spawn for lion’s mane, shiitake, pioppino, and the blue, king, and pearl oyster varieties.

In the wild, mycelium spreads through the soil and breaks it down into compost, but it doesn’t just provide mushrooms with soil nutrients; it creates a vast underground network through which the entire woodland ecosystem communicates, sharing habitat updates, nutrients, antibodies, enzymes, and other life-sustaining goodies around the neighborhood. Mycelium provides fundamental forest infrastructure that senses changes in the environment and sends that information along to all the plants and trees. Those rumors about plants communicating with each other are actually true. The mycelium internet is one of the ways they do that. And it has been demonstrated that certain plants, like wild carrots — better known as Queen Anne’s lace — actually grow better with mushroom companions. A healthy mycelium makes for a healthy forest; it yields mushrooms, as well as food for forest dwellers. Of the many sorts of fungi out there, at least 17 varieties are good eating for humans, and many have medicinal properties too.

“We’re used to eating only a few types of button mushrooms in this country, like white button caps, or brown, like portabella.” Wells says. “But there are so many more, a great variety of taste and texture. In Asia and Europe for instance, people cultivate and eat so many other mushrooms; it’s just part of the food culture in those places.”

Why is it that only a few kinds of mushrooms make it to the American plate? “Policy dictates what the American palate is. And policy favors commodity farming.
We gave up our traditional agriculture, which was diverse, in favor of row crops,” Wells explains. He believes we have the potential to expand that monoculture palate, in part by eating more and different types of mushrooms.

A national touch of mycophobia may also play a role in the American reluctance to consume unfamiliar mushrooms. “People are also a little afraid of mushrooms because they are so ephemeral, especially in the wild, and we can’t really tame them. Mushrooms aren’t the same thing as row crops,” Wells says, “We need to educate people more about the value of mushrooms as food, as medicine, and with regard to ecology as well.”

Wells and Ramirez are doing just that, with both Henosis and Thriving Earth Farm each offering various workshops on mushroom cultivation and cuisine, along with teaching people that Tennessee is a good place to cultivate mushrooms.

“Our climate [in Tennessee] is not that much different than other places known for mushrooms,” says Wells. “We’re a bit warmer than some, and we’re not near an ocean like growers in Japan, but we are plenty wet. Mushrooms have always grown here; people have always foraged them but also cultivated them. You probably know someone, probably an older person, who forages morels for instance.”

For Wells, king oyster mushrooms are the “bread and butter” of his mushroom business. Inside a sparkling clean 16-by-8 grow trailer on rows of shelving, the next harvest of oyster mushrooms grows in about 1200 pounds of sawdust substrate arranged in neatly aligned white bags.  Between 200 to 400 pounds of mushrooms go out each week to restaurants and markets.

Cultivated mushrooms begin in the Henosis lab where Wells coaxes mycelium threads across a potato dextrose medium in petri dishes by giving them a cozy warm, nutrient-rich and HEPA-filtered environment in which to thrive. He likes to change out the potato dextrose for other kinds of nutrients now and then. “Mushrooms actually get bored if they eat the same thing for six months,” Wells explains. The small room smells sweet and loamy with growth, a distinctive aroma one might remember from certain biology labs.

To get the mycelium running (developing threads) and producing mushrooms, Wells transfers spawn to a substrate: sawdust, wood chips, grain, soybean, or coffee bean husks. He’ll try out different strains on different substrates, looking for just the right match that will yield tasty, vigorous varieties. It takes about three months for mushrooms to go from the petri dish to market-ready.

One of Wells recent projects is to create a good strain of almond oyster mushrooms. He discovered that when he grew a particular strain of mushroom in compost that had been created by oyster mushrooms, somehow the mushrooms came to taste like almonds. He’s working on developing that strain for market.

This year Henosis received a grant through the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Program to study the effects of mushroom mulch on vegetable crops in the South, based on the holistic concept of mushroom companionship facilitating growth. Wells hopes the mushroom mulch will work its magic and significantly improve yields, and he’s testing his theory at Henosis by comparing the yields from vegetable gardens with the same plantings and different mulches or no mulch.

At Thriving Earth Farm, mushroom growing is integrated with another important aspect of sustainable farming, forestry. The Thriving Earth property previously had been a commercial row crop farm, and in recent decades, large tracts of land went unfarmed and reverted to forest. Sweetgum proliferated, which is one of the reasons Ramirez chose to use them for shiitake logs.

“When we first moved here, everyone said sweetgum are trash trees, useless,” Ramirez says. “It’s true that they are over-represented on the property, and for that reason, we decided to use them for our shiitake logs. Most people use red or white oak or other hardwoods for mushroom growing, but those are under-represented here, so we won’t take those. By thinning the sweetgum, we make room in the forest for other things to grow, for greater diversity. It turns out sweetgum make great shiitake logs; they are very straight, and the mushrooms grow really well on them. So our shiitake business is helping us bring our forest back into ecological balance. If you let the forest grow and give it time, harvest selectively instead of clear-cutting, you’ll always be able to get wood from it.”

In a region facing increased stresses on land use and water resources due to growing population and sometimes less-than-thoughtful development, the fight for sustainable, ethical agriculture is on. Wells and Ramirez are certain that decreasing our dependence on food sources from outside the region and diversifying our local selection make for a good start.

“California’s on fire; they’re the ones growing all our food and using up all the water,” Wells says.  “There is a growing local food movement here. Mushrooms are a part of that, but we still have a long way to go.”

“The name of the game is diversity,” Ramirez says. “If you are paying any attention at all, or thinking about the future, you have to think about how to keep the land healthy, how to get what we need from it ethically and sustainably, because all life depends on that.”

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