As the New Year approaches I find myself thinking back to the time, in late 2006, when I started in earnest to learn mushroom cultivation. The idea arose when we moved back here, to my wife's family home, in Hamilton, NY. Here we have marginal, gravelly soil over uneven ground. We have an irregular handful of hayfields, suffering from neglect. We have a short growing season, and long, hard winters. We have woods. For the first few months of living here (again) I would walk around the property wondering what in the world you could grow here that would make it a sustainable, working farm.
 

 

 

To me, sustainability implies independence from off-farm resources, especially non-renewable resources.The less energy and material you need to bring onto the farm from somewhere else, the more independent, and sustainable, an operation you have. Of course, you can't just grow crops to please yourself. You need customers for what you produce. Ideally you would grow something that people value highly, something that uses our short growing season efficiently, producing a good amount of biomass without unduly depleting the soil or requiring a great deal of cultivation.

 

Trees do most of that, and around here they probably do it better than any other kind of plant. Trees capture huge amounts of solar energy, bind carbon dioxide, restore the soil, shelter wildlife, and yield wood for fuel and building material, all with little or no tending. They grow all over. Leave a field untended for a few years and a young forest will emerge. Unfortunately, people can't eat trees. But mushrooms eat trees. And people eat mushrooms. In fact, some of the best gourmet and medicinal mushrooms we know about grow on trees. A good number of them grow here, natively.

 

I didn't really understand this until I started reading about mushroom cultivation, especially Paul Stamets's books, Mycelium Running and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. Most of us don't realize what an amazing variety of delicious, natural, whole-food sources of protein, vitamins, minerals, and naturally-healing compounds inhabit our woods. In Mycelium Running Stamets makes a compelling case for liberally including mushrooms in our farming, gardening, cooking, medicine - even using them for pest control. I began to imagine what it would mean to do that right here, in this very spot.

 

Imagine if we, here in the Chenango River Valley, grew mushrooms on our farms and in our gardens as widely as we grow tomatoes and sweet corn today, and in almost as much variety. Imagine treating locally-grown mushrooms as a staple food that most people eat almost daily, year-round, like bread or eggs. Imagine seeing mushrooms not as rare and exotic but as familiar, benign, and bountiful . Imagine mushrooms grown so widely, and easily, that anyone could afford to include them, routinely, in their diet, and reap their health benefits. And imagine us developing an export economy - sending our native mushroom species, grown on our local wood, grasses, and grains, to produce markets in the great cities of the Northeast.

 

I started The Imaginary Farmer to learn what I could about growing and selling mushrooms here, and whether this vision of a locale-specific mushroom industry might become a reality. In subsequent entries I will to write further about what I set out to do, what I've learned thus far, and what I still hope to find out.

 

For now, here's a wish for the new year: