Walking on to the Far West Fungi farm was like no other farm I'd other seen. It can as aptly be described as a laboratory as a farm. Forget all images of fields of mushrooms growing as far as the eye can see: these mushrooms are grown in low warehouses and all production takes place inside buildings.
John and Toby Garrone, the farmers at Far West Fungi, grow hardwood mushrooms on their farm. These are mushrooms that naturally grow on trees or stumps: shiitake, several types of oyster, king trumpet, maitake and lion's head.
To grow a hardwood mushroom, the farmer must create a food source. Unlike fruits and vegetables, fungi do not use photosynthesis to grow. So, instead of getting their food source from the sun, the mushrooms take nutrients from the tree stump on which they are growing.
Much of the initial inoculation and start-up process of the mushroom cycle involves re-creating a tree stump-like environment for the mushroom. At Far West Fungi, this is done with a combination of sawdust, rice bran hulls, oyster shells, and water. John Garrone told us that commercial mushroom growing often takes part around an area that produces by-products like wood chips because so much of the mushroom process can use these waste products.
The mixture is put into special plastic bag ("One of the most expensive parts of the process," says Toby Garrone), is sterilized, inoculated with mushroom spores in a clean room, and is watched for proper mycelium growth before being taken to incubation rooms.
As I mentioned at the outset of this post, a lot of this process reminds me of a laboratory. Temperatures and air flow are constantly being monitored. Strains of mushrooms are cultivated in petri dishes. And the initial growing process takes place in a clean room where workers must strip down and don sterile suits in order to keep unwanted bacteria spores from entering the process.
Once the mushrooms enter the incubation stage, they are separated into their different varietals. Shiitake have the longest incubation period on the farm at 90 days.
After incubating, the mushrooms enter the growing stage. At this point, the shiitake mushrooms are taken out of the bag altogether, while the maitake and oyster mushroom bags are fashioned with a collar which will direct the growth into a cluster, keep moisture in and allow in oxygen.
Unlike button mushrooms which grow in complete darkness, the hardwood mushrooms that we saw incubate and grow in dimly lighted rooms. Water sprays go off at regular intervals to keep the room humid and moist.
From start to finish, the entire process of bringing a mushroom to table takes anywhere from three to five months, dependent on the type of mushroom and the growing conditions. A fascinating process that I would encourage you to see if you ever have the opportunity.
In addition to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, Far West Fungi also sells at the Palo Alto, Alemany, Civic Center, and Mountain View farmers' markets.
After a great, mushroom laden lunch at the Far West Fungi farm, we set out for Yerena Farms, a farm that you may know from the Ferry Plaza Farmers' market as one of the outstanding organic berry vendors. We were taken on a tour of the 19-acre farm by Polli Yerena, a quick-to-laugh and hard-working farmer. Yerena has been farming for over 30 years. He employs four full-time workers to farm the land, and much of the rest of the work is done by family members. We walked through the fields and greedily tasted many different types of berries.
Visiting the farms through CUESA gives me such a greater understanding of where my food is coming from. And visitng with a large group is very efficient for the busy farmers -- instead of giving us all individual farm tours, they can spend a dedicated amount of time educating many visitors instead of a few at a time. I am constantly amazed during farm tours like this about how willing the farmers are to disclose many different parts of their business in the name of education. It's a great way to get to know our Bay Area farming community.
This summer, CUESA is conducting two additional farm tours:
Valley Orchard Farm Tour
Sunday, August 26
Tour Lagier Ranches, our local almond producer, and Hidden Star Orchard in Linden.
Milk and Honey Farm Tour (SOLD OUT)
Sunday, September 16
A tour of Spring Hill Cheese in Petaluma and Marshall's Farm Honey
Both tours are $25 each and include lunch made with farmers' market ingredients.