Mushroom Farming in the City

Adventurous, curious people try mushroom farming for various reasons. Here are mine:

  1. to become part of the local food solution that will dismantle present industrial agriculture practices;

  2. to prove that circular economy concepts work: and

  3. to supplement my income in a sustainable way.

I have been in the process of a career shift for a few years. My work as a product developer for a legal information corporation did not match my passion for environmental causes, so I decided to make a change. In 2018 I began pursuit of a Master in Science in Sustainable Management degree. I also began searching for careers post attainment of that degree.

Side note: over the past few years I have started saving glass jars, specifically Ragu and Mrs. Renfro salsa jars. When my family asked me why I was saving these jars, I could not tell them. I could say only that I knew I should. I now have eight gray tote bins filled with jars. Okay, back to our story.

Through my coursework and efforts to enhance and expand the reading materials, I learned that quite a lot is wrong with our present agricultural system. Presently huge farming operations grow monocultures of crops using polluting pesticides and fertilizers in the process. Their farming practices ruin topsoil. The present system is very fossil fuel intense in that food has to be shipped great distances to arrive at our tables. Thankfully, there are people stepping up to grow food locally and sustainably via CSAs and Farmers’ Markets. By growing mushrooms, I could be one of those people.

Thanks to my studies, “circular economy” is now a phrase within my vocabulary. In a circular economy nothing is seen as waste. The “waste” of one process becomes the raw material for the next process or product. For example, the used coffee grounds of a local coffee shop could become the substrate on which mushrooms grow.

The conventional wisdom among mushroom farmers is that to make money with mushrooms one has to grow a lot of mushrooms with a very consistent look. Most farmers achieve this by maintaining grow rooms at a consistent temperature and humidity. This expends a lot of energy and water. Most farmers also use long, slender plastic grow bags which they suspend from hooks or lay on shelves to fruit. After two or three fruitings, these bags are tossed away. While I have been interested in mushroom growing for a couple of years, I was not comfortable with the idea of using that much plastic and that much energy to maintain the grow rooms. My discomfort level was high enough to prevent my entry into the game even though I continued to read articles and watch videos about mushroom farming.

Woman constructing mushroom farming bed covers
Constructing the bed covers

As chance would have it, I came across a YouTube video claiming one could grow mushrooms with less energy expenditure. These same folks claimed that one could grow mushrooms on coffee grounds (aha!). I also came across a book detailing how to grow mushrooms in jars (aha!). The catch is that one has to grow mushroom strains that prefer certain seasonal weather, and, of course, strains that will grow on coffee grounds. With my last two objections overcome, I could formulate a plan and finally take the plunge.

I have decided to move forward and experiment with different growing methods and different mushroom strains. If I can’t do this in a sustainable fashion, then I won’t continue. In order to have enough mushrooms to sell to others and supplement my income, I will need more mushrooms than just those I can grow in jars inside my little grow room. Luckily, I have enough room on my property to make outdoor mushroom beds. We also have plenty of shady spots that should be favorable to morels. And finally, I plan to add shiitake mushrooms grown on oak logs next year. We have four grand old oaks on our property and some branches do need trimming.

I am in the very initial stages of this experiment. I have constructed the outdoor beds and inoculated them with button mushroom mycelium. The how-to books say to expect mycelium any day now and mushrooms in three to four weeks. I have spread a morel slurry in various spots throughout our property. If the morels fruit at all, it will happen next spring, and then only for a week or so. I have also inoculated eleven jars of coffee grounds with oyster and enoki. It could take two to three months to see any fruiting with those. Fruiting in jars takes longer than fruiting in bags, or so the experts tell us.

I have high hopes for this experiment. Once the mushrooms start growing, I have two further obstacles. I am not sure how I will connect with CSAs or other selling venues. Nor am I sure I can convince my city government that mushroom farming is/should be allowed on my property. One step at a time.

Jars growing mycelium next to the outdoor beds
Once the mycelium colonizes the coffee ground jars, the jars will be placed in the grow room

Bonus for all those who read to the end:

Here’s a great video that discusses the role of mushrooms in permaculture including bioremediation.