Forms of Nature

All About Mushrooms

Date June 8, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


Lunch with Danny and Maria Rhodes is a simple but tasty affair: miso soup and heaps of intensely flavored oyster mushrooms on toasted Sage Bakehouse whole-wheat bread. We're sitting at the dining table of their rented 19th century adobe house north of Española. Outside, past a stand of trees, the flat plain that Maria farms as Lady Bug Fields stretches east towards the Rio Grande. In the other direction, out of sight, are the shed and greenhouse that house Desert Fungi, Danny's mushroom growing business. This is their seventh season at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market, and fifth for their organically farmed produce.

The mushrooms have just been harvested, so they can't get any fresher. Sautéed in olive oil, they're intense and delicious. "Whatever you're growing them on, they take up,"€ Danny says while spoon feeding Kiran, their 11 month old son. These oysters, grown on sawdust, have developed a woody, almost nutty flavor.

Danny and Maria, a thirtyish couple, are likeable and attractive: she with straight dark hair and an often-present smile, he with wavy locks and a goatee. They're committed to a healthy, creative lifestyle on a small, human scale, and interact with each other in a supportive and caring manner.

Danny says he "just fell into"€ mushroom cultivation. Nobody just falls into something as offbeat as that--he's the only commercial grower in the state--so I ask for details. His career began with an education at Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, but during an internship at Coyote Café he saw that the life of a chef wasn't for him. But school introduced him to gourmet mushrooms, and he read a book on mushroom growing a friend happened to have. In 2001, with Maria working for the Santa Fe branch of the pragmatic, environmental Bioneers, he attended a presentation at a conference by mushroom expert Paul Stamets. He and Maria also went to the annual mushroom festival sponsored by Telluride Institute, which fosters sustainable environmental and business practices.

By the time they returned home, he had decided to pursue commercial mushroom growing. After a stint in Santa Fe and over a year in Pe-asco, in 2003 they moved to their current rural location next door to the Seeds of Change research farm. Maria quit her day job.

There was nothing automatic or easy about mushroom growing. Danny found little useful printed information--"€nothing on doing it on a small scale and in a desert."€ Maria adds, "It was a lot of trial and error."€They kicked ideas around together, experimenting with outdoor growing and having an entire crop destroyed by blustering spring wind. Raising mushrooms turned out to be expensive. Shitakes, as delicious as they are, take about seven weeks to grow, whereas oysters and lion's mane require only two, yet all three varieties sell for about the same price, making shitake growing a labor of love more than profit. In addition, "It took almost four years to get the public interested in mushrooms."€ (The U.S. yearly per capita consumption of farm fresh mushrooms is about 2.6 pounds.)

Gradually, the couple developed a customer base, setting up shop for mushrooms and organic produce in season every Saturday and Tuesday at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market, and selling at the Los Alamos Farmers' Market as well. "I've spent so many years developing my methods,"€ that Danny now puts far less effort into his mushrooms than he used to.

He buys spore prints and germinates them in sterilized grain--mold or bacteria can easily destroy a crop. When the fungus bodies have grown large enough, he adds the spawn to wet, sterilized sawdust, which is so acidic that he has to balance the pH with lime. He packs the impregnated sawdust into long, tubular plastic bags, punching about twenty holes in a bag with a pair of scissors, letting them incubate in a dry 75 degree shed before moving them to a humid 65 degree insulated greenhouse. The mushrooms sprout out of the holes. After harvesting, the used sawdust becomes compost.

With the price of propane, the greenhouse costs so much to heat in winter that growing isn't viable. On the day we talk and enjoy lunch in early April, he has harvested his first oyster mushrooms of the season, and is two weeks away from starting the lion's mane. In full swing in the summer, he harvests every day, selling well over a hundred pounds a week.

The Rhodes' dedication to their products is personal and political. As Danny sees it, "Farming in general is an art form, at least the way people in northern New Mexico do it. You can't say that about industrialized farming."€ Maria decries the modern food business, with the average 1500 miles a product travels to get onto a supermarket shelf. "Being connected to the land and coaxing out of it your sustenance, to feed yourself and other people--it's the most authentic thing for me to do, the most deeply satisfying."€

Yet the advent of Kiran in their lives has tempered this shared vision of a meaningful life. They need to provide for him, and farming on the scale to which they're committed can produce only so much money. They face a dilemma common to small growers: they can't imagine not cultivating crops, but their need to support a growing family requires augmented income. Taking Desert Fungi to a much higher production level would turn them into business people dealing with partners or investors, warehousing, trucking, employees, etc. They're not interested. In the past, they've had CSA members, and sold mushrooms to restaurants at a discount from their retail price of $12 a pound. Now they're cutting back production of both mushrooms and produce, and selling exclusively at markets. Danny increasingly uses his carpentry skills in fine woodworking to supplement their income and they both devote time to their son.

When I drive back to Santa Fe, with the taste of lunch fresh in my mind, I buy some oyster mushrooms at a store. Later that evening in my kitchen, I sauté them lightly in olive oil. They're okay, but they lack the texture and extra dimensions of flavor, richness, and woodsy essence that enlivened Danny's. Munching thoughtfully and pondering the plight of small growers throughout the state, I'm left hoping that the Rhodes can continue offering mushrooms indefinitely, as they plan to.

Danny, Maria and Kiran will be at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market every Tuesday and Saturday and in Los Alamos on Thursdays. Look for their Desert Fungi and Lady Bug Fields banner. Santa Fe, NM 87505. #505.930.2432

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi of two distinct phyla, Basidiomycota (also called Basidiomycetes), that usually have a stem, a cap, and gills and Ascomycetes, comprised of sac fungi including morels and truffles. The body of the fungus, the mycelium, lives underground, or in a log, or in Danny's case, in the sawdust of former logs. Mushrooms, the last part of the fungus' life cycle, bear spores, which spread and produce new growth. The mycelium can live for many years, producing mushrooms year after year.

Since mushrooms have been gathered for centuries, and were first cultivated in France in the eighteenth century, popular classification systems developed through common use. Danny, like many mushroom growers, divides mushrooms into types based on their food sources. Parasitic fungi negatively affect the host. Mychorrhizal fungi, which include black trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms along with truffles, form a mutually dependent relationship with the roots of host plants, and are often crucial for forest health. Saprophytes, which include most cultivated mushrooms, feast off dead wood and help it decompose. The latter includes the common white button, crimini, and portabello mushroom, which are all the same species (Agaricus Bisporus) grown differently.

Mushrooms are a good source of fiber and contain thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, riboflavin, and vitamin C as well as minerals like iron, selenium, potassium and phosphorus.