The largest living organism on earth is in Oregon, a honey fungus. It's over two miles across and lives underneath the soil of the blue mountains. In ancient times, fungus colonized the land the same time as plants and as the first plants spread roots, vegetation shared the land with towering fungus structures that grew to over 24 feet high, 400 million years ago.
Today there are 5.1 million species of mushrooms. Some are edible, giving an earthy flavor to many dishes. They mature quickly, giving them great potential for a booming business.
Down in South Louisiana, most farmers grow satsumas, rice, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, or strawberries, but one couple is switching it up with a knack for growing exotic culinary mushrooms.
Mushroom Maggie's Farm is a rarity. They sell their produce at the Red Stick Market in Baton Rouge.
"After doing a bunch of research, I looked up the most profitable cash crop and mushrooms were number two," says Maggie Long, one of the business owners. In case you are wondering, Maggie discovered the first crop to be marijuana.
The Mushroom Maggie Farm is in St. Francisville, Louisiana, about two hours west of New Orleans.
The process of growing the mushrooms is intensive, but quick.
Cyrus Lester is Maggie's husband and also co-owner. He explains that they start with small bags containing a mixture of sawdust, millet and soybean. They use highly heated steam to both hydrate and sterilize the bagged growing medium.
Next, the bags are taken to the lab where mushrooms are cloned and the bags are inoculated with mushroom spores. Afterwards, the bags are taken to the colonization room. Depending on the variety of mushroom in each bag, the seeded bags can take two weeks to two months to colonize. The bags are ready when they turn from brown to snow white.
The last room for the bags is the fruiting room. "After they leave the spawning room, we take them in to the fruiting room and we poke holes in the bags to initiate the fruiting. The temperature is different in here, the humidity is different in here and it take about two to three week for the mushrooms to fruit," says Cyrus.
Unlike plants, mushrooms take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide like humans. Mushrooms do not have stems or roots. Instead, they have mycelium. The mushroom is actually the fruiting cap of the fungus organism underground. Plants and animals use cell division in order to grow. Fungus also uses cell division, however additionally fungus uses something unique, called cell enlargement. Cell enlargement is where the cells get bigger by gorging themselves with water.
Using cell enlargement, some mushroom caps can sprout in just a few short hours.
Cyrus and Maggie's love for one another sprouted at an unlikely place, the funeral of Cyrus' brother. However, with time, eventually a sad occasion grew into a budding relationship. They were married four years ago with a sweet mushroom decorated wedding cake!
"So it wasn't until I met Cyrus that we honed in on the mushroom thing and then we researched like crazy. We are all self taught and learned everything on our own," says Maggie.
Everything hasn't always been so pleasant. Three years ago a fire quickly brought down the business before it started. Cyrus was at the farm tending to the crop and was badly burned.
Two years later, in 2018, they are finally selling seven varieties of mushrooms to the hungry crowds at the Red Stick Farmer's Market as well as several Louisiana chefs and restaurants.
Some of the mushrooms grown at the farm include, King Trumpets, Chestnut Mushrooms, Gray Oyster Mushrooms, Blue Oyster Mushrooms, Shiitake Mushrooms and their newest species Piopinno Mushrooms.
Maggies favorite mushrooms to cook with are the oyster mushrooms. She says they have a buttery mild taste and are easy to work with.
However, the big hit at the market stands are the Lions Mane Mushrooms.
"The Lion's Manes are the ones that everybody talks about. They have a seafood-like texture. You simply sauté them and it brings out a lobster-like flavor," says Maggie.
Despite it being delicious, (I know first hand. Maggie and Cyrus sent me home with mushrooms to try), studies on Lion's Mane Mushrooms have shown them to be healthy. They can help protect against dementia as well as depression.
Though a taste for toadstools may be an acquired one, you have to admit, they are pretty awesome! Just ask Super Mario.
"I'm pleasantly surprised how well people are taking to them," says Maggie.
Maggie and Cyrus say their mushroom produce will soon be sold in grocery stores across South Louisiana.