Large Fruiting Body, Small Footprint

Far West Fungi

By Jillian Laurel Steinberger-Foster


Those mushrooms you bought at the supermarket may look perky, and they may even be certified organic, but most likely, they were cultivated in China and shipped stateside in zero-degree containers, where they sat at the Port of Oakland for weeks before being unloaded.

Not so with the fresh, organic mushrooms grown locally by Far West Fungi. For decades, the company has played an outsized role in creating awareness and demand for exotic (that is, other than white and brown caps and portabella) mushrooms, and they’re grown right here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Founder John Garrone first started selling his cultivated mushrooms in the early 1980s out of a Volkswagen bus at San Francisco’s Alemany Farmers’ Market. His company gradually expanded production to include cultivated shiitake; maitake; lion’s mane; king trumpet; wood ear; nameko; pioppini; reishi; cinnamon cap; and blue, black, pink, yellow, and tree oyster, plus dried mushrooms and foraged wild mushrooms and truffles.

Today, a second generation of Garrones play top roles. Kyle Garrone (seen in the photo above with the shiitakes) calls himself the company mushroom farmer, but others say he’s the production manager. He claims to have been born at the Alemany Market, although it may have been in the taxi on the way to the hospital. Ian (now CEO) says he just remembers Kyle in a baby backpack while mom was working the market. Loren handles wholesale and distribution, and Sean manages the farmers’ markets. There’s a gaggle of spouses, kids, and friends among the 75 people employed in all areas of the business.

Far West Fungi’s eight-acre growing facility overlooks the Pacific Ocean from a bluff above the Pajaro River at Moss Landing, where the steady ocean breeze and coastal fog create a zone ideal for cultivating mushrooms. At this and a newer facility in San Martin, the company maintains strict quality control with meticulously pure cultures, spawns, and sterilized sawdust substrates. I like to buy mushroom compost from their Moss Landing farm for my horticulture business.

As interest in mushroom medicinals expanded, Far West Fungi worked with respected mycologist and herbalist Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., author of Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, and Culture, to develop a line of myco-nutraceutical teas and tinctures in formulations that combine medicinal herbs with medicinal mushrooms like chaga, reishi, turkey tail, and cordyceps. Ian Garrone says they appreciate their partnership with Oakland-based Five Flavors Herbs, who have the expertise needed to make pure and potent tinctures.

They don’t grow psilocybin, and, “in fact, it’s illegal!” brothers Ian and Kyle Garrone laugh together as they discuss which mushrooms offer benefits when eaten frequently.

“If you have the chance to eat mushrooms fresh, that’s the way to go, in our eyes,” says Ian. “That way you get both the fiber and polysaccharides.” Kyle adds that wood ears, popular in Chinese stir-fries and hot and sour soups, are thought to reduce cholesterol “drastically” if they’re eaten frequently for two to three months, and the benefits may be long-lasting. They both say that our brains might reap benefits if we eat lion’s mane frequently and consistently, and that will be easy once Far West Fungi starts selling a new lion’s mane jerky that’s now in development.

And don’t forget the “happiness vitamin” in desserts like the candy cap–flavored ice cream and cheesecake offered at the Far West Fungi Café in Santa Cruz. There, they also sell over 50 varieties of dried, wild, and cultivated mushrooms along with home cultivation kits and medicinals. Many of these products are also available at their store in the San Francisco Ferry Building and online. ♦

With a thirst for adventure and the outdoors, Jillian Laurel Steinberger-Foster is a regenerative landscape designer and businesswoman who is HBIC of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping in Santa Cruz.