‘Helping heal the planet’: Nevada City business MushBarn hopes to expand its capabilities
Mycologists spread spores of knowledge
The stalactites hang heavy from the lion’s mane growing from white mycelium blocks stacked to the ceiling of a greenhouse belonging to Nevada City’s MushBarn.
The MushBarn, operated by mycologist Stephanie Manara, started the community-supported agriculture component of its business in January. Customers can pick up oyster varieties at Liquid Gold Juicery on York Street in Nevada City, but Manara said her business offers something far more “meta” than being one tangible protein-rich alternative to meat.
“You know the reductionist theory in science? Looking at the singular pieces — it’s paradoxical to try to even do that,” Manara said. “When you realize mycelium is a tangible glue that connects everything living and respirating, it’s pretty amazing.”
Manara said her business model promotes the proliferation of mycelium via grow kit distribution and eight-week internships.
Mycelium, or mushrooms, act as a living agent and facilitate a dynamic relationship between the plants and the soil. This dynamism is necessary for anything to grow and sustain life, Manara said, but is especially beneficial to introduce in areas with depleted soil caused by generations of conventional farming.
According to Manara, the phantom-root-like structure that makes up the underground portion of mushroom also helps with soil water retention to support flora and fauna. Manara said it’s hard to determine mycelium’s life cycle because the organism is constantly growing from its own decay.
“When soil has been depleted of water life and nutrients, we pump these additives so crops can be grown again,” Manara said. “The water evaporates, as opposed to a living soil matrix that is fungal-based, where the mycelium holds water for the plant and extends the reach of the root which then can access a lot more constituents.”
Manara said crops and fungi with robust and active life cycles — “healthy symbiotic settings” — keep the soil rich naturally, as opposed to relying on liquid or powdered supplemental nutrients.
“Basically, fungi are earth’s decomposers,” Manara said. “Their role is to disassemble the life that’s already on its way out, and basically reassemble those molecules so that more life can be born.”
At the moment, the MushBarn sources some of the oak sawdust it uses as a substrate from neighbors at Elements Tree Service. Once mycelia is added to wet, pasturized oak sawdust, it jumps on, digests and fruits.
“That’s why you see the white block,” Manara said, referring to the white cubes of earthly matter incubating on tiered shelves in transparent plastic bags.
Manara works closely with Dylan Lynch, the operations manager at the MushBarn. Lynch said long term, they would like to source all of the substrate, currently grown on oak with supplements, from Nevada County.
Lynch moved to Nevada County in 2007 and began his interest in mushroom cultivation three years ago as a viable protein alternative to meat.
“It’s really exciting to see how much of this protein source we’re able to grow with such a small footprint,” Lynch said. “The size of this farm, compared to the size of a farm required to raise beef — it’s exciting to see our capabilities, and to expand these capabilities.”
Lynch said future projects may include teaching “spore-spreading” teams traveling abroad to address food security issues through off-grid mushroom farming.
“We might be able to help teach people how to grow mushrooms in a low-tech setting for food security and side income,” Lynch said.
According to Lynch, cultivators can create simple micro-climates for mushrooms to thrive in, if they understand the given environment they are working with.
Manara said even with 10 years of mycology experience, she is still learning more about the benefits of cultivating, eating and composting mushrooms.
Manara said she is eager to help educate local farmers on how to optimize the use of mycelia in permaculture to determine which types of mushrooms grow best with which types of plants. Manara said cannabis cultivators in the region could consider planting the garden giant variety of mushroom to protect their plants from parasites.
“They have acanthocytes — tiny spines that pierce and kill predatory nematodes,“ Manara said. ”That’s one example of a way they can protect the root structure of the plants in the soil.“
Manara said the relationship facilitated between plant and soil by fungi is referred to as “facultative mycorrhizal.” The right mushroom will voluntarily become symbiotic with the root structure it is planted around.
“They have a sixth sense and team up with plants that are present, favoring those instead of pathogenic or predatory organisms in the soil,” Manara said.
Manara said MushBarn currently is distributing strophiria rugoso-annulata — better known as garden giants — grow kits.
“They have this red wine-colored cap and they are really good, beneficial, companion planting,” Manara said. “You can use it with cannabis, veggies — plant mycelium anywhere that you’re irrigating.”
Manara said the grow kits are “like a forest in a box” and that the mushrooms should return year after year.
Judy Merrick is the manager for Elixart’s Grass Valley location and one of MushBarn’s current interns. She said she first learned about the program amid holiday giveaways that highlighted women-owned and operated businesses in the area.
Merrick said she has foraged for mushrooms in the area before.
Merrick’s work experience creating and serving the plant-based “medicine” at Elixart offered some foundation for her interest in learning how to cultivate mushrooms, but was excited to learn more about the subject in a realm outside her family’s business.
Merrick’s brother, Colter Merrick, owns Elixart.
Before moving to Nevada County five years ago, Merrick spent 13 years in New York City as a stage actress. Working with mushrooms has been somewhat of a muse as she designs and revisits the Elixart food menu.
“Each play I did was a new introduction to this world,” Merrick explained, “What props, costumes, what time period.”
Merrick said her time working with people at MushBarn feels like an introduction to a new world as well, and she’s learning how to create using available bio-material and her newfound knowledge.
So far, Merrick has made lion’s mane pancakes, mushroom-based key lime pie, mushroom-based “chicken” nuggets and crab cakes.
Merrick said she has two grow kits going at home.
She’s excited to participate in a project that is both historical and cutting edge.
“Essentially, we’re helping heal the planet,” Merrick said.
The medicinal and nutritional benefits of mushrooms, or mycelium, are numerous, but Manara said she hopes to highlight their regenerative potential. Manara said recent studies found some mushrooms are able to break down plastic.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com
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