The word farm is relative. Bucolic pastures are great, but you really just need something to grow and a place to grow it.
Urban Choice Mushroom Farm is located deep in Scott's Addition in the corner of a warehouse. Rudy's Exotic Mushrooms takes up the front of the space and there's an artist's studio across the way. My first thought when I walk to the back with co-owner Jake Greenbaum is: "Where exactly are the mushrooms growing? Behind that crate? Or that one?" There's a lot of stuff in this warehouse.
I'm nearly right, but not quite. Greenbaum, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains that he and business partner, Chris Haynie, start isolated strains of oyster mushrooms in petri dishes at an off-site lab. Haynie grew mushrooms outdoors before Urban Choice's start and Greenbaum cultivated a few at home — but nature is tricky. This method enables them to keep producing the same, strong variety of mushroom again and again.
Then the process gets low-tech. The spores are mixed with wet chopped straw and sawdust, and its mycelium — similar to plant roots — is allowed to grow in long, white tendrils inside plastic bags hung with others in a small, plastic-tented area. When I lift a flap, I'm hit with warm, heavy air that smells like a mix of sweet hay and dirt — in a good way.
When the mycelium runs visibly throughout, these bags are transferred to a walk-in, to more closely control the growing environment. It's there that the mushroom magic happens.
"Oyster mushrooms in general are extremely aggressive in the way that they multiply," Greenbaum says. That's why the two chose to grow this particular variety as their initial crop. "They love straw and [this] method is extremely cheap."
Shelves line the walls and are stacked with bins and bags of mushrooms sprouting white fins through cut-out holes. Greenbaum asks if I want to try my hand at harvesting, and when I tug at an enormous cluster, it's surprisingly tough and hard to pull from the bin. It turns out to weigh three pounds.
Greenbaum and Haynie are providing mushrooms to Heritage, Belmont Food Shop and Chez Foushee, and you'll find them at a stand this winter at the Farmers Market at St. Stephens on Saturdays. Urban Choice produces anywhere from 30 to 60 pounds a week, and they want to get that yield up to 150 pounds. Greenbaum has a few experimental logs of shitake mushrooms growing and plans to add Lion's Mane in the future to diversify their offerings.
"All the different mushrooms have their own personalities," he says. "The shitakes ... are so comical and so magical, and the oysters are more pretty, like ballerinas that spin out of control. Everything just has its own smell, its own feel. It's really interesting."