I was down in Austin, Texas recently, hanging out with my brother for a week and learning all about his awesome job in solar energy. I had a chance to catch up with my friend Cory, a former house mate from my New York City days. He's now the co-owner of Hi-Fi Mycology, a commercial scale mushroom farming operation, supplying fungi to distributors and restaurants all over Austin.
He was kind enough to give me a tour of his facility and explain how his shrooms are grown. I was fascinated by the process, and utterly impressed with the intelligence and adaptability of mushrooms - in some ways they seem more like animals than plants (though of course, they're neither!). I sat down with Cory to ask him a few questions about what he does at Hi-Fi Mycology, and how it all got started.
What is Hi-Fi Mycology?
Hi-Fi Mycology is the medicinal and gourmet mushroom farm started by myself and great friend, Sean Henry. We grow the best possible mushrooms that we can to meet the demand of our local chefs and customers. Another one of our goals is discovering local fungi and working with them as they are adapted to our local environment.
You worked in the restaurant business for a long time - how did that influence your interest in mushroom farming?
I first started working with and eating amazing mushrooms while being a professional cook in NYC. I also became painfully aware of how wasteful the food industry is. It's bad. Like really bad, and I didn't like being a part of that. I wanted to do something with all the food waste. So I got into vermiculture and started learning about decomposition. It's near impossible to learn about decomposition and miss the role fungi have in it. Composting is wonderful, I still love my worms, but taking agricultural waste, growing mushrooms, and then turning that into healthy rich soil for growing more food, it seemed like magic, science fiction come true.
What made you decide to start your own venture?
My partner Sean and I were growing mushrooms in his garage. He said, just for fun, let's go look at some bigger spaces and throw some numbers around. It was always a goal once I got started, I enjoy the process so much, and believe in them. But I always thought it'd be something I did on the side. With Sean's help, we found a space and dare I say, mushroomed our small grow into what it is today. A 450 lbs a week business.
How did you get started?
I read a book on mushroom growing and was hooked. I then read and listened to anything or anyone I could find on growing mushrooms.
How exactly do you farm a mushroom?
Oh there are a number of different ways, depending on what you're growing and how much money you have to build out. But the very basics are preparing a substrate suitable for the mushroom you want to grow and then introducing the mushroom mycelium to that substrate. Think of the mycelium like the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves and the mushrooms are the apple. The carrier for the mycelium is usually grain, and is called spawn. From there, the mycelium grows through the substrate and once completely colonized, it's ready to fruit. The conditions to fruit are usually high in humidity and cool in temperature. We're basically trying to recreate what happens outside, but in a repeatable, scheduled fashion. I'm still trying to find out how nature grows them so well!
Does the method differ for each variety?
I grow white rot fungi, or wood eaters. Button and Portabello mushrooms are compost eaters. So the processes between the two are very different, but similar between wood eater to wood eater and compost lover to compost lover.
Do farmed mushrooms taste different from wild ones?
Sure do! Every mushroom strain tastes unique.
What is the hardest part about farming mushrooms?
When shit goes sideways, there's very little that can be done other than to start the process all over again. It's repetitive, physical work that takes a toll. It can be so frustrating not knowing exactly why something is working out, but it's incredibly rewarding when it all comes together and the harvest is amazing.
What has surprised you about the process?
I'm surprised by something each week. Today I was cleaning a fan and was just amazed by how many spores mushrooms produce! My fans just get caked in no time.
What is the best part about farming mushrooms?
I like growing healthy food where a lot of my wastes end up in someone's garden creating better soil health and life. Also, walking into the grow rooms and seeing a ton of baby mushrooms ready to pop... well if that doesn't get the heart moving I'm in the wrong business.
Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years?
We are increasing our production of culinary and medicinal mushrooms, sure, but I also see some great partnerships forming with other nearby food producers. Our neighbor at the farmers market is working on extracting the Reishi mushroom we grow, a great medicinal, into her healthy vinegar tonics. A local aquaponics grower is incorporating our spent substrate into providing food for his fish, lowering his inputs. We donate spent substrate to another great business in Austin, Mycoalliance, who is using it to help remediate a brownfield site, and for educational purposes.
What is your favorite variety?
This seems to change, right now I am loving our Piopinno.
Where can we find and try your shrooms?
If you're local to Austin, TX come see us at the Lakeline and Mueller's farmers markets.
What’s your favorite way to cook them? Favorite recipe?
Eating out, I'll always order them on a wood fired pizza. At home, I've been searing them up and subbing them in for ground beef in chili this winter, so good!
What’s one thing about mushrooms that most people don’t know?
All of them are edible, but some only once?
Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us, Cory!