Westhampton Farm a Top Mushroom Producer

Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 4th, 2016, by Richie Davis. For people who live on wooded lots like Julia Coffey, an abundance of mushrooms is a common sight. But at Coffey’s home, they’re everywhere — in the basement, the backyard and greenhouses.

Coffey, 35, is the owner and founder of Mycoterra Farm, which she runs with her partner Chris Haskell, 30. They and their staff of two full-time and two part-time workers grow hundreds of pounds of mushrooms each week that are sold statewide and in New York.

Since literally starting in a closet six years ago, Mycoterra has become one of the leading mushroom producers in Massachusetts.

Coffey’s interest in mushrooms began when she took a soil science class at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Coffey said she was fascinated by the unique role that fungi play in ecosystems.

Following that interest after graduation in 2004, she began working for fungi maestro Paul Stamets, a mycologist and owner of Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, Washington.

After working for Stamets for four years and getting a graduate certificate in natural resources management, with a specialty in fungal applications, from Oregon State University, Coffey began small-scale mushroom production at her home in Westhampton. “It really kind of took off,” she said.

The following year the business was born when Coffey initially invested $5,000 of her own money.

Among her first customers was River Valley Market (now River Valley Co-op) in Northampton. Today, Mycoterra mushrooms can be purchased at 10 farmers markets across the state from Boston to Northampton, as well as in restaurants and supermarkets.

Mycoterra produces 300 to 400 pounds of mushrooms each week, including shiitake, lion’s mane, enokitake and many different types of oysters – pearl oyster, blue oyster, king oyster and pink oyster.

Equipment limits increase production at the farm in Westhampton where pressure cookers are used to sterilize materials used to grow mushrooms, including sawdust. They are able to sterilize 150 bags of sawdust each day.

Coffey said she is close to finalizing the purchase of a farm in South Deerfield that will allow her to dramatically ramp up production.

Thanks to a commercial autoclave, which Haskell said is as “big as a bus,” Mycoterra then will be able to increase sawdust sterilization to 1,500 bags at a time.

Coffey said she plans to increase production over the next few years until reaching 3,000 to 5,000 pounds weekly.

Mushroom Growing

Mycoterra mushrooms all start out the same way: in a Petri dish in Coffey’s basement.

A culture sourced from another mushroom or a laboratory like that at Pennsylvania State University, grows in the dish anywhere from five day to two weeks, depending on its strain and the temperature in which it is grown.

“There’s a huge difference depending on what you’re growing,” Haskell said. That time difference continues on to the other stages of cultivation.

That culture – known as mycelium, the vegetative part of fungus – continues to grow after it is added to jars of grain. Once that grain is overrun by the thread-like, fuzzy, white mycelium, it is split between two bigger bags of grain.

Those bags are then split between eight bags of sterilized sawdust. After a time, the sawdust bags are used to “inoculate” bags of what’s known as supplemental sawdust, which has gypsum and bran added to it.

Those bags are then brought into the incubation room, a large greenhouse in the woods behind Coffey’s home. The room can hold 2,500 bags at a time, which are left there for anywhere between two weeks and three months. But after that, there are still no mushrooms.

“What’s going on in these bags usually goes on just below the surface of the forest floor or inside a log,” Haskell said.

Once the mycelium have nearly used all the nutrients in the bags, they are brought to the fruiting room, another large greenhouse next door.

That’s where mushrooms will appear. It’s called pinning – the appearance of baby mushrooms, or primordia, out of holes in the bag, or the solid block of mycelium, depending on the variety of mushrooms.

Mycoterra uses different techniques for various species of mushrooms. The bags holding shitake colony, for example, are “cold shocked” by placing them in a cooler. Then they’re cut open and soaked in water before being left to fruit.

That mimics what happens in nature, Coffey said: The fall frost followed by spring rain.

Summer is the most fruitful time for mushroom growth. “In the summer the same amount of growth we see in a week, we’ll see in a day,” Coffey said.

In fact, after one trip around the fruiting room harvesting mushrooms, the farmers will often find that more mushrooms have grown.

Mushroom Growth

Coffey said she was able to find such success based on her 10 years experience in mycology. Her seemingly modest $5,000 initial investment was able to go further coupled with her expertise, dedication and passion.

“You have to give up on the life side for a few years,” she said.

During her first three years, she worked other jobs up to 60 hours per week, in addition to running the farm. Now, the farm generates enough revenue to sustain her, Haskell and their daughter.

Looking ahead, Coffey said she is excited about the possibilities at the South Deerfield farm.

Looking ahead, Coffey said she’s looking forward to a facet of growth that some might consider unusual: the increase in trash at the South Deerfield farm.

After all the mushrooms are harvested, what’s left are spent blocks of sawdust. Coffey’s already experimented with building a retaining wall to reduce erosion with the blocks and uses them to fertilize her gardens.