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Virginia fungi farmers forge new markets for locally produced mushrooms

Virginia fungi farmers forge new markets for locally produced mushrooms

Driving by Schofield Farm in Dinwiddie County, you would never guess that Paul and Katie Schofield have one of the largest mushroom-growing operations in Virginia.

Situated amid wild berry bushes, a few chickens and some sheep, are two small shipping containers and a greenhouse where the couple raises and harvests around 600 pounds of mushrooms each week—oysters, shiitake, lion’s mane and “a little bit of maitake.

“We’re gonna start some chestnuts in a couple weeks, so I’m pretty excited about those,” Katie said.

The inspiration behind cultivating fungi stemmed from Paul’s education at Virginia Commonwealth University, where one of his professors was researching mushrooms’ anti-cancer properties. Unable to find fresh, local mushrooms for a study, they decided to grow their own.

“Then it just turned into, ‘Why don’t we just grow some more and sell them?’” Katie recalled.

Like something out of science fiction

Outfitted with temperature control, a misting system and grow lights, shelves inside the shipping containers are lined with blocks of sawdust and wheat bran substrate that act as growing media. Mycelium—the vegetative part of fungi—webs throughout the substrate with fruit in various stages of growth, looking almost otherworldly.

“You open the doors, and fog comes out like it’s a science fiction movie,” Katie chuckled.

Paul explained that “you need the right humidity and temperature range. Blue oysters like it cooler. Shiitake like it a little bit warmer, so they’re in the greenhouse. Lion’s mane likes it kind of cool, but not cold.”

The Schofields mix their own substrate and purchase ready-to-fruit shiitake logs from a farm in New Jersey. The substrate is steamed, eliminating contaminants before being formed into blocks. Once they are inoculated with spores and the mycelium is established, the fruiting begins.

“The lion’s mane grows slowly. Once it starts fruiting, it’ll be seven days before they can be harvested. These guys,” Paul said, pointing to a cluster of bright yellow oysters, “take about three days.”

Gnomestead Hollow is an ode to fungi

Nestled in a lush green meadow surrounded by forest and a trickling brook, Carroll County’s Gnomestead Hollow Farm and Forage is a nod to mushroom lore.

“Gnomes have always been associated with mushrooms—you don’t really see one without the other,” explained owner Matthew Reiss. “They’re guardians of the garden and forest.”

Reiss always enjoyed foraging mushrooms in the wild. He started producing them while studying sustainable agriculture at Evergreen College in Washington, where he grew his first fungi at the college farm. A Virginia native, he eventually moved back east and settled on his family’s land in Dugspur.

“Depending on the season, I grow about five to 15 varieties,” Reiss said. “I have a pretty passive setup, which relies a lot on the ambient conditions. I built it around this climate zone.”

Standing in one of his grow houses, he explained how people enjoy mushrooms’ variety and unique, earthy flavors.

“People think ‘earthy’ tastes like dirt, but it doesn’t,” he said. “Some have this really nice, deep umami flavor like the shiitake. Oysters have a delicate, nutty flavor that intensifies when you sauté or roast them.”

Lion’s mane, with their slight seafood essence, work well for faux crab cakes. Reishi mushrooms, Reiss said, are bitter and made into teas with ginger and honey.

There wasn’t much of a mushroom industry in Virginia when he first started in 2013, but “it’s gained a lot of traction. A lot more people are growing. A lot more people are foraging, especially since the pandemic. Mushroom culture is thriving.”