From ecology to fermentation to medicine—mushrooms are everywhere. With an explorer’s eye, journalist Doug Bierend guides readers through the weird and wonderful world of fungi, introducing them to a diverse cadre of young growers, researchers, ecologists, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts leading the amazing modern mycological movement. A captivating read for those curious about hidden worlds and the networks that make up our planet.
The following excerpt is from Doug Bierend’s new book In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms (Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2021) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Doug Bierend explores the world of mushrooms in his new book. Photo by Alanna Burns
Down a short side street, a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Smallhold occupies a slender three-story building. Passing through its lofted offices and beyond the twentysomethings busy at their computer stations, workbenches, and 3D printers, it called to mind the offices of a youth media company, or perhaps a technology start-up of the sort that had colonized much of postindustrial Brooklyn. In a sense, both were true, but this start-up was unique in at least one way: at the center of all the accoutrements signaling the “disruptive” and cutting edge were the soft, curvaceous forms of mushrooms.
Smallhold’s cofounder and CEO, Andrew Carter, led me into the garage-turned-workshop where stacks of silver metal boxes lined with long glass windows glowed violet. The wavelengths of the LEDs fluxed throughout the day, to simulate diurnal cycles and stimulate the growth of the pink, white, and yellow mushrooms. Cameras monitored their growth in real time, while sensors and bespoke computer software regulated the temperature and humidity of their environment. The boxes looked fit for a long-term voyage in the hold of a spaceship, but in truth they were bound for various restaurants and grocery stores around the city, where they would be remotely monitored from the company’s home base. As we started up the stairs, Carter explained that it was all part of a distributed mushroom farm, meant to enable its customers to grow and sell fresh mushrooms without facing steep learning curves or unfamiliar distribution schemes.
At a handful of hip local restaurants and even a couple Whole Foods locations, one could hardly help but spot the company’s eye-catching, cyberpunk “mini farms,” the blocks of substrate inside bathed in deep- hued light and sprouting healthy clusters of mushrooms. “It looks all high tech, and there is a lot of technology and stuff, but we don’t want to be unattainable,” said Carter as we settled into seats on the rooftop patio across from the Manhattan skyline. “That’s one of the things with mushrooms in general, they seem kind of unattainable because people don’t know anything about them.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to guess your way into successfully cultivating and growing mushrooms. When it comes to growing vegetables or herbs, most people at least have some frame of reference for the basic elements and steps. It’s possible to make mistakes along the way and still wind up with a delicious crop. That’s less the case with mushrooms, where considerations such as sterilization and nutritional and environmental conditions are necessary to achieve reliable commercially viable results.
When I grew mushrooms for the first time, it required me to drive across Brooklyn to buy bales of straw from an equestrian center; find sacks and hydrated lime to sterilize the straw; order spawn to inoculate it as well as purpose-made bags to “run” the mycelium before the mushrooms start to grow—and I took one of the lowest-tech approaches. The least technical approach I ever took involved drilling holes into logs and stuffing them with shiitake spawn with a kind of specialized turkey baster, using melted candlewax to seal the gouges before stacking the logs outside and leaving them for the months-long incubation in the shade of the woods. Neither approach was very sophisticated, but like anything, they required time, attention, and trial and error.
Smallhold’s idea is to take the preparation and guesswork out of the process for restaurants, grocery stores, and anyone else looking to add mushrooms to their offerings or diets. Each of the glowing boxes can produce between thirty and fifty pounds per week; the mushroom-bearing blocks within are replenished from HQ on a biweekly basis, enough for one “flush” of mushrooms. Many species will produce multiple flushes, but the weekly pace of replacement means there’s not enough time for pests to show up. For example, Trichoderma is an especially common green, splotchy mold familiar to all mushroom growers. A little bit of Trich is pretty much harmless, but if you’re hoping customers will ask “How much is that mushroom in the window?” aesthetics matter. “You can’t have green mold, even though it’s fine,” said Carter. “A lot of big farms have mold everywhere, because nobody’s going in there.”
The company, which Carter cofounded with his business partner Adam DiMartino, emerged at an opportune time, rolling out its photogenic mushroom chambers and attention-grabbing business model right as mushrooms began attracting widespread public interest. Demand at restaurants and markets for specialty mushrooms had been consistently rising alongside interest in new models of local, sustainable agriculture, a bona fide consumer trend; as of 2019, according to the Institute of Food Technologists, “Vertical greenhouses, urban farms, and hydroponic gardens are poised to be the next wave in the local food movement.”
Alongside putting mushrooms in front of the growing numbers of consumers on the lookout for them, Smallhold’s goal is to educate people on different fungal varieties, their culinary and nutritional potential, and basic ways of life. “When you talk to your average consumer, people don’t know any of these things,” said Carter. Prior to the pandemic, which remains in full swing at the time of this writing, the company regularly set up tables around various markets to pass out information and hosted tours of its facilities, all of which helped get the word out about the brand while also gradually demystifying its unconventional crops to potential customers.
Aesthetics also play a role in the company’s success. Many mushrooms are naturally photogenic, but paired with the futuristic look of Smallhold’s shiny flagship product, it’s proved a winning match. A number of chic restaurants in New York City integrated the mini-farms straight into their interior design. When fresh produce is at a premium, it’s hard to do better than seeing it plucked from directly overhead as you sip your cocktail.
Despite its small size, the company quickly developed a prominent profile on social media, with more than eleven thousand followers on Instagram at the time of my visit. Smallhold easily caught the attention and interest of Brooklyn arts and media types, racking up numerous profiles in hip online magazines. “New York’s Hottest Food Trend,” its website read, atop a list of some of the most recognizable brands in digital media. Its mushrooms were the stars of a popular series of vibrantly colored photo books called Mushrooms & Friends, by artist Phyllis Ma. “It’s very trendy now, and I didn’t see that one coming,” said Carter, whose previous work saw him working with microgreen, hydroponic, and vertical farming outfits in and around New York City. “One of our first press things was in Vogue magazine. I literally spent the last ten years in greenhouses. Like, it’s not Vogue stuff.”
Smallhold began its life in a converted shipping container on the Williamsburg waterfront, earning the first—and to date only—organic farm certification in New York City. That certification is complicated by the nature of the “farm”; the mushroom blocks are all prepared at Smallhold HQ, growing in identical climate-controlled boxes, operated all over the city and by a variety of customers. Arguably, the product is hyperlocal, harvested inside or right next door to the store that sells it, but that designation gets complicated, too, since the fungi and the substrate in which they grow are sourced from well outside the city. The vast majority of mushrooms sold throughout the United States are common Agaricus or “button” mushrooms, grown by the millions of pounds in Chester County, Pennsylvania. There’s little room for anyone to break into that market, so Smallhold aims for the gaps created by a growing interest in specialty varieties, and those with the bandwidth and consumer demand to justify growing them.
“We saw an opportunity in mushrooms; anyone else can see that they have restaurants that want mushrooms but can’t buy them,” Carter explained. “We’re inventing things because we have to, as far as technology, but the concept’s not new. Like if you were to start a cherry orchard, you wouldn’t go plant a bunch of cherry seeds. Nobody does that. They go and buy a bunch of grafted saplings from a nursery that just does that. A lot of tomato farms don’t grow from seeds, they get grafted seedlings. I used to work on a farm that shipped them in from the Netherlands, I used to pick them up from JFK.”
Smallhold’s idea was never meant to begin and end with mushrooms. Originally, the vision was to distribute climate-controlled pods for growing microgreens, but it turned out that mushrooms made an ideal match for the model. As crops they’re robust, highly nutritious, and a viable alternative protein source to meat; they’re curious and delicious, with a growing niche market appeal that makes them a sensible side business or supplemental offering, hence the company’s name. By creating a modular system that meets demand where it’s at, and adapts to local environmental conditions, Smallhold also aims to minimize the waste of traditional agricultural distribution chains. Its latest line of store-shelf packaging are simple cardboard boxes with open windows through which customers can see and touch the mushrooms. In the future, they see potential for expanding the model nationwide, via a hub-and-spoke style network and centralized “macrofarms.” One doesn’t need to live in an area with a climate that’s good for mushrooms to adopt their model, just space for the box and, of course, proximity to Smallhold HQ.
“What I think we can do is use certain aspects of food distribution in essentially shipping the living process,” said Carter. “Then you grow right next to the customer, be that in a greenhouse, inside a store, next to a store. It can be wherever but as long as it’s right next to them, then you get the best part of it, which is the freshness and the local aspect, but then you don’t have to waste the food in the shipping.”
One of the most commonly cited benefits of mushroom farming is food security. They grow on agricultural waste products such as straw, grains, and sawdust, and require little in the way of space to produce significant amounts of nutritional value. Just a few weeks after my visit, SARS-CoV-2 provided an unexpected test case for the company to prove this point, as restaurants shut down and grocery stores struggled to adapt to new pandemic restrictions. Facing questions about its role in a moment of pronounced food scarcity, and with investors concerned about what the new circumstances meant for the company’s financial prospects, Smallhold moved quickly to adapt. Over the course of a whirlwind two-day planning session, it retooled operations to forgo the emphasis on mini-farms, instead focusing on sending individual mushroom ready-to-grow kits to customers’ doorsteps. Rather than monitoring and servicing a network of grow-pods, they would use their own growing capacity to sell mushrooms from a mobile shop, and deliver grow kits door-to-door. The latter took the form of bags filled with mushroom-growing medium, wearing cute hello, my name is stickers. Apartment-bound Brooklynites could bring the bags straight into their kitchens, looking forward to picking and eating the mushrooms in a matter of days.
It was a hit. “We have people quite literally living off our mushrooms,” wrote Carter in an online article explaining the transition. “This is a test to show how a technology enabled facility can be nimble and resilient in the face of a global pandemic, and can feed the world, one mushroom at a time.”
Doug Bierend is a freelance journalist writing about science and technology, food, and education, and the various ways they point to a more equitable and sustainable world. He is the author of In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms (Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2021).