Four years ago, Willie Crosby sat in his friend’s basement harvesting mushrooms from fruited sawdust logs. In a space that was only 8 x 16 feet, he could inoculate 200 logs per week with mushroom mycelium and bring them to harvest. Willie was a produce farmer but he was inspired to grow mushrooms after reading “Mycelium Running,” a guide to saving the planet through the growth and expansion of the mushroom kingdom. Mushrooms naturally recycle carbon, nitrogen, and other elements from the air and from the earth, and Willie was amazed by the benefits of mushrooms for people and the planet. “I wanna really live here,” Willie says. “And I see an opportunity with mushrooms in the Pioneer Valley.”
“It’s all about their power and mystery, their transformation from mycelium into mushrooms. Seeing them fruit and expand, and the magic of that…” Willie says, and pauses to reflect on the splendor of mushrooms. Willie co-founded and is the sole owner of Fungi Ally, a Hadley, MA company that grows and sells mushrooms and home-grow mushroom kits. The Fungi Ally warehouse is 3,000 square feet, and there’s plenty of room for growing mycelium, inoculating wood, fruiting, harvesting and composting 1,000 logs per week. The warehouse has low lighting, and the dimly lit space smells musty and damp. Hundreds of bags of mold and condensation are shelved on six, 8 foot-tall racks that run the length of the warehouse. In the back trailers, there are shelves lined with more bags of mycelium, and on the floor there is a pile of bags two feet high. Parliament Funkadelic plays loudly on speakers throughout the warehouse, and the perfect growing condition for mushrooms overwhelms the senses.
In one of the closets, more racks are stacked with dozens of petri dishes of mushroom tissue and small bags of mushroom mycelium. Mycelium grows from one small piece of mushroom tissue, and from one petri dish, Fungi Ally can grow four bags of mycelium. Once the mycelium has grown and expanded, Willie adds half a cup of mycelium to a five-pound bag of sawdust where it begins to colonize. Colonizing occurs when mycelium has grown in, around, and completely through a bag of sawdust. From there, the colonized bag will fruit in a few weeks, and once it fruits, the mushrooms will be harvested and sold at farmers markets. Each bag will fruit twice and then be composted, and the whole process takes about 9 weeks. Willie explains that the pile on the floor is about to be composted, but the others are all in various stages of fruiting and waiting to be harvested. Before tossing the bags into the compost, Willie takes a piece of mushroom tissue from a fruited plant so that he can grow more mycelium.
“Mushrooms are an underutilized, misunderstood crop, and a kingdom that has so many benefits for people and the community,” says Willie. To educate consumers on what mushrooms are all about, Fungi Ally has been selling home-grow kits for the past two years. When Fungi Ally gets an order for a kit, they pluck an already growing, colonized bag of sawdust from their shelves and ship it anywhere in the world. Most orders come from New England, but others have gone across the country and abroad. If there are no orders for kits that week, then the bags stay on the shelves and the harvested mushrooms are sold at the market.
Mushrooms are considered specialty items at farmers markets; vendors never know if they’re going to sell 100 pounds or 500 pounds. Farmers markets are high-price, low-commitment markets, and are too unpredictable for most mushroom vendors. Willie made the decision to also start selling to distributors and institutions, places that can commit to higher quantities, and, as a result, pay lower prices. It’s a better model for the sellers and the buyers, but it often leaves individual consumers without mushrooms. That might be why grow kits have been so successful, and why Fungi Ally is looking into “new ways for people to eat mushrooms everyday,” says Willie.
“People share a lot of pathogens with the fungi kingdom. Some of the bacteria that attack humans also attack fungi, but mushrooms can secrete enzymes to fight them off. When we ingest the enzymes via the fungi, the enzymes help us too,” says Willie. He slides open a desk drawer full of tinctures (little glass bottles of mushroom extract with droppers for lids), opens one, and squeezes out a drop of chaga onto his tongue to absorb the benefits of the mushroom. “The medicinal power to impact our bodies…bread, beer, tempeh, even some medicines are fungi-based.”
Everyday, the Fungi Ally team does every part of the mushroom growing process. Nothing is wasted here: no extra orders are made, and everything gets composted. The compost is given to a local farmer, replenishing the soil and helping crops to grow. Willie hopes that one day Fungi Ally will have its own farm so that they can compost onsite, and he can expand his ecosystem and grow produce crops once more. But that’s still a few years away, and for now, Willie is looking for new ways to grow more mushrooms and eat more mushrooms every single day.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist and creator of The Clean Food Club. She previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. She is committed to supporting local and sustainable food businesses by telling their stories with photo and video. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.