The Tao of NYC’s Mushroom Farmers
By Meredith Craig de Pietro - Photos by Syd Woodward & Alex Harris
“The mushroom and the fungus connect all life,” says Olga Tzogas, the founder of Smugtown Mushrooms, who means this in a literal sense. “It is the network of cells holding us together on many levels. They feed us, they nourish us, they heal us, and they decompose dead organic matter and return it back to the soil for plants to use.” Tzogas is just one of the mushroom devotees spreading the scripture of these amazing organisms in New York City. With an increased interest in local food, foraging, and veganism, mushrooms have found popularity, and companies like Smugtown Mushrooms and Smallhold are on the forefront of a farming industry that is high-tech but with a spiritual soul. “Not to get religious but [mushrooms] are a super sacred food,” says Tzogas.
At Smugtown Mushrooms, based in Rochester, NY, Tzogas farms mushrooms, sells cultivation supplies, and educates people through workshops and classes (including in New York City), on using mushrooms for food or medicine. (“Turmeric was the hot shit two years back, and now it’s Reishi and Chaga.”) She is also a founder of the yearly New Moon Mycology Summit, taking place over Labor Day weekend, which aims to bridge mycological issues to environmental, racial, and social justice issues.
As a society, we seem to be finding our way back to mushrooms, but this comes with problems. “We haven’t learned to actually live with nature without taking and exploiting,” says Tzogas. She prefers to educate on cultivation rather than teach foraging classes because people have a hard time not taking more than they need. Social media influencers ravage forests and Instagram piles of mushrooms without even knowing what kind of mushroom they are gathering. “You’re just taking and taking, but when are you going back to plant more seed?” she asks. Instead of foraging, she sells spawn, kits, and books to help people grow mushrooms indoors or outdoors. Tzogas aims to decentralize the information surrounding mushroom growth. “When you find yourself chicken of the woods for the first time,” she says, “and [with it] you can feed three families worth of people, that’s serious wealth, that’s serious sustenance, that’s really a miracle.” It’s that knowledge that should be accessible to everyone and be available to farm anywhere.
Whether in a greenhouse on a rooftop, or a warehouse in New Jersey, a crop is limited by the area’s available square footage. Smallhold, the only mushroom farm (and only organic farm) in New York City, is changing all that. In 2017, co-founders Andrew Carter and Adam DeMartino invented a vertical “minifarm”, a hydroponic system, which is able to grow anywhere from 30 to 120lbs of mushrooms per week (and in the future, possibly other vegetables), while only taking up 16 square feet of space. Today, with the minifarms, there is infinite crop growth potential.
Like a mycological system itself, these minifarms are all interconnected. The system is remotely managed by Smallhold’s software in Bushwick, meaning that no one has to visit the sites to check on the mushrooms. Sensors track climates, image data show the mushrooms, and each machine can be set to grow most efficiently depending on its exact location. People on site don’t need to have any farming experience or worry about technical or safety issues. “In reality, this kind of a method is actually cleaner and safer than centralizing everything in one space,” says Carter. The client receives substrate (mushroom soil) once a week; then they watch the crop grow and sell the mushrooms to customers, without ever having to worry about farming.
Picture an industrial-sized refrigerator that looks like it came from the future; a base of shiny stainless steel aglow with sci-fi purple grow lights. Peek inside the windows and you can see shelves that look like they could hold alien life form, but instead hold unusually shaped species of pink, blue and yellow mushrooms. These compact farms light up the inside of Whole Foods and of restaurants like Mission Chinese, Bunker, and Standard East Village. Like a decorative art frame, these eye-catching cases highlight the beautiful, mysterious organisms growing inside. “For us, it’s part artistry and part farming,” says DeMartino. The aesthetics and the presentation of the farms add to the customer’s experience. Smallhold is putting the mushrooms on a literal pedestal, and for a good reason. “It gets people more excited about not just Smallhold, but also [about the world of] mushrooms, which people are now realizing is an entire kingdom,” says DeMartino.
“People believe that [mushrooms] are changing the world,” says Carter. “There are a lot of people that think that mushrooms are here to save humanity and save our planet.” In Carter’s opinion, the fungal kingdom provides much more than food. “It can help us treat infections (as with penicillin), it can be used preventatively (some mushrooms help people process cholesterol, some can be anti-inflammatory, and more still have all sorts of other uses), and can even be used to clean up polluted areas around the planet (mycoremediation),” explains Carter. “It has so many potential benefits it’s hard to argue that it’s doing anything but saving the planet.”
Smallhold built the minifarms to be infinitely scalable. There could be a time when fresh local produce would be available to anyone no matter where they were located. Ideally, Smallhold would like to see their farms at locations all around the world, possibly erasing food deserts or starting new microeconomies. “Once this is so widespread that it becomes normal, that means we’re really making an impact, we’re really changing food distribution and [providing] fresh food for consumers all around the world,” says Carter.
Just think: one tiny mushroom has the potential to transform the behemoth food and farming industries, one minifarm at a time.
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