Specialty Mushrooms shoot up by the ton in West Kingston

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People who follow events in the world of cultivated mushrooms will tell you that Pennsylvania is, by far, the biggest producer of mushrooms in America, but a trio of Rhode Island entrepreneurs could possibly make Rhode Island the specialty mushroom capital of the world.

The RI Mushroom Company cultivates exotic mushrooms for restaurants and consumers in Rhode Island and further north. RI Mushroom grows several varieties or mushrooms, like blue oyster, crimini, golden oyster, king oyster, maitake, portobello and pioppino.

“I started growing them at Sweet Berry Farm, almost as an experiment,” said Bob DiPietro, a food service veteran. “We wanted to see if you could grow them along with other things in a greenhouse. Now we knew we could grow them and we knew could sell them. In fact, at one point we had so many fresh mushrooms we were afraid they wouldn’t be fresh before we could sell them. Then we saw some jars of pasta sauce a friend was selling at farmer’s markets and we said, ‘Let’s make sauce.’ Now we have a variety of sauces to sell as well.”

The business is still all so new to DiPietro that he can’t conceal his amazement at how well their venture has gone. With the problem of using surplus growth solved, the problem of meeting demand arose. In the few short years they have been producing, they’ve seen their mushrooms spread, so to speak, through restaurants and gourmet specialty shops in Rhode Island, southern New England and up into shops in Cambridge and Boston suburbs.

“We’ve started selling them to Whole Foods, who sell them by weight in their stores,” said DiPietro. “We don’t pack them under our own name yet.”

DiPietro’s mushrooms are grown differently from the supermarket variety. The plain, white buttons grow in compost beds. DiPietro grows mushrooms on compressed cakes of hardwood sawdust, similar to the way mushrooms grow on downed trees in the forest. Unlike the forest, DiPietro and his partner, Mike Hallett, have to maintain an atmosphere that controls the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and a high humidity of at least 95 percent. Not as easy as you would think in the “grow rooms” contained in an industrial building in West Kingston. The sheds look much like the plastic-side greenhouses of other farms but being contained in the larger space allows them to keep desired levels of moisture and air on the mushrooms and keep contaminants and foreign organisms at bay.

“This atmosphere is extremely controlled,” said DiPietro. “We actually create positive pressure inside the greenhouse, we force air out so things that are outside of the cracks and seams of the greenhouse are pushed away and do not drift into the greenhouse.”

Not only did they find a market and a method to grow the mushrooms, they are finding the demand keeps increasing. Local amateur cooks and professional chefs like the idea of mushrooms that are exotic and affordable at the same time. It will be a long time before these mushrooms are as inexpensive as the white buttons in the produce departments of supermarkets but they will be cheap enough that what used to be a seasonal treat at only certain times of the year, will now be affordable year-round.

Cultivating mushrooms has been around for much longer than RI Mushroom. Website of the Mushroom Council www.mushroominfo.com says France was the leader in the formal cultivation of mushrooms. Some accounts say that Louis XIV was the first mushroom grower. Around this time mushrooms were grown in special caves near Paris set aside for this unique form of agriculture.

From France, the gardeners of England found mushrooms a very easy crop to grow, which required little labor, investment and space. Mushroom cultivation began gaining popularity in England with more experimentation with spawn and publicity in journals and magazines.

In the late 19th century, mushroom production made its way across the Atlantic to the United States where curious home gardeners in the east tried their luck at growing this new and unknown crop. However, growers had to depend on spores imported from England, which, by the time it reached the U.S., was of poor quality. Experts suggested that it was perfect for florists, since they grew flowers on benches. Florists could slide mushroom beds under flower benches, thereby cultivating two crops in the area of one. William Falconer’s book on the subject (1891) inevitably led to commercial production. It also contained much practical advice on building beds for cultivation, the perfect growing temperature and where mushroom markets were developing. Concentrated areas of industry growth were Long Island, Central Massachusetts, Chicago, Michigan and California but southeastern Pennsylvania was, and still is, the largest center of white button mushroom production in the country. Exotic mushrooms remained difficult and expensive to grow until very recently. The spread of gourmet food and wine to a larger portion of the population has now made it economically viable to cater to that population, which is what DiPietro and partner Mike Hallock were aware of from the start.

Hallock also cultivated an interest in mushrooms while working at another local farm and was immediately attracted to DiPietro’s idea of expanding their availability. In 2013 they watched their presumptions rewarded with widespread reception. Hallock is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston and still considers himself a musician, but he is equally as passionate about organic farming and exotic mushrooms.

“I play regularly with some other guys who like the same kind of music,” he said. “We have a jam band similar to Phish and other groups who like improvising.”

In the meantime, he’s not going to quit his day job. There’s just too much to do. According to DiPietro, growth has been fast and exponential.

“We grew about 2,500 pounds of mushrooms this week,” he said last Thursday. “Within two months we expect to be grown about 5,000 pounds per week.”

Their success has been notable enough to prompt other farmers to consider mushrooms among their crops. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island (NOFA/RI) announced the next Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) workshop would be focused on RI Mushroom’s commercial cultivation. DiPietro has agreed to lead a workshop called “Cultivating Exotic Mushrooms” which is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 10 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the farm. DiPietro will share his experience and conduct a tour of his farming operation. See inside RI Mushroom Company's grow rooms and learn the basics at 141 Fairgrounds Rd., West Kingston.

Their in-house mycologist, Todd Leftwith, will offer technical details and provide a tour of the company’s lab. You can learn about the life cycle and the various methods of cultivation and preparation (that deliciously funky aroma you smell when you walk into RI Mushroom is from a tea that Leftwith makes for himself daily).

A small team of authorized foragers will be on hand to speak about gathering wild mushrooms and the extreme importance of knowing which mushrooms you are picking (unfortunately, poisonous and edible mushrooms look dangerously alike).

The workshop is free, thanks to a generous Farm Viability grant from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture. Everyone is welcome and registration is not required.

“We also sell mushrooms to people who come to us,” said DiPietro. “We also have jars of pasta sauce we’d like people to try.”

Learn more about the NOFA Interstate Council at nofa.org. Contact Sanne Kure-Jensen, NOFA/RI Administrator, email SanneK-J@cox.net or call 250-3999.

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