Written onMarch 01 , 2010
Interview by Andrea Ward
Terra Fructi. It sounds like perfect Latin. But Emily Bragonier and Liz Richards will be the first to acknowledge that they took linguistic liberties in creating a name for their new mushroom farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. “It’s actually grammatically incorrect,” Liz admits. “My mother, who is a Latin teacher, told us that terra fructi literally means ‘the earth fertile,’ which doesn’t necessarily say ‘mushrooms.’ But we hoped people would hear it and think of the fruits of the earth.”
Liz, a film professor at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, and Emily, a sustainability graduate student-turned-writer, relocated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Walpole, New Hampshire in May 2009, intending to one day start a vegetable farm. They are now cultivating several varieties of organic mushrooms in an indoor growing space in Westmoreland, and will be selling to local markets, restaurants, and retail outlets by the time this issue hits the press. Liz and Emily are colleagues of mine at BuildingGreen in Brattleboro, and in recent months I’ve had the pleasure of hearing about their farm plans. I recently spoke with the couple about the challenges of starting a small food business, what they hope to bring to the area’s local food movement, and how they went from urbanites to artisanal mushroom growers in less than a year.
Emily: Our goal was to eventually start a small, variegated vegetable farm with bees and chickens, and we wanted to farm biointensively [a closed-loop system that focuses on building soil]. That still seemed a few years away when we moved here, but when we talked about our plans we also envisioned that growing mushrooms outside on logs would be part of it. Mushrooms are fresh; they support the local economy—all the regular reasons. And we wanted to provide a food item that wasn’t already prevalent locally, which mushrooms didn’t seem to be. We were coming from Pennsylvania where local mushrooms are ubiquitous—though they’re mostly from very large, industrial farms using practices we wouldn’t want to emulate. Most of the mushrooms you find in the supermarket—buttons, portabella, and crimini—most likely come from Pennsylvania.
Liz: We do have some mushroom-growing experience; we grew lion’s mane mushrooms in our basement in Pittsburgh, and we also grew shiitakes on a log in our backyard. We didn’t have ideal conditions, though, so neither experience yielded as many mushrooms as we had hoped. I have a good deal of vegetable gardening experience; I grew up working in my dad’s 1 1/2-acre garden and have gardened throughout my adult life. I didn’t realize until I was off on my own that most people don’t go out every day and pick vegetables from their backyards for dinner. That was just normal for us. I think I introduced Emily to gardening when we met, and I think it really made an impression on her, so much so that she was drawn to study agriculture in graduate school.
What varieties are you growing?
Liz: We decided to grow oyster mushrooms for two main reasons: they do well in cold-weather environments and they are known to be the easiest gourmet variety to grow. An added benefit is that they are rather prolific; they often fruit multiple times. What turns some growers off from many of the Pleurotus varieties is that they are heavy spore producers—spores get all over the place and can gum up fans and air filters.
Emily: Our gray oysters—the oyster variety we’ll start with—will be certified organic. [Terra Fructi itself is not certified organic but is sourcing organic spawn and following organic principles.] We’re also going to grow lion’s mane, which is another type of oyster. If we can master the oyster we plan to move into maitake—people everywhere have been asking if we’re going to grow maitake. They’re very popular and very healthy; they have medicinal properties.
Liz: Aside from reishi, maitake are possibly the most powerful mushroom. The variety of medicinal properties among mushrooms is amazing. They can be anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, cancer-fighting—a lot of really great nutritional and medicinal content. So we’ll start off simply, but we’d like to explore reishi as a possibility if we find that there’s a market for medicinal mushrooms in the area.
How are the growing conditions different than what you would need for vegetable crops?
Emily: Right now we have an indoor growing space. Mushrooms thrive within a certain range of temperatures and humidities, depending on the type of mushroom. They grow in a substrate—we’re using organic straw, but you can use any number of things: grain, straw, coffee beans, wood chips. The substrate is sterilized, either by boiling it or pressure-cooking it or autoclaving it some other way. It then goes into a bag [a plastic bag specifically made to grow oyster mushrooms] with the spawn—this is called “inoculation,” when you introduce the spawn into the substrate—and stays in the incubation room for two to three weeks. During this time the mycelium will start to run through the substrate—mycelium is comparable to a root that grows into a network; a good way to think about it is that mushrooms are the fruiting body of mycelium.
Liz: You can also inoculate cardboard and have your mushrooms grow out of cardboard. Many common mushrooms, like buttons and portabellas, are grown out of manure. People also grow shiitakes by inoculating a plug of sawdust and implanting it into a log.
Emily: Once you’ve established that the mycelium have spread through the bag, you poke holes in the bag and move it to the fruiting room, where there’s a slightly different set of conditions—at least four to six hours of light, consistent temperatures for each type of mushroom, and very good air flow. Circulation is key, because oyster mushrooms in particular produce too much carbon dioxide for an enclosed space.
Liz: After the mushrooms are harvested, the substrate can be composted—it’s an excellent soil amendment because it’s full of mycelium. We’re using the plastic bags based on the advice of another grower, but the types of mushrooms we’re growing can also be raised in jars, which can be sterilized and re-used. We’d like to move in that direction because it would make us more sustainable.
Where do you plan to sell your mushrooms?
Liz: We plan to sell them at farmers’ markets in the area, local co-ops, restaurants, and we’re considering creating a mushroom CSA. There is one other mushroom grower that we know of in the Monadnock area—Dave Wichland of Wichland Woods.
What has been the greatest challenge of starting a
local food-based business?
Emily: It’s been a big leap of faith. We left something that was comfortable and familiar in the city looking for a better way of life, and we’ve had to rely on a lot of outside advice. The thing about growing mushrooms is that there’s no perfectly prescribed way to do it; everyone seems to do it differently based on their experience, so we’ll be learning as we go. There are moments when I still wonder if we did the right thing, but now that we can actually focus on growing the product and making it good, I know that it’s going to be incredibly satisfying. When we harvest our first crop, I’m probably going to cry.
Liz: It has been scary at times—I left a full-time, tenure-track position so we could fulfill our dream of starting a farm. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but it helps to remember that people grow mushrooms all over the world in places where they don’t have the technology we have here. And the community response has been incredibly supportive. Anytime you do something to be part of the local economy around here, people will go out of their way to support you. If we said we were going to make wing nuts, there would be somebody saying, “That’s great!”
Emily: But mushrooms taste better than wing nuts.
Photo by Barbi Schreiber