Provisions Mushroom Farm

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Olympia fungi farmers have culture

STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN

Christian Kaelin piles sterilized straw onto a stainless steel table in the outdoor workspace at Provisions Mushroom Farm. He tears the corner off a plastic bag and scatters its contents—a millet-based mushroom spawn—over the top. Attendees at the farm’s daylong mushroom cultivation workshop are soon combining straw and spawn with their hands and packing the mixture into plastic bags.

The group is making mushroom substrates, blocks of material that will sprout blue oyster mushrooms, one of twelve culinary varieties Christian and Ria Kaelin cultivate at their homestead, on the edge of Capitol State Forest near Olympia.

Since 2006, the Kaelins have provided wild and cultivated specialty mushrooms for their CSA subscribers through Helsing Junction Farm. They also sell at farmers’ markets in Olympia and Tacoma, where their grow-at-home kits, blooming with showy oyster and shiitake mushrooms, attract passing market-goers.

During the harvest season, Christian forages for seasonal wild mushrooms every week, bringing home pounds of chanterelles, lobsters, porcinis, or morels—sometimes even truffles. But the Kaelins’ year-round focus is to provide customers with a rotating array of cultivated mushrooms: shiitakes, a variety of oysters, and specialties such as lion’s mane, a softball-sized mass of cascading tendrils.

While a vegetable farmer saves seeds at harvest’s end to ensure the next crop, a mushroom farmer propagates mycelium, a mushroom’s mother organism. In the wild, mycelium spreads its vast network of filaments underground. On a farm, it’s grown in a culture lab.

The Kaelins’ lab is a windowless shed that looks more like it should be home to rakes and shovels than to stacks of methodically labeled petri dishes. In the 10-by-12-foot structure, Christian creates mushroom master cultures, substances he refrigerates and uses bit by bit for the next several years.

“It’s like the seed of our mushroom that we can constantly take from, to get back to the original generation,” he explains.

Mycelium grown from the inner core of a mushroom is more reliable than growing from spores. It also grows more aggressively. Christian picks up one of the petri dishes and points to a small piece of mushroom culture at its center. The rest of the dish is opaque with mycelial growth, white as a ripe cataract.

Christian inoculates pressure-cooked millet with the mycelium, creating spawn that is later mixed into sterilized sawdust or straw. The mixture colonizes and grows into a solid mass, a substrate. Kept under the right conditions, it sprouts fungi.

Mushrooms that feed on decaying matter, saprotrophs, are best suited to cultivation. Many beloved mushrooms of the woods have a special relationship with the roots of trees or other organisms. These, the mycorrhizal varieties, can’t be cultivated in a lab.

“We can’t grow porcinis…matsutake, chanterelles,” Christian explains. “These are all varieties you’ll only see in the wild. We just haven’t broken that code, I guess.”

Ria smiles. “I don’t think we’re supposed to break that code.”

In 1996, Christian walked into a co-worker’s basement in Massachusetts and saw a few bags sprouting white oyster mushrooms. He was smitten.

“That’s where it all basically began,” he remembers. “Reading Paul’s books and getting really intrigued with mushrooms.”

Paul is the renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti in Olympia. Christian studied the mushroom evangelist’s books and experimented with mushroom cultivation at home. He traveled to the Northwest to take a workshop from Stamets in 2001.

Christian and Ria met in 1999 in Salt Lake City, Christian’s hometown, where he was skiing during the winter months and she was preparing to study massage therapy. When they decided to relocate several years later, they chose Olympia, hoping Christian could land a position at Fungi Perfecti. In 2004 he was hired. He spent almost three years with the company, learning about culinary and medicinal mushroom cultivation and setting up his own lab at home.

When Ria met Susan Ujcic of Helsing Junction Farm in 2006, a partnership was born. That fall, the Kaelins put out a brochure through the Rochester farm’s extensive CSA program, just three weeks before the end of the harvest season. They immediately got 65 subscribers. The following year, they purchased their home, located on a wooded, five-acre lot, and established a farming operation. Last year, the Provisions CSA program served 100 customers, who receive a weekly assortment of cultivated and wild, seasonal mushrooms.

On the farm, mature substrates sprout in the mushroom grow rooms, two 30-foot-long greenhouses lined with steel shelving. Oyster mushrooms blossom out of slits in the plastic bags. Some tilt to the side and open like fans, their gills glowing in the filtered light. Ria points out a tree frog, nestled between two bags. Frogs sneak in for warmth and the occasional insect, she says: a natural pesticide.

The Kaelins use only non-chemical methods and carefully source every element involved in the process. Their sawdust is an untreated byproduct from a Chehalis mill. Straw comes from local farms. They lace the sawdust with organic oat and barley flours. Mycelium grows on a simple malt extract.

If the Kaelins’ sold-out workshops are any indicator, interest in specialty mushrooms are on the rise. Even though the number of domestic mushroom farms grew significantly in the past five years, the mushroom market is still small. In 2012, The USDA identified fewer than 20 mushroom operations in Washington State.

Provisions is planning to increase their mushroom production—they’ve already built the barn that will house an expanded lab and a more streamlined operation. But Christian says it won’t be enough to meet the local demand for specialty mushrooms. In the past they’ve sold their mushrooms to local restaurants, but rarely had enough for both their CSA customers and the wholesale market.

“I can’t grow thousands and thousands of pounds of mushrooms to fill the niche,” he says. “That’s where we want to help people get their feet on the ground, to start producing for their local markets. Then there’s more people being supported instead of one big farm taking over the whole market. So that’s what I see in the future. That’s the basis of our farm: staying local, more sustainable, and supporting each other.”

Jennifer Crain is an Olympia freelance writer who’s hooked on shiitake sautés. Her food-life blog is at theplumpalate.com.

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