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Farming mushrooms as Slow Food, medicine, bioremediation

In the past few years, mushrooms- and the vegetative part of the fungus, mycelium– have been elevated from the underworld. According to mushroom guru Paul Stamets, they’re capable of saving the world, in at least 6 different ways (see his TED talk or his book Mycelium Running: Growing Mushrooms to Heal People and Planet).

He, and others, claim they’re capable of “mycorestoration” (cleaning up the environment), “mycopesticides” (organic bug killers), “mycofiltration” (silting chemicals from water), breaking down nerve gases, neutralizing smallpox, and replacing plastics.

One farmer takes on the American fungi diet

Ian Garrone runs 60,000 square feet of greenhouses filled with organic, sawdust-based mushrooms (“what in nature grow on trees”: the sawdust allows them to harvest mushrooms on a weekly basis). He started Far West Fungi- out of his garage- 25 years ago not to save the world, but to introduce America to the wide variety of edible fungi.

Today, the Garrone family sells over 40 different types of mushrooms (at their store in San Francisco), a relatively rare offering, given that button mushrooms (those white ones you buy in a can) account for about 87% of all domestic mushroom sales (2001, U.S. Department of Agriculture). Ian’s philosophy of preserving and promoting culinary diversity falls right in line with that of the Slow Food movement so it’s fairly natural that he’s worked closely with the local chapter.

Garrone also believes that mushrooms can add balance to your diet, partly due to what they replace. The fleshy texture of some of the mushrooms he grows makes mushrooms an ideal meat substitute.

Mushrooms as medicine

Mushrooms that grow on trees (the type grown at the Far West Fungi farm) are also considered medicinal. “The reason is the organism, the fungi, which breaks things down- that’s what it naturally does- breaks down these hard sugars in the hardwood. In breaking them down the organism produces mushrooms that are very high in complex sugars called polysaccharides which our bodies use to fight diseases.”

Garrone explains some of the claimed links: oyster mushrooms (anti-tumoral properties), shitakes (immune system boosters), reishi (improve T-cell production), bear’s head mushrooms (treatment for brain cell problems and digestion problems). Though he’s quick to add that he’s just a mushroom farmer so he sends people to the Internet to find out for themselves.

Helping San Francisco clean up their last oil spill

Garrone didn’t get into the business to help save the world, but somehow he’s managed to help save his corner of the world. After San Francisco’s last oil spill he helped provide an indigenous strain of oyster mushroom to a bioremediation project. That is, the mycelium from his oyster mushrooms broke down the oil so it could be composted.

“The reason we got this strain was so that we had a strain that was indigenous to San Francisco so there wasn’t any possibility of the organism releasing into the Presidio… now we actually maintain it because it’s a real nice mushroom, but also if we ever need that strain for a bioremediation project in San Francisco we would have that organism alive.”

He continues to produce 15,000 pounds of this organism on a weekly basis, so if San Francisco asks for help again, he can also provide a lot of this mushroom very quickly.

In this video, Garrone takes us for a tour of his farm where he shows us the sawdust piles, clean room (a sterile lab), incubation rooms (mushrooms are here for 4-13 weeks), and the thousands of mature fruiting mushrooms ready to be picked.