The Magic of Mushrooms

Back in November, the Polk County AED team headed out to Durham for the annual Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) Sustainable Agriculture Conference, where farmers and advocates gather together to network and learn about new farming techniques.  The weekend was packed full of panels and workshops that covered a dizzying array of farm-related issues, including soil health, livestock fencing techniques, community-scale food policy, new marketing opportunities, and everything in between.

The Friday before the conference featured a series of full-day workshops that allowed attendees to take a deep dive into a topic of interest.  I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on mushroom cultivation hosted by Tradd Cotter, founder of Mushroom Mountain in upstate South Carolina and author of the popular mushroom growing guide book Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation.  We covered the basic biology of fungi, the various methods of growing mushrooms, and a few of the exciting areas of new mushroom research, including medicine and mycoremediation (using fungi to break down and reduce contaminants in an area).

While there are far too many interesting mushroom tidbits to cover in a short blog post, here is just a sample of some of the possibilities for mushroom cultivation on your property:

  • A mushroom patch in your garden or woods:

Check out this great video from Steve Gabriel of Cornell University Extension as he explains the basics of creating a simple, productive patch of Stropharia mushrooms in a bed of wood chips.

  • Producing mushrooms on logs:

If you need or want to thin some of the hardwood trees on your property, you can use the logs to grow valuable and delicious mushrooms!  Alabama Extension has produced an informative primer on how the process works.

  • Growing mushrooms indoors in bags or buckets:

You can start off small with a simple pre-made kit from a company like Mushroom Mountain to provide you with some tasty mushrooms for dinner.  Once you get the hang of what it takes to keep one bag going strong, you can scale up to create your own enterprise.

Beyond being culinary delicacies and potentially lucrative agricultural enterprises, fungi also play a critical and largely unseen role in maintaining our natural habitat.  This fascinating podcast from Radiolab investigates the hidden world of mushrooms in the forest and the way they connect trees to each other.

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to learn about the wide world of mushroom cultivation at the CFSA conference.  While I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface, I’m excited to try growing my own mushrooms, to hunt for them in the woods and fields around the county, and to uncover more of the secrets of these weird, wonderful fruits.

A Sustainable Ag Education

Between starting the AmeriCorps gig, learning the ropes of Agricultural Economic Development in Polk County, and exploring the diverse communities and landscapes of WNC, the past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind.  An exciting whirlwind! Which has included a valuable professional development experience that I’d like to share now that things have quieted down a bit.

From November 4th to November 6th, 2016, the Polk County Farms team got to attend the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham, NC.  As someone with a beginner level of agricultural and horticultural experience, I was excited by the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and to learn best practices from food and farming pioneers.

My CFSA conference experience began on Friday with a half-day pre-conference Intensive on fermentation from the team at Two Chicks Farm.  Aside from viewing a SCOBY (short for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) one time and being mildly grossed out by the sight of it, I knew little about fermenting prior to attending this workshop.  As you may know, fermentation is a metabolic process that converts sugar into acids, gases, or alcohol.  Many of us consume fermented products everyday: sourdough bread, cheese, pickles, and, of course, beer.  The presenters did an excellent job of sharing the cultural significance of fermentation and the science behind the process; they explained that the SCOBY that I was once freaked out by is, in fact, beneficial for gut health and immune system development.

I also appreciated the fact that the presenters explained the history of Two Chicks Farm, from how they first got into fermentation to how they’ve grown their business over time.  They provided valuable tips on how to start fermenting and shared helpful resources on the subject.  After walking through some of the basic do’s and don’ts of fermentation, we pulled out our cutting boards and knives for the hands-on portion of the Intensive, in which myself and roughly 30 other attendees got to prepare classic sauerkraut, cortido, and dill kraut & pickles.

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Two hours and a banquet hall floor full of cabbage remnants later, I walked out with jars of goodies to take home and ferment to my desired taste.  It was awesome.

The “official” conference took place between Saturday and Sunday and consisted of 65 workshops on varying topics: beginner farmer, farm business, specialty crops, food systems, livestock, and more.  My weekend looked like this:

Workshop A: I nerded out at a policy presentation from Organic Seed Alliance on the state of organic seed in the US.  Bottom line – there is a major need for more skilled organic seed producers in order to keep pace with regional demands for organic crops.

Workshop B: Got schooled on innovative horticultural strategies from permaculture guru, Chuck Marsh.  Living & woven fences = majorly cool.

Workshop C: Learned about NC State’s Fork2Farmer initiative, a video project that highlights farmer-chef relationships and trains farmers on agritourism and hospitality best practices.

Workshop D: Attended a thought-provoking presentation on food as an avenue for equality and social change from Garrett Broad of Fordham University.  Here is an article written by Mr. Broad for any of my fellow ag-tivists who may be interested in learning about his food justice theories.

Workshop E: Sat in on a truly comprehensive presentation on the production, marketing, and sale of cut flowers from Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm.  That lady knows her stuff.

My brain was overloaded with information, both practical and theoretical, by the time Sunday rolled around.  Throughout the weekend I got to eat delicious local food and build my agricultural knowledge base.  But the value of the CFSA conference extends beyond the educational workshops.  The opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals who are working toward a common goal – to build sustainable food systems within their communities – is so important.

To borrow a phrase from Chuck Marsh, I left the conference feeling inspired to “cultivate abundance in a limited world… to consciously rely on living systems again”.  I am looking forward to taking the knowledge that I gained at the CFSA conference and applying it to the remainder of my AmeriCorps term and to the upcoming growing season.