Just down the road from Martin Crawfords forest garden our old friend Adam runs Fungi- Futures, also on the Dartington Estate. Adam started a small enterprise Woodfruit growing gourmet edible mushrooms in shipping containers with a small clean room he built to propagate spawn. Over the last couple of years this business developed into grow- kits and now has reformed as a social enterprise focused on turning Totnes coffee grounds into very high quality protein rich food. Adam’s grow kits include inoculated grounds, approximately 1 kg yielding 500g of beautiful Oyster mushrooms that flush within a fortnight of receiving the posted parcel.
Adam has grand plans for the future, and is currently working on developing a model to allow his pioneering work to be replicated and scaled to eventually see other city hubs develop around the country bringing awareness and tons of quality food whilst alleviating heaving landfill sites. Adam remarked 300 tons a week go to landfill from the high-street chains alone, and decomposing anaerobically in landfill these grounds contribute methane to the atmosphere, the most damaging of greenhouse gases. With the potential of a 3:1 conversion ratio, that’s 100 tons a week of fresh local mushrooms that makes far more sense than energy intensive imported Chinese product. In a perfect example of turning problems into solutions, Adam is finding a creative way to utilize an unused resource (waste being better phrased this way!) and not only building a business to support his young family, but stepping out further to develop a model for others to set up too. It’s this conscious social aspect to entrepreneurial enterprises like this that make them both functional and successful. The story and marketing will no doubt ensure popularity, awareness and a healthy price for a high quality and highly localized product. Nice design!
Adam let us take away a phosphorescent bag he has been playing with, of which there are approximately 26 species worldwide. The eyes of the forest, seen here to the left under long exposure photography. Im lucky enough to have seen a pasture mushroom glowing in Wiltshire when I was a teenager, but Ive never seen one again. The glow is not bright enough to market this as a natural nightlight, but its been a very interesting experiment. Adam points behind him to oyster mushrooms growing from an old pair of jeans. Its fun to be able to play and get creative through self- employment, and thats why this enterprise is moving forward fluidly I guess. There are over 14000 species identified in the fungi kingdom, and an estimated 250000 sp. in total. Many probably allies in cleaning up toxins and regenerating some of the mess we've made of our back yard. Interestingly enough, the very word Ecology comes from Logia, the study of, and Oikos, the household.
Most people probably haven’t given much thought to the fact that we are closer to Fungi in our ancestry than plants. We diverged about 450 million years ago and looking back into ice cores and other far-reaching scientific analysis tools, we find a very interesting and complex history in the unique kingdom of Fungi. The largest organism on the planet is a fungi, about 2200 acres in size and 2400 years old, in Eastern Oregon, US, and this is a single cell wall thick across its network! Fungi look just like maps of the Internet you may see; they are literally the Internet super highways of the natural world, sending nutrients and water across vast networks.
Fungi are the primary decomposers on this planet, and serve many other essential functions in the older and more complex soils as succession moves towards the stable and resilient dynamic equilibriums found in old growth forest. Fungi are very adept at global takeover; indeed mushroom spores can be found traversing the globe in the upper atmosphere, being incredibly small in size and easily transported on the wind. There are literally spores everywhere; every time we breathe in and out we are in contact with fungi. Fungi hold soil together to buffer erosion and build soil fast. Not only are mushrooms high quality and easily assimilated proteins, they make up important medicines in many parts of the globe. Due to the mobility of spores we find mushrooms spreading readily across lines of latitude, where day light length is automatically the same, and vegetation and climate usually similar. I had a great time in Thailand last time I taught Permaculture out there with Eric, A Swedish Mycologist who we picked bags of chanterelles with under pericarp trees.
During both major asteroid impacts recorded in pre history fungi literally inherited the planet, due to the fact they do not need light, as they don’t photosynthesize. This was obviously vital in times when our atmosphere was probably nearly entirely clouded and dark, to the point that 95% of plants now have fungal symbioses! Amazing! Life and ecology is consistently revealing how cooperation actually overshadows competition. For example, we are more “bacterial” than “human” by quite a huge factor, odd when you really sit and think about how individualistic we have been trained to be. I think Darwin’s work was perhaps skewed to back up prevailing worldviews, as the man himself wrote widely on cooperation as the basic principle of the natural world.
There are 4 main types of fungi, Saprophytic, parasitic, mychorrhizal and endophytic. Mushrooms are simply the fruiting bodies we know as food, but 95% of fungi are mycelium networks, which are monokaryotic and only produces mushrooms when 2 compatible strands meet and form the dikaryotic hyphae capable of fruiting and sporing, and thus the cycle goes around again. Saprophytes eat dead organic matter, primarily wood, but can be grown on cardboard, straw or a pair of old jeans if you are as playful as Adam! These fungi have sharp ended hyphae that can break down lignin, cellulose and caratin, the hard fibres and walls of dead plant materials. These are the main fungi we grow, oysters, shitakes, maitakes and straw mushrooms.
Parasitic fungi are what we would generally see as plant diseases, and can usually be combated by opening up airflow, widening plant spacing’s and adding silica rich sprays from chamomile, comfrey and horsetail. Foliar watering spreads fungal diseases so unless its silica spray, best avoid this!
Mychorrhizal fungi are the “wild mushrooms” we pick such as truffles and chanterelles and porcinis. They have associations with particular trees making them very difficult to cultivate. These fungi can extend tree roots by 100 times and using inoculants for nursery propagation, orchards, forest gardens, etc, yields visible results and constitutes an important implementation and maintenance regime in these systems. There are examples of trees covered in climbing weeds being kept alive by the fungal networks passing nutrients and water. This network forms initially as a symbiosis where the fungi exchanges minerals for short chain carbohydrates from the plant or tree. As an even more mind blowing example, fungi have been recorded passing nutrients from Alder (N fixing pioneer tree) to Douglas Fir (further along succession) as if cheering on succession! Comprehending some of this natural wonder can smash open and liberate us from limiting worldviews perpetuated by schools and cultures bent on competitive and endless consumption in my mind!
Endophytic fungi are found growing up between individual cells up plant stems, probably dating back to the times on earth when having a fungal symbiosis ensured the likelihood of survival. Its amazing really the co- supportive strategies that have evolved across the natural world.
Paul Stamets, who wrote books such as “Mycelium Running” and “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms”, has pioneered work in the field of Myco-remediation, demonstrating the ability of oyster mushrooms to break down hydrocarbons in his experiments in Bellingham Washington. Check out www.fungi.com
for more of his amazing work. Adam tells me the latest findings are fungal species that can break down polyutherene, which has huge implications for regenerating toxic landfill sites. Plastics are a whole other topic! From the particle soups floating on top of all seas concentrating heavy metals and moving up through the food chains into the pelagic fish species we tend to eat, to long sticky hydrocarbons we burn and that stick in our lungs, we shall look into this messy and short sighted solution another time. Ive witnessed first hand cultures transitioning from banana leaf food wrappings to plastic and the results are disastrous and far more visible than here in the UK where we have some “acceptable visual standards” that lead to mindless continuation of compounding problems.
Seeing Adams business growing and expanding along with his vision was most refreshing. Business and finances should always be based on servicing the planet and its people. Being responsible should pay, and it’s the triple bottom line of ecological regeneration, financial stability and care for people that will surely shape the businesses of the future. Growing mushrooms in urban environments is surely a missing link in terms of utilizing “waste” streams that are often out of sight in day-to-day life in the city. It’s interesting to consider how farming would benefit from integrating fungi into systems too. The by products of cultivating Saprophytes are useful as pig and chicken fodder, adding organic matter as well as making natural herbicides and insecticides. With the ability of strains such as King Stropharia to clean up faecal pathogens, others to clean up hydrocarbons, turn wood waste into food, fungi really still seem to be a largely missing link in farm systems. Directly marketed to local restaurants and customers the money in cultivation makes sense, and worthwhile for their ecosystem services alone. With peak phosphate and rising fuel and fertilizer costs surely its only a matter of time until farms go back to mixed and bio- intensive production, for which the likes of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia has already raised a very high bar. Im excited at the prospect of localized food systems, and there is naturally a place for broadacre systems in this. Whilst a recent UN leaked report indicated that only small-scale local agricultures could feed the world (well we knew that already!) the question is how small? In the UK we suffer from island mentality, few people know what an acre looks like, let alone a 10 000 ha ranch! Local food system implies direct poly marketing with personal customers, and that must rest as the ideal. But a conversation with Simon Dale at Tir-y-Gafel raised perhaps a more practical notion in that local systems be dictated and governed regionally by communities and their needs as opposed to national governments with rigid bureaucracy and the need for square box statistics. This makes a lot more sense than trying to define local in term of size, and would have a different look say in the droughts occurring in Norfolk to the rural dispersed communities of Pembrokeshire.
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