Uncommon farming: Columbia County couple raises unique mushrooms

Columbia County couple raises unique mushrooms

PAT CROSSLEY/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Dustan McKee, co-owner of Greenwood Farms, holds a bag of sterile sawdust with oyster mushrooms growing on it. McKee grows these and lion’s mane mushrooms at his farm outside of Millville.

MILLVILLE — In the quiet, rolling hills outside this borough, Dustan McKee spends his days farming. He’s not a typical farmer, producing crops such as corn or tomatoes, but rather cultivates mushrooms year-round at Greenwood Farm.

McKee, a native of Montoursville, had been in the construction business when he and his wife decided they wanted to try farming.

“I’ve been doing construction for most of my life, and I just wanted to get into something that was a little more meaningful, a little more connected with people directly,” he said. “Farming, I thought, was a good way to do that, to be producing food. So, I was thinking about different types of farming. I wanted to do something unique, something different, instead of just the same old tomatoes and cucumbers, because everybody has those, they are easy to find.”

They founded Livin’ Dream Farm, which has since been renamed and re-launched as Greenwood Farm.

“I grow oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms. They are not very common. That’s kind of why I like to grow them, something unique, something you can’t find in the grocery store,” he added.

McKee sells his mushrooms at the Williamsport Growers’ Market every Saturday throughout the year. He usually sells out of his unique crop early in the day. He also sells directly to local restaurants.

The inside of McKee’s barn looks almost like a chemist’s lab, with equipment to maintain a sterile environment during the growing process for the mushrooms.

To begin the process, McKee puts cultured mycelium on hydrated, sterilized grain spawn. Mycelium is the living tissue of the mushroom.

“It is very scientific,” he said. “There are lab conditions set up for certain parts of the process. Live mycelium has to be really sterile. It has to be sterilized or otherwise it would invite anything to grow, like bacteria, mold or anything else because I’m setting up the perfect environment for fungus to grow.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is the actual mushroom that you see growing out of the forest floor is actually a very small part of the organism,” he said.

McKee considers it a fruit, like one apple on a tree.

“It’s really just there as a carrier for a mushroom to reproduce, to carry its spores, but the main part of the organism is really mycelium, which is living tissue that actually grows underground or inside a rotting log. That’s there all the time, even when you don’t see the mushrooms. The mushrooms only come up when the conditions are just right to spread their spores,” he said.

Once the mycelium is fully colonized, it’s added to a larger substrate, which is primarily hardwood sawdust.

“In nature, the mushrooms that I grow are called primary decomposers, so that would be one of the first things that start to break down a tree when it falls,” McKee said. “They do a really good job at breaking down wood. That’s the difference between mushrooms that I grow and a lot of the mushrooms that you find in the grocery store.”

The types of mushrooms that he grows do not have to be kept in darkness, such as a cave or abandoned mine, which is what most people envision when they think of mushrooms.

McKee began small, producing mushrooms in his garage about two years ago, but has since expanded and added on to the barn on his property to house his business.

He now produces about 40 to 60 pounds of mushrooms a week.

McKee and his wife, Carlyn, both are interested in educating others about mushrooms. They have Facebook study groups on fungi, gardening and foraging, and mushroom recipes.

In the fungi group, topics such as the medicinal benefits of eating mushrooms and the expanding applications for mushrooms are discussed.

“We’ve just really been fascinated by the possibilities for the future,” Carlyn said. “We’d like to expand into a business that could provide bio-bags to transform the fracking. They can break down the stuff in our agricultural fields that gets absorbed by a lot of different crops. Applications for fungi-building materials are really exciting right now. You can grow your own lampshade.

“There are a lot of different expansions, but right now we’re focused on the simple gourmet, showing people that it’s really that easy to provide very good food, and its medicine for your body,” she said.

According to Carlyn just eating mushrooms once a week can change your body.

“We don’t get into the whole medical side on our page; we do that in the study group,” she said.

The medicinal benefits of oyster mushrooms have shown they have anti-breast and anti-prostate cancer properties, the McKees said.

“The science is really there. We just wish more people knew about it,” Carlyn said, but she stressed, “We don’t want to tout that this is your answer. We don’t want to get into that.”

Greenwood Farm does offer a grow kit through its online store for growing mushrooms in the home as well as plug spawn, which is mycelium grown into hardwood dowels that can be tapped into holes drilled in logs. The plugs only are available in the fall and spring, according to the McKees, and may be purchased either online or at the market.

For more information, follow Greenwood Farm on Facebook or visit its website at www.green woodfarm.info.