Mycoterra Farm brings mushrooms to Deerfield

The Greenfield Recorder, July 24, 2017, by Richie Davis

DEERFIELD — The business that Julia Coffey started in her parents’ Westhampton cellar is mushrooming.

She’s also a couple of weeks from opening a farm store in a former horse stable and arena in South Deerfield that will also become her Mycoterra Farm’s home this fall, eventually turning out three tons of mushrooms a week.

What began as a hobby grew out of a soil science class she took as an agriculture student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

“I just kind of fell into mycology in a soil-science class,” Coffey says. “We were learning about the roles of mushrooms in soil chemistry and nutrient cycling and decomposition.”

Coffey was hooked, and her mycophilia grew and grew.

She worked at Fungi Perfecti, a nearby mushroom farm run by “the man who made mushrooms popular.” By the time she returned to Westhampton in 2009, she was hooked on the fungi and began turning it into a side business as she tried to find a job that drew on her training, which also included an Oregon State University graduate certificate in natural resource management.

While doing secretarial work 40 to 60 hours a week, she says, she also invested $5,000 in setting up a lab in her parents’ basement, then renting the property next door, where she experimented in a closet-sized wood storage space of the cellar. It moved into the garage, then into a clear-span building.

She began harvesting about 20 pounds of mushrooms a week to sell at the now-defunct Williamsburg Farmers Market and at River Valley Co-Op, and gradually built a business that now produces about 500 pounds of mushrooms a week for 14 farmers markets around western Massachusetts as well as the Boston area and as far as Hingham.

Mycoterra Farm, which bought the former Stillwater Equestrian Center in South Deerfield last August, also sells to Pioneer Valley and Boston area restaurants, including Champney’s Tavern in Deerfield, and sells at the Atlas Farm market in Deerfield. And that’s not to mention the soaps, shiitake lotions, skin toners, bug sprays, tinctures and grow-your-own kits and spawns available on its website.

The farmers markets account for 70 percent of Mycoterra’s business, while about 10 percent of the mushrooms that come back unsold are dehydrated and converted into its “shelf-stable” products, including dried mushrooms.

The good, bad and ugly

Now 36, Coffey vividly recalls admiring the wild mushrooms she first encountered when her father would take her hiking in the woods. But she also remembers becoming “violently sick” after eating a bagel topped with crimini mushrooms and Jarlsberg cheese that her mother had served her when she was around 10.

“I don’t know if it’s what made me sick, but it disgusted me, and I didn’t eat mushrooms again until college,” she said, adding that it was after encountering mushrooms in the wild while collecting soil samples to analyze the lab that her professor identified wild edibles and cooked them up to sample. “It was phenomenal. I didn’t know what I was missing.”

Mycoterra Farm has grown along with the popularity of mushrooms, and Coffey describes the appeal of the flavors of the mushrooms she sells: shiitake’s ability to bring out the flavors of whatever it’s prepared with, or the seafood-like flavor of lion’s mane.

She also touts their nutritious properties and says, “Every time I turn around, I hear a new study on their benefits,” whether stimulating nerve growth, lowering “bad” cholesterol, battling cancer cells or for skin care.

A lover of — and grower of — shiitakes, Coffey still avoids agaricus mushrooms, including portabella, crimini and button mushrooms. Unlike the dozen varieties of oyster, lion’s mane, nameko and shiitake mushrooms she produces, which are primary decomposers that feed on sawdust, she says secondary decomposers have a less desirable diet.

“Unfortunately, a lot people’s introduction to mushrooms is to white buttons or crimini, and a lot of people don’t have the enzymes to digest them, so you’d think you’re allergic to mushrooms if that’s your only exposure. A lot of people are kind of sensitive to those varieties. I can eat a little on pizza, but I don’t enjoy them at all.”

Sterilize, sterilize, sterilize

At the former Stillwater Equestrian Center, Coffey and partner Chris Haskell have converted the former horse stables to sterilized sawdust growing environments and inoculation rooms with HEPA-type air filtration systems.

“So much of it’s based on proper sterilization and sterile lab processes,” says Coffey, who had found it discouraging after working at the state-of-the-art Olympia, Wash., mushroom facility to start off on her own in the intimidating, primitive conditions in the basement.

Although there are “casual ways” to grow mushrooms at home, the trick commercially is to avoid contamination through sterilization processes and equipment so the mushroom can compete favorably with other fungi, bacteria and molds that could otherwise contaminate the sawdust-and-grain mixture that the mushroom mycilium feeds on.

“You have to be driven and meticulous,” says Coffey. “One contaminant can take down a whole farm.”

She adds, “The bottleneck is the sterilization process,” which takes five hours.

Instead of sterilizing eight bags of sawdust into one of 10 pressure cookers, as she now does in Westhampton, Coffey spent years searching for the “bargain” autoclave she bought that now sits in a corner of the nearly 10,000 square-foot former arena. The 33-by-5-foot in diameter vessel, originally used by a North Carolina potato chip factory, will be able to sterilize 1,180 bags at a time, while a 2-cubic-yard mixer will replace the hand mixing of sawdust and grain that goes in them.

The arena’s main area, though, will be for three greenhouses, each with specific temperatures and humidity conditions ideal for the inoculated material to colonize and fruit.

A separate room in the converted horse barn will become a commercial kitchen where Coffey plans to make teas, tinctures, lotions and a variety soaps for wholesale and higher-volume sales.

At the new mushroom farm, the number of the couple’s employees is expected to grow from five to 12, in addition to marketers. It represents a million-dollar investment, Coffey said, with three-quarters of that coming from loans from the USDA Farm Service Agency and the Franklin County Community Development Corp. The plan is to produce 2,000 pounds of mushrooms after a year at the Stillwater Road farm and 6,000 pounds after three years.

“That’s still less than 2 percent of the market share for edible mushrooms,” she says. “There’s a lot of room to grow.”

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