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December 8, 2005

No so wild mushrooms head, photo of Michael Egan


In the course of my investigation into the world of wild mushrooms a few weeks ago, I came across an Arcata business specializing in growing tame mushrooms for the local and market.

Mycality has its headquarters on Fickle Hill; I met the business' owner and an assistant at the Arcata Farmers' Market where they were selling shiitakes by the pound, along with kits for growing your own oyster mushrooms.

The name? "Mycos is Greek for mushrooms; I combined that with vitality for healthy living," explained the founder of Mycality, whose name, coincidentally or not, is Michael -- Michael Egan.

"We grow gourmet and medicinal mushrooms: shiitakes, oyster, nameko, enokitake. I'm fiddling with a few others: shaggy mane, maitaki ..."

The kits he was selling at the market look for all the world like a bread bag stuffed tight with hay. The hay-like medium for growing the oyster mushrooms is actually rice straw. Selling the bags for home growing is a sideline -- they are simply the basic cultivation units for his operation, marketed in a different way.

"They push their fruit on the outside of the bag and you just break them off," said Egan. "Each kit will produce four to six pounds of mushrooms over the course of about a month, in four flushes. The shiitakes and others are all grown in a mix of hardwood sawdust and alder chips; they're wood decomposers. The shiitake is a non-native, it's a Japanese strain. The oyster is native -- you'll find them at College Cove and Prairie Creek growing in big shelves up on the alder trees, but often times they'll be all maggoty or the timing isn't right."

In fact, when I went mushrooming with Barry, my mushroom guide, we came across a dead alder in the woods with a profusion of wild oyster mushrooms growing on it. Unfortunately they were all more than 12 feet in the air, far from reach.

Another advantage Egan points out is the fact that his mushrooms are completely clean. "As far as cultivation goes, the cleanliness is incredible. I pasteurize the [rice] straw, pack it into the bags then use inoculated rye grain with the mycelia on it, a few cups per bag. In 10 days the mycelia will run its course through the bag and I move it into the fruiting facility."

I eventually paid a visit to his custom-built 1,200-square-foot fruiting facility, a long building shaped like a Quonset hut with a plastic roof. It looks like a greenhouse, but inside it's dark and filled with a musty fog and rack after rack of bags sprouting mushrooms, or about to.

Egan went to school at Humboldt State, graduated with a degree in soil science, then farmed for a bit. "I grew up in a science background. My parents were both microbiologists -- I was sexing fruit flies in the garage when I was 9. It was natural for me to pick up something scientific, and I was always interested in farming.

"I fell in love with the area, didn't want to leave. I figured out that this was something that could be economically profitable. I realized there was a niche market for mushrooms and nobody here was doing it, so I went for it."

Egan learned the business from Paul Stamets, who runs Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, Wash. "He's the guru of mushroom cultivation. He offers courses: I went up to his farm -- he walks you through his lab and through the process. He basically wrote the book."

Stamets literally wrote the book -- several, in fact. The Mushroom Cultivator is considered "the grower's Bible," which makes the voluminous follow-up, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, the growers' New Testament.

At his home on Fickle Hill, Egan set up a little mycology lab. A room by the house that seems like a walk-in refrigerator is actually a climate controlled sterile room always at 70 degrees. Inside are racks filled with plastic bags full of sterilized sawdust or straw inoculated with Fungi Perfecti mushroom culture, all of them in varying stages of mycelium development. The back porch holds a stainless steel drum he uses as a makeshift pasteurizer.

Talk turned to Stamets' latest book, Mycelium Running, described by its publisher as "a manual for the mycological rescue of the planet." Stamets links mushroom cultivation with permaculture, ecoforestry, bioremediation and soil enhancement, making the case "that mushroom farms can be reinvented as healing arts centers, steering ecological evolution for the benefit of humans living in harmony with its inhabitants."

Stamets envisions a world with "mycoforestry and mycogardening," where we could use mycelium in companion cultivation, creating symbiotic relationships the way wild mushrooms do in nature. He speaks of mycoremediation -- mushrooms that decompose toxic wastes and pollutants and other mushrooms that act as pesticides.

Then there is the health aspect, already well known in Asian cultures. Egan points out that shiitakes are anti-oxidants, anti-tumor, anti-viral and anti-bacterial immune stimulators. "They lower cholesterol and work as a sexual potentiator, not to mention the fact that they are 37 percent protein, so a vegetarian looking for something to eat can look no further."

Yes, he's sold on mushrooms and wants to spread the word, but he also has a bit of business sense. The market is hot right now, and the 150 pounds of mushrooms he's producing every week are basically spoken for in sales to Wildberries, Eureka Natural Foods and restaurants including Avalon, Hotel Carter's Restaurant 301, Tomo and Wildflower Café. "The demand is phenomenal," he notes. "I can't meet the local needs, let alone try to develop an export market outside of Humboldt."

He's about to see what the bankers think of his idea for growing his growing business. In between mushroom batches he's been working on a business plan that looks to expand Mycality with an enlarged facility, in Arcata or nearby, where he can ramp up to produce 2,000 pounds a month. Talking with him, you can see his vision develop and grow just like the mushrooms in that big wet room in the field by his house.

In the meantime, you can find his mushrooms in the stores and fine dining facilities listed above, or if you want to grow your own, give Michael a call at 707-834-6396 and he'll arrange for you to buy one of those do-it-yourself oyster mushroom kits. With the holidays coming you might want to get two.

McIntosh Farm Country Store is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 1264 Giuntoli Lane, Arcata, right across the street from TP Tires. Call them at 822-0487.


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