WORCESTER — Saturdays during the recent warmer months, Brian and Karen Wiseman bring about 30 pounds of shiitake, lion’s mane, oyster, maitake, chaga and other strains of mushrooms to the Capital City Farmers Market.
They tend to sell out quickly. If they grow more, no problem. Local cooperatives are happy to buy them. And nearby restaurants that emphasize local ingredient sources, such as Kismet and Tulsi Tea Room in Montpelier, are also eager to get their shares. In their brief time in business, the couple have found no reason to advertise.
There are plenty of foodies in central Vermont, but Karen Wiseman thinks there are also people out there drawn to the medicinal qualities of mushrooms. Then, there are those fascinated by the biology and science of fungus, and that doesn’t surprise her at all. Like humans, mushrooms take in oxygen, emit carbon dioxide and excrete enzymes that help decompose their food. There is much going on with a fungus that isn’t visible to the eye, yet plays a critical role in the broader ecosystem, and the whole process requires exacting conditions to work.
“They are cool. They are the fabric of the earth, but you don’t see them,” Karen said.
She would know. Karen left Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and a lucrative career as a biochemical engineer, primarily with the prescription drug industry, about six years ago to move to Vermont. She and her husband, a former pharmaceutical equipment buyer whose career overlapped her own, arrived on the 2011 weekend of Tropical Storm Irene and began to reshape their lives to a different spiritual focus.
They’ve slowly moved away from a career-centered life to spending more time at home, raising chickens and other animals, and gardening on their Worcester farm.
In the past year, much effort has gone into bringing Peaceful Harvest Mushrooms alive. They’ve constructed a building and grown their hobbyists’ knowledge into a broad understanding of the science and art of coaxing delicate fungus to live and bear fruit. They’ve opened up new markets, ranging from cultivated spores for other growers to dried and smoked mushrooms and tinctures intended for medical use.
“We’re not sure where we’re going to evolve in the future,” said Brian Wiseman, who had been a hobby-grower for years before arriving in Vermont. “We’re doing a little bit of everything right now.”
The process begins with what looks like a simple plastic bag of dirt, but is actually a careful mixture of pure oak sawdust, wheat bran, gypsum and hardwood chips. The mixture is cooked for a few hours in a sterilizer, and moved upstairs to the “clean” room, built in the space of an empty bedroom. In this laboratory, Brian introduces “spawn,” cultivated spores from mature mushrooms, and seals the mixture into bags that each contain a special filter to allow it to breathe without impurities from outside.
The bags sit on a shelf while the spawn begins to colonize the mixture with a network of cells — called the mycelium — that secretes enzymes to break down the material and produce food for the fruiting stage. Over about seven weeks, the mixture turns white and later darkens and solidifies into a hardened chunk that will play the role of a log where a mushroom would grow naturally.
Brian inoculates about 75 bags each week, and hopes to double that number by the end of summer.
When ready, the plastic bag is removed and the mixture introduced to the moist atmosphere of the growing room. There, in a matter of days, the different strains of mushrooms begin to sprout.
Their goal, according to Karen, is to get as many mushrooms as they can per bag, which is a challenge. These fungi have been eaten by humans for thousands of years, yet only ever appear when conditions of temperature, water and mycelium are all correct. It’s very difficult to manipulate these factors.
“They fruit only when it’s perfect,” she said. “They wait and they wait and they wait.”
Attention to detail is key. When they first started out, they hung out some of their lab coats and wiping cloths to dry outdoors after laundering, accidentally exposing them to all manner of bacteria in the air. The result: a run of bags that produced very little.
On a Monday morning, things were a bit thin in the growing room with just a few shelves lined with bags. Many sprouted gnarled shapes of shiitakes, or the feathery, blond blossoms of lion’s mane. These, Karen said, feature a meaty consistency and mild flavor very different from the smokiness of shiitakes.
“So delicious. It’s like a seafood substitute,” she said. “The texture of scallops or lobster.”
The growing room is the centerpiece of a building they constructed next to their house, largely by hand with the help of a neighbor who is a contractor. It was designed with metal walls for easy cleaning and a channel in the floor to catch the condensation of the heavy mist that drifts down from the ceiling. Fans blow the humid air around, and shelves where the sealed bags of mycelium rest are set apart by a zippered, plastic curtain.
It’s a process they’re still trying to perfect, Brian said, but their yields have increased dramatically from the early months.
The laboratory, kept free of contamination by a system of large HEPA filters and accompanying machinery, more closely reflects their scientific backgrounds; Brian’s for equipment, and Karen’s experience with design, construction and operations. Built in the second-floor former bedroom of Brian’s daughter, one passes through a sliding glass door into a tight space to “gown up,” and adorn a lab coat, hair net and sterile gloves. Past a second door are a few simple tables where the spawn is introduced to the mixture and sealed in. The cultivating spawn, also in bags or jars, sprouts a white, fuzzy texture similar to the mycelium.
“There’s quite a few log growers that bought their spawn from us this year, rather than online,” he said. “They appreciate having a local source.”
Restaurants, too, want local mushrooms of high quality. Crystal Mederia, chef and owner of Kismet, said she developed one of the restaurant’s signature dishes around Peaceful Harvest mushrooms. Her shiitake miso butter kale dish involves grinding dried mushrooms into a powder and introducing it into butter.
“Their consistency and the abundance they have has been previously unavailable,” said Mederia, whose restaurant is a farm-to-table operation. “The quality is fantastic. They’re very aromatic — particularly aromatic.”
She and Karen also share an interest in the medicinal qualities of mushrooms, which Mederia believes will be the foundation for a sustainable relationship and shared projects in the future.
Karen said both she and her husband had grown disenchanted with the biopharmaceutical industry, and longed to learn a different way of living when they decided to move. She made a dramatic career shift (drawing spirited teasing from her science colleagues) to Highfields Center for Composting in Hardwick, where she began to learn about healthy soil and the role of animals, humans and even fungi in a healthy agriculture system. She serves as general manager.
They had been working too hard, she said, and wanted to refocus their efforts on raising their two young sons, growing food and becoming part of a better system for feeding themselves and the people around them. In Vermont, she said, they found people with the same sensibility. They have also found people who love mushrooms, and she praised Vermonters’ willingness to try new foods and products.
“Every step of the way, the things and the people that we’ve come into contact with have been invaluable for learning how to take care of yourself … how to feed your family,” she said.