BUDA, Texas (KXAN) — This week’s rain is good news for fungal fans. You can expect to see mushrooms popping up in yards and gardens this week after the recent downpours. Mushrooms are becoming more popular in Central Texas, with many people turning to them as a hobby. It’s part of a nationwide mycology trend. But why now?
At Smallhold’s mushroom farm in Buda, Texas, thousands of pounds of mushrooms are harvested each day. “We have Lion’s Mane and our Yellow Oysters,” said Travis Breihan, impact manager at Smallhold.
The company also grows trumpets, yellow oysters, shiitake and “beautiful blue oyster mushrooms.”
The company started by building tiny mushroom farms that could be found in grocery stores like Central Market. A couple of years ago, they grew the business and built a high-tech farm in Buda.
Smallhold still sells to grocery stores, but they also supply restaurants as well. Comedor in downtown Austin buys some of their supply from Smallhold.
“From a restaurant standpoint, it’s the most consistent and available product we can purchase,” said Comedor owner Chef Philip Speer.
Comedor has around 14 items on its menu on any given night, with three to four dishes containing mushrooms. Speer, a chef in Austin for 27 years, said he’s seeing a shift towards mushrooms in many kitchens.
“I feel like mushrooms is one of those things similar to like beets where people maybe have had a preparation of them that left them feeling weird,” Speer said.
The great mushroom invasion
“I think what you’re starting to see in America is we’re starting to see more and more people get interested in mushrooms and kind of become like a mycophile community,” Breihan said.
Not only are you seeing more mushrooms in kitchens, but people are turning it into a hobby. Speer forages for mushrooms in his north Austin neighborhood, finding “Chicken of the Woods” mushrooms, and then serving them for dinner.
The Central Texas Mycological Society hosts multiple foraging events each year.
Breihan said in the United States, people on average consume around two pounds of mushrooms a year. In Asia, he said, they consume 20-50 pounds of mushrooms. That’s starting to change.
“I think that this is definitely not just a food fad,” Speer said.
“There really is kind of … a mycology craze right now where people are using the understanding the health benefits of mushrooms beyond just ingesting them as food.”
With potentially hundreds of thousands of species of mushrooms, Breihan said we have plenty to learn about mushrooms.
“It’s this entire kingdom of, of life that really humans don’t entirely understand how to work with and we’re just starting to discover,” Breihan said.
Mushroom farms take fungus high tech
Speer thinks the trend is occurring because people are learning to grow mushrooms more efficiently. Farms like Smallhold are able to grow mushrooms to scale, while even smaller farms can have an impact.
“We’re trying to replicate nature, we’re trying to create the environment in which the mushrooms are, are most at home,” Breihan said about Smallhold’s facilities in Buda. The building is highly climate controlled, with multiple chambers used for growing mushrooms.
Each chamber is monitored using a smart device called a “FarmLinc.” To properly grow mushrooms, Smallhold must balance moisture, temperature and oxygen levels in the chambers. Mushrooms, unlike plants, feed on oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
Employees are outfitted with masks, hair nets and white jumpsuits. The mushrooms can produce millions of spores and the company harvests 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of mushrooms a week. Hence, the masks.
To grow the mushrooms, Breihan uses a mycelium block. The block is made of sterilized sawdust and wrapped in plastic. “We’re basically replicating a like, a freshly fallen tree in the forest.”
White roots grow through the block, creating what’s called a mycelial network. After the mushrooms are harvested, this block can be reused or sold to farmers as fertilizer.
Advantages of mushroom farming over traditional farms
During the 2021 Texas winter storm, many farmers were crippled. Smallhold lost power, but was able to recover their crop within a few weeks. This is because unlike traditional crops like corn, mushrooms only take weeks to grow.
“That’s kind of the beauty of this continual growth, we grow on a weekly basis. So we were able to get back on our feet pretty quickly,” Breihan said.
Mushroom farming is also better for the environment. “Our mushrooms produce about three, four pounds of carbon dioxide per pound of mushrooms. So you can compare that to beef, which is like, you know, 200 pounds of carbon dioxide”
Breihan also said mushroom farming uses less water. “We use about a gallon of water to produce a pound of mushrooms versus tomatoes, which is like 20 gallons of water.”