Mushrooms: A cool symbol of hope

by | Jul 24, 2020

Every Friday on social media, we post a Farm Feature Friday showcasing one of our dedicated North Carolina farmers. Laura and Ches Stewart, of Haw River Mushrooms, are two of those farmers. The #FarmFeatureFriday campaign will run for an entire year on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Be sure to tune in each Friday afternoon on social and help show your support for our local farmers!

Although he worked in various sectors of the job world, Ches Stewart always knew that he wanted to be a full-time farmer. It wasn’t until he married his wife, Laura, that they bought the land that would become Haw River Mushrooms. “It was always the dream for him,” Laura said, “it had never crossed my mind, and honestly I never thought I would be involved, but once we started, I fell totally in love.”

The farm originally started out by growing diversified produce, but after taking a class on mushrooms, Ches and Laura decided they would try their hand at growing several different varieties. “Mushrooms provide an answer to so many of the world’s problems because they can be used in a variety of ways,” Laura said, “so we started out growing them on logs and moved to high tunnels until we eventually reached the four acres that we harvest today.” Haw River Mushrooms currently grows multiple varieties, including lions mane, shiitake, black pearl and seven variations of oyster mushrooms. They are also currently working on a maiitake variety that will be available soon.

A typical day on the farm is very routine because a strict process must be followed. “Mushrooms are a high-maintenance crop, so we have to follow a strategic process to ensure they are the best quality,” Laura said. Each night, the substrates are prepared and placed in bags. Substrates are a bulk material that mushrooms derive energy and nutrition from, or in Laura’s words, “substrates are basically the perfect food for mushrooms.” The next morning, the sterilization process begins by placing all the bags in a shipping container that is heated at 200 degrees for 12 hours. “Timing is critical in every stage of the process,” Laura said, “because you don’t want to put the spores in too early and risk exposing them to high temperatures, but you also can’t let them cool down to a point that makes them vulnerable to bacteria.” Depending on variety, it takes mushrooms anywhere from 10 days to three months to mature in the bags and be ready for harvest.

Laura said the hardest part of growing mushrooms is constantly having to change and adapt to the weather patterns. “One of the unique things about mushrooms is that they will tell you the story of what they need or do not have enough of,” she said, “for example, if you walk in and see that your mushrooms have really long legs growing on them, that means the CO2 level is low in that environment.” Ideally, mushrooms like an area with moderate levels of light and temperature-controlled at about 90 degree humidity.

Although it takes a high level of awareness to keep the atmosphere at optimal growing temperatures, Laura says she is extremely grateful for the opportunities and pride the mushroom industry has brought her and her husband. “Farming has brought so many good, smart and unique people into our lives from customers to other farmers,” she said, “mushrooms alone generate a sense of pride because they double in size every 24 hours, but we also get an immense sense of pride hearing stories of the customers who enjoy our products,”

Products from Haw River Mushrooms, including their famous mushroom jerky, can be found at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, the Durham Farmers’ Market, the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market as well as on-site at their farm and through their CSA program. In addition to their raw mushroom varieties, they sell three flavors of mushroom jerky, a lions mane mushroom crab cake and are currently working to develop a BBQ mushroom sandwich.

According to Laura, eating local makes our community resilient. “It means that the human lives we are impacting are not abstract to us,” she said, “because they are our neighbors, friends and family.” In addition to raising mushrooms, Laura is also a certified-mushroom forager, meaning her and Ches can sell their products to chefs across the state and beyond. They currently work with a variety of local chefs, including Chef Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto restaurant in Hillsborough. “They are the problem solvers when times get hard,” Laura said, “I have so much respect for true farm-to-table chefs.” In fact, one of the local restaurants they work with has increased awareness of the nutritional properties of mushrooms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic with its immune-boosting mushroom soup.

Although she loves growing mushrooms and working with chefs, Laura’s favorite part of the job is educating the public on the important role mushrooms play in the agriculture industry. “They have a grand nutritional profile that is only brought out when they are cooked,” she said, “they are kind of a cool symbol of hope in many ways.” During a normal year, Laura and Ches offer many fun and educational opportunities on their farm to learn about mushrooms, including foraging and inoculation classes.

In the future, Laura and Ches hope to expand to a bigger facility and develop new mushroom varieties as well as new value-added products to offer their customers. When asked what she would name a brand-new mushroom variety, Laura said “Fungella” because it is catchy and would make her kids proud.