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FUNGI – Double Feature

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Their operation mushroomed!

From growing for themselves this couple developed a vigorous home-business

BY VANESSA FARNSWORTH

Monte Paynter has always been passionate about mushrooms and until five years ago that passion took the form of harvesting native fungi in the forests near his home in Kimberley, B.C.  That was until the day he and his partner, Lija Lasmanis, watched a TED Talk by renowned American mycologist, Paul Stamets and were inspired to start cultivating gourmet mushrooms in their home.

“We looked up his company and found he sells mushroom grow kits, so we ordered one and set up a little greenhouse in our living room and fruited some mushrooms,” says Paynter, who initially intended to grow mushrooms to satisfy his personal needs. “But it came to a point where we realized that if we’re going to grow a small amount, we might as well grow a larger amount because the amount of work can be similar. You have to maintain the cultures and do a lot of the same steps to grow a single bag that you do to grow 20.”

Four years ago, Paynter and Lasmanis founded Kootenai Fungi and began supplying gourmet mushrooms to local restaurants and selling them at the Kimberley Farmers’ Market. Paynter notes that many of the mushrooms he produces are not readily available to consumers for several reasons, but most importantly because they don’t store or transport as well as common varieties such as white button or portobello.

“That’s a benefit for a small scale local grower because you’re not competing with big companies from outside so much,” he says. “But it’s also part of the challenge because anything we harvest has to be refrigerated immediately and sold within a week. And you have to be very careful when handling it.”

Those requirements have the potential to cause significant losses if buyers aren’t readily available.

“So before jumping in and committing, you really need a good understanding of your local market and how much you can handle, which we don’t fully know yet because we’ve been building up and we haven’t yet met the demand that we know is here,” Paynter says.

Another part of the challenge of growing gourmet mushrooms comes in the rates at which the different mushroom species mature, which vary depending on species. Shiitake mushrooms, for instance, take roughly three months to go from colonization to fruiting while species such as oyster or lion’s mane take just 10 days.

“If we knew for next year that there’s a restaurant that wants a ton of shiitake and nothing else, we would have to start creating them over the winter,” Paynter says. “With the two different cycles (long and short), we could be making shiitake blocks in late winter or early spring and then stopping because we know they will be fruiting in three months. Then we can start making the blocks that fruit quicker.”

Not only do different species mature at different rates, but sometimes there can be a bit of unpredictability associated with mushroom fruiting times for an individual species, something that Kootenai Fungi has factored into its marketing strategy.

“We’ve simplified it for the restaurants. We give them the same price for any type of mushroom so they get what we’ve got when we’ve got it and we don’t have to worry about supplying different pounds of different species,” Paynter says. “And if there is a particular mushroom they don’t want, we give them the other ones but, generally, people like to have a mix.”

Paynter concentrates on three mushroom varieties for his main commercial crop — shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane — largely because they are easy to grow, produce well and have a large, built-in market.

“There are a lot more mushrooms we would like to grow, but the more species you add, the more it complicates things,” Paynter says. “We’ve grown up to seven or eight species at a time and when you do that, it’s a lot of work and you can wind up losing track. It’s much easier to keep the species count low. It simplifies things a lot.”

The process of creating a new crop of mushrooms begins in a mini-lab fitted with a laminar flow head in order to create a sterile work environment. In that environment a small amount of culture is placed in a petri dish lined with agar. When the agar is fully colonized, a piece is transferred to a jar of grain. The colonized grain is then used to inoculate sawdust blocks that are sealed in plastic bags fitted with filter patches. 

“All of the nutrition is there in the medium that you inoculate,” says Paynter. “The sawdust generally gets supplemented with something high in carbohydrates and a bit of nitrogen. But it’s mostly carbon the mushrooms feed off.”

When the colonized blocks are ready to fruit, they are moved to an outdoor fruiting chamber.

“The whole operation is a super dirt-bag-cheap setup, but it works,” says Paynter. “If you read a mushroom growing textbook and looked at this, you’d say, ‘This will never work’. Or if you went to a big serious mushroom farm and told them what you saw here, they’d just shake their heads,” Paynter says. “We’ve taken a low-tech approach. The infrastructure cost we have here is pretty low compared to most mushroom farms. We’re trying to do things in the simplest manner and surprisingly, it’s actually working pretty well. We have come up with methods that can be scaled up and that are  quite different from any other mushroom farm out there.”

The key to success is that all of the components utilized in the early stages — from the petri dishes to the sawdust blocks to the mini-lab itself — must be completely sterile in order to avoid contamination, which could spell disaster.

“If your spawn run gets contaminated by bacteria or mould or competing fungi then you lose the crop way back before it even gets to fruiting. That’s the whole point of the laminar flow head, the sterile procedure, the filter patches and everything you see here,” Paynter says, adding that later in the process, there’s a different foe.  

“Once you get into the fruiting stage, it’s mostly insects. Things like fungus gnats, fruit flies and little beetles will nibble away at the mushroom, which isn’t a big deal, but then they lay eggs in the mushrooms which hatch and then you have mushrooms that are full of worms, which no one wants.”

Paynter says that the worm infestation they encountered during the second year of production was a huge surprise in the wake of what had been a successful first year that saw their mushrooms producing high yields while encountering no significant issues.

“We got excited. And then that second year, all of a sudden, halfway through the year all of our mushrooms were full of worms,” Paynter says. “I guess it takes a year for the populations of insects to realize the food source is here.”

The good news is that not all mushroom species were impacted by the worm infestation. The reishi and shiitake crops were relatively unaffected. The oysters, however, were a different story and cloth bags are now used to protect them from flies, something that has been an effective strategy from a pest control perspective but not necessarily from a time management one.

“It’s a lot of work to open and close those bags all the time,” Paynter says.

In an effort to gain control over the pest situation in a more time efficient manner, Paynter is experimenting with a sealed fruiting chamber in addition to the open chamber that he’s used in production for the past four years. It’s a different strategy and one that comes with its own drawbacks. 

“Your entire room can get full of mould and it gets pretty bad, pretty quickly. You really should have a couple of rooms and, periodically, shut one down and sanitize it while you fire up another one,” he says, noting, “It’s impossible to keep it clean forever.”

One thing that often surprises people about mushrooms is that, contrary to popular belief, most species don’t thrive in the dark and they don’t do well without an adequate supply of oxygen.

“They need light, they need humidity and they also need fresh air,” Paynter points out. “Fungi are actually more closely related to animals than they are to plants. They breathe like us. They take in oxygen and they release CO2, so if you don’t have that fresh air exchange, they basically suffocate.”

Although fresh mushroom production will continue to be Paynter’s primary focus, at least for now, in the coming years he  hopes to expand his operation to include the sale of mushroom growing kits, cultures, spawn and even colonized dowels that can be plugged into stumps or logs. He’s also interested in working more with apothecaries and others interested in mushrooms for the health benefits they have been reported to possess.

“It’s actually a great market for dried mushrooms. Then we don’t have to worry about storage,” he says. “It’s probably a large market if we were to go after it especially since there is more public education these days about the medicinal benefits of mushrooms. Lion’s mane is kind of hot right now. There have been recent articles and podcasts about it. But it’s not the only one.”

For a small mushroom producer in the interior of British Columbia, the future seems bright.


On the Wild Side

NFLD’s Shawn Dawson on foraging mushrooms (and on sea weed, writing a book and Douglas the cat)

BY MATT JONES 

It was overabundance that led Shawn Dawson down the path to the creation of Barking Kettle farm. Six years ago, the Torbay, Newfoundland resident found that he had planted way too many tomato and pepper plants, so he started going to the local farmers market to sell the plants. It was the same thing at harvest time — he had too many tomatoes and peppers, so he brought them to the market to sell. But by this point he was making connections.

“I started meeting some of the chefs at the restaurants and selling my tomatoes and peppers and some herbs,” says Dawson. “Then they found out I was a bit of a mushroom nerd, so I finally got in to meet them through that and selling lots of wild mushrooms to local restaurants. They would always ask me for berries and any other foraged items, so it kind of just happened.” In the last two years, Dawson has been able to work on Barking Kettle full time. Since then foraging has become a bigger and bigger part of his work. Driven by local interest, foraging now makes up roughly 80 per cent of his product. The majority of that is selling raw materials to chefs, but he does produce a few products of his own, including jams and hot sauces.

“Originally, there were only one or two restaurants around town that were willing to buy wild mushrooms and things like that,” says Dawson. “In just the past three years, I’ve noticed such a difference in the restaurant industry. All the restaurants want to be using wild mushrooms and fresh berries and all that stuff.”

   “When I was first picking mushrooms, everyone thought I was a weirdo and no one was at it,” says Dawson. “But now it seems like people are getting pretty interested.”

With that increase in picking activity, Dawson has also seen the potential for over-harvesting. Aside from the obvious paramount importance of knowing which mushrooms and berries are indeed edible, Dawson has a few quick tips for proper, sustainable foraging.

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Get a basket. Plastic bags and other non-porous containers are less than ideal for mushrooms because they prevent spores from spreading. If you gather with a wicker basket, the spores have a chance to spread as you move around, helping to grow additional mushrooms.

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Use a knife. If you want more mushrooms to harvest in the future, ripping them out and disturbing their roots is a very bad idea. Use a knife to harvest, leaving roots intact.

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Don’t use a berry picker. On a similar note, berry picker devices (often like a rake attached to a small container or tray) can uproot plants and harm them in ways that will reduce yields in the coming years.

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Leave at least 15-20 per cent. If you find a patch of mushrooms, don’t harvest the entire thing. Leave a good portion of the patch behind so that it will continue to regrow in the future. This is also good advice for harvesting wild berries. 

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Pick only what you will use. “As it gets more popular, I don’t want things to be over-harvested,” says Dawson. “There’s enough for everybody’s family to get through the winter; don’t overdo it.”

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Whatever you bring in, take out. You want to have as little impact on your foraging areas as possible. Bring only what is essential and take it with you when you leave.

In addition to 15-20 restaurants, Dawson has also been supplying products to other businesses such as a soap company and a brewery. He has also held a variety of workshops to teach school children about which wild foods are and aren’t edible as well as preservation methods.

How has Dawson managed to forge so many productive relationships with local businesses and the community at large? 

“I guess I’m so passionate about it myself that people kind of realize that this guy, he maybe has a few good ideas,” says Dawson. “I like to think that is pretty true, that Newfoundlanders are friendly. Everyone is so easy to deal with, so passionate about what they do. They want to use it all, like if I bring in an edible thing they’ve never used before, they’re so passionate to use it.”

The biggest challenge in the foraging model is the weather. As friendly as the people may be in Newfoundland, the climate can be volatile. “You could see four seasons in one day. And you’re getting paid for what you picked. Sometimes, there’s not enough hours in a day.”

One of Barking Kettle’s newest offerings is seaweed and seaweed-based products. This idea started with a forager’s dinner with the Boreal Diner in Bonavista, where Dawson would bring a large load of forage to a chef for a specific dinner. In preparing for that dinner, Dawson harvested a load of seaweed which was then pickled. Dawson enjoyed it in the dinner and started harvesting seaweed during the slower forage season in the winter.

“It’s pretty interesting for sure and people use them downtown, like in cocktails and they’re using the seaweed jam and stuff like that. It’s cool. It’s a hard one to harvest; you can only get it when the tide’s out. You’ve got to harvest it fresh; you can’t use the stuff that’s washed up on the shore.”

The timing couldn’t have been better;  around the same time that Dawson began harvesting seaweed, an article appeared in the local newspaper, The Telegram, touting that Newfoundland and Labrador seaweed could have cancer inhibiting properties.

   “There’s lots of magnesium in it,” says Dawson. “So it’s really good, you’re getting lots of nutrients that you wouldn’t normally from things grown on the land.”

Dawson is quick to credit social media with helping to expand his connections and his customer base. Photos of his harvests on Instagram regularly inspire messages from potential customers. However, arguably, the real star of his Instagram page is Douglas.

“He’s a stray cat my friend found in the woods in Portugal Cove and I got him when he was pretty young. I think he was only a little over four weeks but he was super chill. I just kept him in my pocket. He grew up with me, coming into the woods, so I guess now it’s imprinted on him. He just loves coming out and being next to me while I’m picking. Sometimes you’ll find him waiting in a mushroom patch or something like that.”

A local artist is in the process of creating a children’s book about Douglas. However, that isn’t the only Barking Kettle related book in the works — after years of hosting foraging tours and being told by guests that ‘You should write a book, man,’ Dawson decided to take them at their word.

“I’ve never written anything before, but I see the demand. It’ll be a field guide which will tell you all the things that I’m harvesting and each chef that I deal with will put a recipe for each harvest. It’ll be a pretty informative book and it’ll give you an inspiration to go out and pick.”

Dawson acknowledges that tourism has played a significant part in his success. People coming to Newfoundland are interested in sampling the local cuisine. And Newfoundland is, along with Nova Scotia, one of the only provinces that permit restaurants to serve wild game.

   “If you come here in season and you eat at a restaurant, most things were harvested within that week or close to it.”

While Dawson would like someday to open a forage-to-table café in Torbay, he’s open to almost any possibility for where his work may take him. He’s following his passion and he’s happy to see where it takes him.