Rows of dusky oysters, pale lions mane and earthy shiitake mushrooms line the shelves in an insulated greenhouse on 21/2 acres near Bellingham, where they are admired by people on a farm walk of Cascadia Mushrooms.
"This is our fruiting room. This is where most of the magic happens," employee Garrett Bays said to half of the group standing in the moist room during the May tour sponsored by the Washington State University Small Farms Team and Washington Tilth Producers.
In its 10th year, the walks are an education series that allow farmers to learn from each other.
The other half of the group was with Alex Winstead, who started Cascadia Mushrooms in the basement and garage of a Bellingham home he was renting in 2005 before moving it to the current location on Aldrich Road north of the city in 2009.
From here, Winstead and his four employees grow more than 20,000 pounds of organic mushrooms a year, most of them shiitake.
They also grow cinnamon cap for the dinner plate and medicinal varieties called reishi and turkey tail, as well as mushroom kits for those who want to cultivate their own.
Most of the more than 20 people on the farm walk were thinking about starting their own mushroom farm or adding them to the crops they already were growing. They were looking to Winstead for information, from how he grew his specialty crop, to how he financed his small farm, to how he pulled together a business plan.
"In the beginning, it's tough," the 31-year-old Winstead said to the would-be mushroom growers, some of whom came from the San Juan Islands and Eastern Washington for the farm walk.
What started Winstead on his path to being one of the few farmers in Washington state to focus exclusively on organic mushrooms - his is also the only certified organic mushroom farm in Whatcom County - began in the woods in his sophomore year at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
That was where he was introduced to the joys of hunting for edible wild mushrooms, at the time that he was learning to cook.
"It was a cool new adventure to learn about wild mushrooms and go out and find food in the forest. It was the first time I had tried that," Winstead said.
And then in his junior year, he heard Paul Stamets, a renowned mycologist and mushroom cultivator, lecture about fungi as food and how mushrooms could be used to restore habitat because of their ability to break things down.
"It's super appropriate for this day and age when we have quite a steep hill as far as environmental recovery," Winstead said of the roles of mushrooms as nature's decomposers.
Stamets' lecture fired Winstead's interest in growing mushrooms. When he moved to Bellingham after graduating from Evergreen, he turned his academic pursuit in mycology, botany and organic chemistry into a business.
That was in 2005. By that time he had been growing mushrooms for about three years as a hobby and part time at a commercial farm.
In Bellingham, he noticed there were many businesses that supported local food producers and the farmers market. What he didnt see, at that time, was anyone in the niche he wanted to fill.
So he gave it a go, increasing his cultivation from hobby scale to a little more, with a primary focus on shiitake as he worked to create demand for the mushrooms.
"We've been pushing them and kind of training customers to like them and to ask for them," he said of shiitakes.
He focused on shiitakes because people already have some familiarity with them, they're one of his favorite mushrooms to eat, and their "nutritional and medicinal value is stellar."
"It's also tasty and good to cook with," he added.
And while cooks may be familiar with shiitakes, that's usually not the case for other varieties, such as lions mane, which looks like a fuzzy puffball but doesn't taste like one in that it has a sort of sweet, savory flavor.
"We do spend a lot of time on education. For a lot of people it's a new experience," he said, explaining that Cascadia Mushrooms provides recipes and cooking tips to customers.
Shoppers can find his mushrooms at grocery stores in Whatcom County, area restaurants and the farmers markets in Bellingham and Anacortes.
The Table in Bellingham is one of those restaurants.
"We focus so much on sourcing local produce and ingredients as part of our business model" but that can be difficult with other produce, said The Table co-owner Nikki Williamson.
"He provides a consistent and year-round product," she said of Winstead.
Shiitakes are her favorite.
"I don't ever get tired of eating the shiitakes. Those I could just eat every day pretty much," Williamson said.
Back at the farm walk, Winstead talks to the group about the help he received in his business venture, including from Sustainable Connections' Food to Bank On.
Food to Bank On helps new farmers in Whatcom and Skagit counties. It is a three-year incubation project that connects beginning sustainable farmers to business training, markets and mentorship, while paying them to provide farm-fresh product to food banks and shelters.
Thirty-five farmers have gone through since 2003, with 80 percent still farming, according to Sara Southerland, the Food and Farming Program coordinator for Sustainable Connections.
"A lot of farmers really enjoy growing food and raising animals and may be good at that," Southerland said, but they may have a harder time with the business side, such as marketing and taxes.
"That's when it's a little bit more challenging" and that's where Food to Bank On comes in, she said.
Winstead went through the program in 2010.
In May, as people walked through his farm's operations, Winstead explained how he grows his gourmet mushrooms.
He starts by mixing the sawdust substrate, which is the material on which the mushrooms grow. The substrate is a blend of alder sawdust, organic wheat bran and water, all of which goes into bags that are then steam sterilized at 250 degrees in an autoclave.
Once the mixture has cooled, it is inoculated with mushroom spawn in a lab.
The bags are then moved into the incubation room, where the temperature hovers around 75 degrees, and kept there four weeks to two months.
From there, the bags are moved into the fruiting room, where holes are punched in some of the bags to allow mushrooms like oysters and lions mane to sprout through. For the shiitakes, the bags are removed - so the mushrooms look like they're growing from lumpy wooden blocks. And then they're lined up, row after row, waiting to be harvested.
Alex Winstead and his Cascadia Mushrooms farm are featured in a new book by Lori Eanes titled "Backyard Roots: Lessons on Living Local from 35 Urban Farmers."
Find the farm's website at cascadiamushrooms.com. It also has a Facebook page.
Tilth Producers of Washington is online at tilthproducers.org and on Facebook.
Find Sustainable Connections and its Food and Farming Program, including Food to Bank On, at sustainableconnections.org. The Bellingham-based organization also is on Facebook.
Washington State University Small Farms Team is at smallfarms.wsu.edu.
TAKE A TOUR
Cascadia Mushrooms will be among the farms taking part in the annual Whatcom County Farm Tour. The free, family-friendly and self-guided tour is on Sept. 14 this year. Additional details will be released closer to the tour date. Go online to sustainableconnections.org and click on "Food & Farming" to stay updated.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or email@example.com.