Gardens of Darkness: Mushroom farming in a concrete jungle
Story and photos by Matthew Green
Nikhil Arora wears sleek glasses, a flashy watch, and a pinstriped button-down. He recently graduated summa cum laude in business from Cal, has given serious thought to investment banking, and knows how to deliver a smooth sales pitch.
So when the lanky 23-year-old proudly declares himself a farmer, I can’t help but find the absence of irony in his voice a bit striking.
Arora’s “farm” is a large, shadowy warehouse in West Oakland, where the persistent hum of the freeway defers intermittently to the rattling of passing freight trains. It’s about as urban as it gets.
If this description of farm and farmer challenges preconceived notions of agricultural imagery, so too might the crop Arora cultivates (and no, it’s not pot—there’s actually not a hint of green in sight). Arora hobnobs with mushrooms, a taxon populating its own subterranean world that belongs in turn to a kingdom entirely apart. In the orb of agriculture, mycology exists, literally, on the dark side. Fungi, edible or otherwise, are partial to dimness. Neither plant nor animal, they contain no chlorophyll, don’t photosynthesize, don’t seek sunlight or grow roots, and—as humans do and plants do not—they take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Fungus species are nearly countless in number, and include some of the fastest-growing and largest organisms on earth. Some produce wildly toxic or hallucinogenic compounds.
And some are just plain delicious.
Arora is convinced it’s these characteristics that make mushrooms the ideal crop for sustainable urban food production. “You don’t need a big thirty-acre lot in Iowa to grow your own food,” he tells me, flashing a wide, toothy grin.
This is one of the governing concepts behind Back to the Roots, the company that Arora and business partner Alejandro Velez began incubating two years ago after learning that mushrooms can be produced from organic waste. The two now make their living creating do-it-yourself mushroom-growing kits, which are sold at Whole Foods stores around the country.
When I visited the big Oakland warehouse to which they’d recently relocated, the two had just received first prize in the MillerCoors Urban Entrepreneur national business plan competition in Milwaukee. A novelty-sized $50,000 check was among the few accoutrements adorning otherwise bare walls.
In their last semester of college, Arora and Velez immersed themselves in mycological discovery. They began with the basics, learning, for instance, that mushrooms grow from spores or spawn (not seeds) and are the “fruiting body” of a vast underground network of long microscopic cells—hyphae—that bunch together to form a cobweb-like mass called the mycelium. Unable to use the sun’s rays to generate food energy, fungi, much like humans, feed on the organic matter of plants and animals. While some edible fungi get their energy from intermingling with the roots of living plants, others subsist by decomposing dead vegetable matter. The former are described as being mycorrhizal, the latter saprophytic. Saprophytic mushrooms can be cultivated by inoculating spores into a sufficient mass of dead organic material—hence the waste stream concept. (A good, succinct fungi primer for the lay reader is found in chapter 19 of Michael Pollan’s food treatise The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)
It was this process that got Arora and Velez thinking. “We started off with turning the whole idea of waste upside down,” Arora explains. “I can’t imagine starting this anywhere but the Bay Area,” he adds.
Near the end of senior year, as parties raged, the two spent long hours in the kitchen of their frat house trying to grow pearl oyster mushrooms—a particularly versatile variety—from a bag of spores. A good, dead growing medium, both plentiful and free, quickly revealed itself in the form of used coffee grounds, and before graduation, the two had already tapped the ample discarded reserves at the original Peet’s Coffee, in North Berkeley. After much trial and error, they got their first successful harvest to fruit out of a messy wet bucket of grounds; the mycelium had bucked the contamination threat, colonized the black substrate, and eventually borne fruit.
After graduation, Arora and Velez set up shop in a small Emeryville warehouse. They routinely arrived at 4 in the morning to harvest and deliver their mushrooms to the Berkeley Whole Foods before it opened. Neither man had a lick of food growing experience. Arora recalls one particular morning of furious harvesting; both were wearing masks and covered in coffee grounds. “We just stopped and looked at each other and said ‘How did we get into this?’”
Shortly after, it dawned on them that they weren’t destined to grow and sell mushrooms. Living in the Bay Area, among throngs of DIY-ers and food enthusiasts, it didn’t take the pair long to figure out that their niche wasn’t selling mushrooms, it was selling the opportunity for customers to grow their own. After enthusiastically presenting a grow-kit prototype to Whole Foods—a clear plastic bag of decomposing coffee grounds colonized by white, mold-like mycelium—they were told the idea had promise, but that the kit looked disgusting. To sell it, they’d need some fancy packaging that masked some of the less appealing parts of the incubation process. “There’s still a lot of mycophobia out there,” notes Arora, almost dolefully. It’s sort of like sausages—most people love them, but few will line up to go on the factory tour.
Arora and Velez developed a new kit in the form of a tidy cardboard box with a handle, inside of which sits a plastic bag of colonized grounds. The grower need only slit open the bag through a square window on the side of the box, intermittently mist the window with an included spritzer, and wait about 10 days for the first burst of tasty mushrooms to sprout from the opening. Arora says the kit, which retails for $20, can produce about a pound of oyster mushrooms.
This spring, the team expanded operations, moving from a cramped space in Emeryville to a large warehouse in West Oakland flanked by an organic soy operation on one side and an organic dog food maker on the other. Inside, thousands of bags of spore-infused coffee grounds in various stages of incubation sit on long rows of shelves. When a bag turns almost entirely white, it’s sealed, packaged up and delivered to stores. Arora and Velez now haul about 20,000 pounds of used grounds from Bay Area Peet’s shops every week, and claim they’re on track to reuse a million pounds by the end of the year.
Arora says he’s looking to develop different kinds of growing kits, and has begun trying to inoculate shitake mushroom spores in spent hops from an Oakland brewery. In true entrepreneurial spirit, they’ve even started selling the leftover substrate, which makes a rich fertilizer after the spores have done their thing.
John Garrone: night dispatcher turned fungus farmer
Mycological fascination spreads in much the way mycelia colonize, which might account for the number of people drawn to various mycological societies around the country. (The popular Mycological Society of San Francisco— www.mssf.org
—hosts the well-attended Fungus Fair, held in Oakland every December.) Plainly put, mushrooms are really mysterious. They’re like the bad boys of the natural world; going against the grain, doing things on their own terms. It’s an easy thing to geek out on.
“What fungi do is break things down. If we didn’t have mold, we’d just have garbage,” veteran mushroom farmer John Garrone tells me. Thirty years ago, he had been working as the night dispatcher for the San Francisco Police Department when a friend presented an odd proposal: to help start a mushroom farm in a huge empty naval storage facility in the city’s industrial Hunters Point neighborhood. Garrone went for it.
“I was dispatching police cars at night and growing mushrooms during the day,” he recalls. “Eventually it was either one or the other, and I was really tired of being a police dispatcher.” Garrone now owns Far West Fungi, a business he’s run with his wife and two adult sons for the last eight years. The family grow multiple kinds of organic mushrooms—shitake, king trumpet, five varieties of oysters, reishis, maikakes, and turkey tail—from their facility just north of Monterey, and sell the harvests at farmers markets throughout the Bay Area as well as at their own storefront in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. It’s a year-round operation, and although relatively small, the farm produces thousands of pounds a year—up to 700 pounds of shitakes a day in high season—and remains one of a few domestic growers of specialty mushrooms. (Most specialty mushrooms are shipped from China and South Korea, Garrone says.)
Garrone’s mist-enshrouded property, a stone’s throw from Monterey Bay, is a lone island in a verdant sea of strawberry fields; an industrial hodgepodge of white weather-stained warehouses. If not for a sagging sign on the fence and a smattering of flattened mushrooms in the parking lot, I’d definitely question whether I found the right address. Like Arora’s operation, the farm itself is anything but bucolic. The 60,000-square-foot facility is a hodgepodge of concrete and long white weather-stained warehouses. I know though, from the squashed mushroom under my tires in the parking lot, that I am in the right place.
“I think people expect that we have fields of mushrooms,” says Garrone, an affable middle-aged man with thick glasses and a professorial manner. “It’s a really controlled inside process. It’s actually kind of factory-like.”
The tour begins in a big lot filled with large piles of pure red oak sawdust, the detritus of a nearby cabinetmaker. It’s Garrone’s substrate of choice because of high water retention; mushrooms, he tells me, are mainly water, which accounts for their sponginess and shrinkage when fried. The sawdust is left to condition and then it’s mixed with rice bran, which provides B-complex vitamins to spur spore growth. The whole facility smells yeasty, like a brewery.
To prevent contamination, the substrate is steamed at 225º Fahrenheit for four hours in an old canning sterilizer, and then the mixture is stuffed into one-pound “blocks”—small, clear plastic bags with square air filters on the side. Sawdust meets spore in the inoculation room, where the air is heavily filtered in an attempt to prevent molds from coming in to contaminate the pure tissue cultures that Garrone grows in petri dishes.
From there, all the blocks go through a four-week incubation process as the spore further colonizes in the misty environment.
Garrone explains that while mushrooms can essentially be grown anywhere, they have to be kept cool to avoid fermentation. The ideal temperature is around 77°, so in hot climates, air conditioning is usually required. His location, he notes, is perfect; the cool sea breeze does the work.
At four weeks, the oyster varieties are ready to fruit (the shitakes are given another nine weeks to incubate), and little slashes are made in the sides of the plastic bags, through which the mushrooms begin to pop their heads. Over the next three weeks, mushrooms are harvested two times, and then the blocks are discarded before they can be detected by gestating flies. (Non-organic mushroom production utilizes chemicals to ward off pests and prolong the harvesting process.)
In the packing room, one of Garrone’s 16 employees quickly boxes pounds of shitakes for that weekend’s farmers market. I ask if she likes mushrooms. “Not really,” she replies, smiling sheepishly.
As we wander in and out of dark, musty incubation rooms, I’m transfixed by the lines of bags, each with perfect mushrooms bursting from the seams. Each type of mushroom has a unique growth pattern, distinctive taste, and surprising uses.
The dark-hued reishi, a medicinal mushroom used for tea, looks almost like polished oak wood. The shitakes are grittier, have a distinct aroma, and form a gray protective shell. The king trumpets draw me in, their white, meaty trunks protruding from the substrate like fatty arms. Garrone says that eating them is like chewing a fungal sirloin.
The oyster mushrooms form clean little puffed heads resembling cartoon drawings, and I learn that these heroes of the mushroom world have been used in oil spill cleanup. They decompose the coagulated oil and break it down to a usable compost. One white oyster variety Garrone produces is native to San Francisco’s Presidio, and after the 2007 COSCO Busan spill in San Francisco Bay, there was talk of using his harvest to help break down the oil skimmed off the water.
“This is a real special food,” says Garrone. He goes off to pack up the truck for tomorrow’s markets and leaves me to roam freely around the property. I’ve always liked eating mushrooms, but I never anticipated having a deeper attachment. Yet I find myself gawking at these chubby, ethereal organisms, already contemplating the best dark corner of my house to try growing some of my own.
Matthew Green is an occasional freelance writer, also contributing to the East Bay Express and San Francisco Chronicle. When not wrestling with words, he manages a high school garden program in East Oakland, and last year ran a nationwide food access and childhood obesity prevention campaign. He currently works for KQED.