The velvety, fleshy, spore-bearing fruits we call mushrooms sit closer to us than plants on the phylogenic tree of life. Still they remain a mystery to many, but for Ernie and Cathy Wheeler, they’re a specialty.
The couple owns Borrowed Land Farm and Fungus Lab which sits in the green foothills of Pilot Mountain on old tobacco land. Though the Wheelers are marine biologists by training, they find themselves wearing other hats more often: teachers, naturalists, mushroom-growers and state-recognized foraging experts. Vast scatterings of chanterelles decorate their 58-acre plot, but they also forage in state and national forests (not parks) and wildlife-management areas.
“There’s a woman in Mount Airy who’s front yard is covered in beautiful oyster mushrooms, so I embarrassed my kids and went up to her ask if I could please harvest some of her mushrooms,” Cathy says. “She said take as much as you’d like, so I took some and I’m cloning them.”
Their 12-year-old son could only have been so embarrassed, though — he joins the hunts for tasty fungi and is gearing up to take the certified foraging class next month.
The story begins in the year 2000, post-graduate school, when the duo lived in Oregon. Everyone they befriended eventually got into foraging, and once Cathy and Ernie found themselves in North Carolina, they realized they could grow their own mushrooms indoors during the winter.
“We didn’t know anybody [growing mushrooms],” Ernie says. “Some aspects [of our method] we came up with ourselves, but we got books and there are resources online.”
The magic happens in their farmhouse laboratory, “a tiny pocket of cleanliness in an otherwise filthy, filthy hundred-and-some-year-old farm,” according to Ernie. It’s currently under renovation. The Wheelers are planning a partial glass wall so that visitors can view them at work without compromising the sterile lab environment, and they’re almost finished building their new grow space, large enough to incubate 300 pounds of fresh mushrooms per week. There, inoculated “grow bags” sit on metal shelving units and flourish thanks to an industrial humidifier, fresh air circulated into the space and light.
The bags contain a substrate mixture of sawdust and often beet pulp, gypsum and soybean hull which provide additional nutrients. Micropore tape covers miniscule slits in the bags to release air and protect against gnats.
“When they go through that substrate… they’re gonna eat their way through it, start to run out of nutrients and then space,” Cathy says. “At that point, they’re gonna say, ‘We’re gonna try to reproduce.’ That’s when they grow the mushrooms, the actual fruiting bodies, and they need fresh air to do that.”
Ernie clarifies that harvesting the mushrooms fruits is akin to picking an apple off its tree: The remains will produce more next season. But first, the substrates need to be inoculated.
“What I’ll do is take a piece of the stem, dip it in a bleach or hydrogen peroxide solution, break it open, take some of it out with forceps and stick it into the plated agar which has sugars, starches and all kinds of carbohydrates in it,” Cathy says. “The mycelium will just grow.”
They add tiny pieces of that colonized agar from the petri dish to grain bags, the mycelium colonies expand, and small amounts of that are then added to the final substrate grow bags.
“We colonize them in square shapes because it’s easier to stack,” Ernie says. “When we sell the kits — we call them shroom cubes — they’re cute and look intentional.”
From there, mushrooms fruits speedily blossom in chorus, and are typically ready to harvest within a week.
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The Wheelers say their academic training in sciences helped them build the business, but mostly they did it through confidence in their ability to run experiments and problem-solve along the way. They say it’s not rocket science, and one of their central goals is to help enable others to grow their own mushrooms. They offer free school programs, farm tours and teach classes at nature centers and colleges throughout the region.
“What’s becoming clear is that other people are seeing mushrooms as viable for farming,” Ernie says. “A lot of people start with shiitaki logs for additional income and the more people doing it, the more mainstream it’s going to become. We’ve got to be ambassadors to mushrooms for people to buy them in the first place in this area. But people from the Midwest talk about hunting them as children and Europeans stop by and talk about how the whole village would turn out to look for mushrooms in the spring.”
“I had a woman in Elkin, at the market there, who bought [pink oyster mushrooms] just to put in her cabinet of curiosities room,” Ernie continues. “She hates mushrooms but found them fascinating. I’ve known people to buy them just for a centerpiece for a fancy meal.”
The Wheelers provide a brief list of recipe ideas and descriptive flavor profiles for pearl oyster, pioppino, lion’s mane and king trumpet mushrooms on their site, including Hungarian mushroom soup and alternative po’boys, and love educating customers at markets. The first thing to know: You have to cook mushrooms to benefit from their nutrients. Their cell walls are made of chitin, the same material found in our fingernails, and which humans cannot digest.
Beyond relaying the facts and delicious experimental recipes, the Wheelers hope for one thing: to empower others to feel as close to the earth as they do when they munch on their myriads of natural curiosities.