The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

Growing Organically Since 1982

Learning Your Way into the Fungal Kingdom: A Conversation with Willie Crosby of Fungi Ally

Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 May Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director


Willie, we first met as farm apprentices at Simple Gifts Farm in the spring of 2012. I have this memory of you experimenting with growing mushrooms in the downstairs kitchen of the apprentice house-- specifically I remember you showing off a garbage bag stuffed with substrate that was popping with mushrooms from holes cut in the bag. Was that the year you started learning about growing mushrooms?


Yeah, that was still in the beginning of my interest in mushrooms. In the spring of 2011 I inoculated my first logs with a friend. It was this incredibly expansive time in my life in which I was learning about food and how to eat. I was making a shift from shopping at grocery stores toward being actively involved in food production. But it wasn’t until a year later, in 2012, during that apprenticeship that I started thinking about making a business out of growing mushrooms.


Willie CrosbyWere you considering a path in vegetables?


I knew I wanted to grow food, and vegetable production was an option—but I was excited by several things about mushrooms. For one, they utilize waste streams. Also, that they’re hands off – especially with logs. Being at Simple Gifts, the amount of work that goes into vegetables made me see the appeal of something that is lower maintenance. Also, mushrooms are a highly nutritious food source that is not abundant in the market. And finally, that mushrooms do not require extensive land and equipment, so it’s easier to get started.


What is a typical start-up cost for a mushroom business?


For a small 50 pound-per-week operation on logs then, you’re just sourcing wood, spawn and maybe $200 in tools. That’s all it takes to get started.

For straw inoculation, you just need a barn space and a simple lime pasteurization set up— probably about the same start-up cost unless you have to rent the barn space. There are ways to bootleg it and start out really cheap. But there are also ways to make it expensive – like if you want to grow 300 pounds per week right off the bat. Then you’d probably do it differently.


Tell me about your workshop series this season.


Well the first workshop was at Berkshire Botanic Garden and it went well and was well attended. It was an introductory class about what mushrooms are as an organism, what are medicinal mushrooms, and how to grow and use them. But it was not a hands-on workshop like the one we’re doing with NOFA/Mass. The one with NOFA/Mass is on-farm so I’ll be able to show people techniques and examples in person.

But overall, the whole series is really focused on getting people excited about mushrooms and sharing some of what I’ve learned in the last six years—so people can get to know more about what they are, how to use them, where to get them and why to bring them into our lives more. What inspired me to put together this series is that, hey, I love mushrooms and they’ve had a really positive role in my life – so here’s how they can be a positive part of your life. And, to get started, here is some base knowledge so that you can feel comfortable working within the fungal kingdom.


mushroomsWhat are you most excited about in your work on mushrooms generally right now?


One thing I’m excited about right now is consumer education about medicinal mushrooms. There is a lot of confusion right now about the science backing medicinal mushrooms and what exactly they are—I’ve been looking into that over the past 4-5 months and am really excited to share what I’ve learned.

It’s really important for people to know what they are getting. It’s a huge market right now with a lot of money involved—and a lot of marketing trying to convince consumers that certain products are best, but with very little transparency.

The biggest question that is out there right now is are myceliated rice products as efficacious as products derived from the fruiting bodies?


Are they?


I don’t think they are – but I’m not sure; there are studies starting to point toward no. But at the same time, there is only one third party study that has been done—all the other research has been done by interested parties.

The issue is that mycelial products are going to have a significant amount of rice biomass because that rice isn’t easily separated out in the production process, and I don’t know what percentage of that rice biomass is really converted into fungal biomass. So 30-80% of that product is still going to be rice. But that’s just in the United States. In the Asian markets, any mycelium products are first fermented in liquid and then the mycelium is separated out in the liquid from the substrate, so the medicinal product is more clearly a fungal product and not a product derived from the substrate on which the fungus was grown.

But growing mycelium on rice and making a product from the mycelium is about one fifth to one tenth the cost of raising the fungus through to the fruiting body – or mushroom—stage. Meanwhile this is a growing market and is expected to be a 55 billion dollar industry.

So there is a clear business interest in making products from mycelium grown on rice -- but it’s not clear that there is efficacy in the mycelial product compared to products derived from the fruiting body of the same fungus.

But the average consumer isn’t even thinking about the different parts of a fungus – and right now they don’t have to be marketed differently. Even something that is just mycelium can be labeled ‘mushroom product’ even though the mycelium never reached its reproductive stage—what we call a ‘mushroom.’


So how can people tell what they’re buying when they’re at the store considering a medicinal mushroom product?


A product derived from mycelium only will usually say, for example, “Reishi mycelium* -- with an asterisks-- and the asterisks will go to a note that says *also contains myceliated rice.

If it’s derived from real mushrooms, the back of the label would probably say ‘lions mane’ or ‘lions mane mushrooms’ and it wouldn’t say “also contains myceliated rice.”


What are the top 3 mushrooms everyone should grow?


Shitake on logs outside, Oysters inside, and something that is harder to grow and that people haven’t totally figured out the best way to grow—so something to experiment with!

Willie’s workshop, “Growing Specialty Mushrooms at Home,” will be on May 11 at Brooks Bend Farm in Montague, MA. Full scholarships are available. Contact Doug Cook, Education Events Coordinator, with questions:


You can also hear Willie on Season 2. Ep 4. Becoming Friends with Fungus! of the NOFA/Mass Podcast. You can find the NOFA/Mass podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Donate to NOFA/Mass

Become a Member

Subcribe to the Newsletter

-A A +A