5. Using Mushrooms to Solve Community Challenges
Mushrooms, as an organism, as well as in the context of production for sales or sustenance, offer several unique qualities that leave them poised them to solve a range of community challenges in both rural and urban settings.
Nutritious Food and Medicine
Many communities face malnutrition and lack access to healthy foods. According to the USDA-ERS, 11.8 percent (15 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2017. Communities of color are
twice as likely to be food insecure, as compared to white households.
Mushrooms are often underappreciated for their substantial nutritional and medicinal qualities. They are an important source of protein that is naturallyhigh in Vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, and many other nutrients. Mushrooms also contain all the essential amino acids. Extracts from common mushrooms are among some of the most powerful medicines, supporting a healthy immune system, lowering cholesterol, and fighting cancer cell development, among a long list of other medical attributes.
Mushroom cultivation, which can be done in small and repurposed spaces, offers great opportunities for individuals and communities to address food security issues.
Production Systems are Low-Tech, Easy to Set Up, and Flexible
Unlike many food crops, little or no land is needed to grow mushrooms. They could be grown in a closet. The space needs to be kept at a consistent temperature (65 – 70 degrees) and high relative humidity. It also needs to be able to be cleaned periodically. That’s about it.
People are growing mushrooms in cities and in rural communities. They are growing them in converted buildings, shipping containers, basements, spare bedrooms, and hoop houses. You can start small, and scale up if desired. One could produce as much as 1 pound of mushrooms per square foot of space, per week, in a well-managed space.
Because of the flexibility and low cost of setting up production systems, along with the main raw input of low cost “waste” materials, the cost to start an operation is low, while prices for specialty mushrooms are high. For instance, ten pounds of a mixture might cost $1 – 10 to inoculate and should yield 5 – 10 lbs of mushrooms, which can be sold at a retail price of $10 – $12, yielding $49 – $120 worth of product.
Recycle Local Waste Streams
Mushrooms (especially oyster) will consume almost anything that is high in carbon. Straw, sawdust, coffee grounds, shredded paper, grain hulls, wood, and even denim and cotton are all possible. Typically, oysters are grown on straw or sawdust mixture, and others like shiitake and lions mane do best on sawdust with nutritional supplements high in nitrogen.
Sawdust is a waste product of the forest and woodworking industries, and the supplemental material can be a wide range of local agricultural wastes, from soybean and cottonseed hulls, to coffee grounds or waste brewery grain.
Post-production mushroom substrates retain high value and can make excellent compost for community gardens and farms. Spent substrates have also been used as animal feeds, biological water filters, and feedstocks for worm composting systems.
Low Carbon Footprint and Enviornmental Impact
With climate change and environmental degradation often connected back to agriculture, it is remarkable that mushrooms offer one of the lowest environmental footprints when compared to many foods, especially animal proteins. A 2017 study of one third of the US mushroom industry calculated that the production of a pound of mushrooms requires only 1.8 gallons of
water (compared to 500+ gallons for beer or 200+ gallons for soy), 1 kwH of energy, and generates only 7 pounds of co2 equivalent. (Note that this study examined only button mushroom operations, but values are likely similar or less for specialty mushrooms).
Mushrooms are a space and resource efficient way to grow high-quality proteins, especially close to where many people consume them – in cities – where production of other proteins is largely prohibitive due to a lack of land for animals or field crops.
Supporting Healthy Soils, Plants, and Forests
In nature, fungi and mushrooms are very important elements that decompose organic matter, harvest water and minerals from soil, support healthy plant roots, and balance population dynamics. Growers can harness these talents for a range of purposes, such as:
- Using decomposing mushrooms (Oyster, Agaricus, Wine Cap) in mulch to break down wood chips and compost, and build soil while producing food;
- Linking log and stump cultivation with sustainable forage management practices to support long term forest health;
- Building biofilters to clean bacteria and particulates from stormwater;
- Remediating toxins such as oil, gasoline, and heavy metals in soil with mushrooms (not compatible with food production and needs to be done with the support of environmental monitoring agencies);
- Noxious and non-desirable plant species that grow rapidly (knotweed) can be harvested, dried, and utilized for cultivation (Oyster).
Gaining the Benefits
In the ways described above, mushroom cultivation is not just another agricultural crop, but one that can be used in many ways to support a wide range of goals and values for farms and gardens. While the pathways are many, it is not easy to harvest ALL the benefits, but rather best to focus on those that best meet your goals. For instance, using local waste materials or invasive plants for cultivation is not necessarily compatible with goals for consistent, high-yielding, commercial operations (at least not currently). If you want to utilize mushrooms to
bioremediate and build soil health, in many instances (especially urban landscapes) these mushrooms should not be harvested as a food crop. If your interest is mainly around medicinal properties, then a grower must invest
more time and learning in all the details, as the level of education to customers or community members is much higher than when the focus is with selling mushrooms as an edible product. Whatever your aspirations, it’s important to reflect on what personal and community problem(s) you are seeking to resolve.
This booklet has offered an overview of what mushrooms are; the past, present, and future status of the specialty mushroom industry; and the potential benefits mushrooms offer. Hopefully there is a deeper understanding of the opportunities to ally with mushrooms. The second booklet continues this discussion with mission and goal setting, design, and step-by-step instructions for inoculating and starting mushroom growing systems.
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