Archive for March, 2012

As the Dogwood and Cherry Blossom trees begin to bloom, I know it’s finally time to begin my trek across the country.

My project to find, connect and hear directly from other brown farmers has been in germination for a year and a half, and I’m filled with excited anticipation now that it has emerged.

I started thinking about the need for this project while I was writing a series called The Color of Food for Grist.org in 2010. The issues of race and food were discussed and the voices of farmers of color rang loud and clear for me, yet I knew they weren’t being heard.  I spent the next year trying to make the idea of amplifying these voices come to fruition. And thanks to the support of many beautiful souls and comrades in this movement, at the end of 2011 the idea became a reality.

Now with the fresh, new season upon us – as my favorite wizard of one liners would say – “It’s all happening.”

The winter  “spring” was spent in much needed hibernation(if you can even hibernate in 60 degree weather). I spent the time preparing for the trip and working at Cedar Springs farm for extra cash to help when on the road.

I researched and bought a car to get around to all the farmers in (Lucille, a 22 year old wagon, aged like a fine wine), which will double as my home for the season. I also acquired all the camera and audio equipment I’ll need and began planning my route and reaching out to farmers to set up interview stays.

Now I’m officially on the road and the COLOR of FOOD/ photo documentary tour has officially commenced!

Snapshots of the farmers along the way and pieces of their interviews will be posted here. As well as updates of my route so that folks can reach out to me when I’m in your area if you want to participate, support or suggest a farmer I should connect with!

First states: D.C./Maryland/Virginia area, then North Carolina! Give me a shout if you or anyone you know in these states should be included in this project or if there’s a couch for me to lay my head on 😉

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Mushrooms are freaking cool. At least that’s what the average mycology lover’s t-shirt says. Each variety with its own idiosyncratic qualities. The incredibly fast and far reaching growth rate of fungi. And the delicious flavors and culinary uses each mushroom has. (Though some people are also fascinated with the not-so-edible varieties too. You know the ones.)

For farmers and urban growers, mushrooms aren’t a bad crop to market. There’s not a whole lot of competition out there and you can charge a pretty penny for varieties like Shitake, Mitake and Oysters, to name a few. But after the past 6 weeks, I’ve had a little peek into why not too many folks are growing them: You gotta get the science. And you gotta love the science.

Maybe for other farmers that’s a given; science is in everything we grow. But I’m talking about delicately controlled-environment science. Like some petri dish, hepafilter, lab coat type craziness. Not everybody has the patience, interest, time or resources for doing all that.

Granted, not all growing techniques require a mycology lab. There a variety of ways to grow mushrooms. With Shitake, for example, you can just plug your spores right into a log and voíla – you’re chowin’ down on Shitake burgers in no time.

But even when you’re inoculating and growing in logs or outdoors in other mediums, you still have to be aware of the microcosm of a controlled-environment you’re dealing with. There are other spores everywhere that can get in and take it all over, and plenty of other factors that can have an impact.

When creating the perfect environment for growing mushrooms, you’re creating the perfect environment to grow fungi, period. And when you think about that, you can see how venturing down this path is no walk in the park.

The farm I’ve been on these last weeks should be renamed Farm Sterile because that’s where the bulk of the energy (both literally and figuratively speaking) has gone. Ensuring the labs, built by the farmers in the basement of their home; the grow house, built in their drained pool; and the growing mediums of pasteurized straw and grain, which they pasteurized themselves, is all completely sterile. Your mushrooms can get contaminated with a number of other bacteria spores and just like that your whole crop can be wiped out. It’s a lot of work! A lot of understanding the science involved in controlling those environments and maintaining the systems needed to do so, such as humidity irrigation, air filters and air flow systems.

That’s all a little too intensive for me personally. But I have a newfound respect for mycologists and those brave souls that have a passion for cultivating and successfully marketing mushrooms.

Tyler and Kara here at Cedar Springs Farm decided to grow in this way for more control over their production and an increased guarantee to yield good results. They sell to local chefs from West Virginia to D.C. and the chefs are lining up to buy the first local mushrooms in the state to add to their menus. Tyler won the Innovative Farmer of the Year award from the local agriculture bureau for his growing techniques. Techniques he learned from a quick weekend course with Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti in Washington state.

I’ve been here to witness and help with the entire process from scratch, so I’m excited to share what I’ve learned. But, since I’m no Peter Stamets, I’ll share the experience through photos and let them do the talking. Any further information you may want on growing mushrooms can be found on various online resources, but Fungi Perfecti is a good start.

Yours Truly,

The Newest Mycology Fan


i heart mushrooms

a peek into the mushroom lab at Cedar Springs Farm

First we start with petri dishes and sterilized Agar as the growing medium for the spores. You could put the spores right into the final growing medium (straw,grain) but this helps multiply your “seed”

Everything is done in front of the Hepafilter to minimize contamination

We sterilize the Agar medium by cooking it in a pressure cooker

They ordered many varieties of mushroom spores from Fungi Perfecti – study up on your latin!

Next we carefully extract spores and transplant into the Agar growing medium where they’ll multiply and be used for inoculation

After the spores grow in the petri they are transferred to sterilized grain which serves as the inoculation medium, once the grain is covered in “fuzz” they are ready to be put into the straw columns shown here

The Spawn Room is full of the straw columns inoculated and ready to grow and fruit

You can see the mycelium growth as the straw turns white with fuzz and the mushrooms begin fruiting (shown poking out of the holes in the columns)

Fully fruiting column of Pink Oyster mushrooms!

Pink Oysters are ready for harvest

By the end of my time at Cedar Springs we were able to move the straw column production from the little room setup in their basement out to the finished Mushroom House built in their drained pool

Almost finished Mushroom House is huge. It will hold hundreds of straw columns for growing thousands and thousand of mushrooms. (Unfortunately I left before getting shots of the finished and functioning space, but I’ll be back at the end of the year and will post an update on the progress)

(Now that my time working at this farm has come to an end, along with the “winter”, it’s time for me to finally hit the road for the Color of Food/photo documentary. Stay Tuned!)

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