Longmont farmer Nick Arnold leads you down a dark, narrow corridor to a room decorated by Leatherface. The humidity laps at you with its tongue gunk. Columns of large, clear plastic bags stuffed with inoculated straw dangle high from the ceiling as though Andre the Giant practiced boxing here. And the lone light bulb does little to illuminate the corners. But this isn’t a horror movie set. There are no shrieking damsels. Incubating inside this room is Earth’s most effective natural recycler. Welcome to the mushroom farm.
“Everything in the environment has its role in regeneration,” Arnold tells me. “But the foundation of that is fungi.” The gregarious 30-something is hoping to become a go-to mycelium man in Boulder County, beginning with the production of oyster mushrooms and eventually building a barn housing various species from the protein-rich shitake to the medicinal reishi. Until last year, before his fascination with them began, what he knew about fungus couldn’t fill a toadstool cap.
But Arnold is an ambitious autodidact, and after five years of being a woodworker, he felt ready to continue onto the next part of his “path.” He sought a method of turning his Turtle Springs Farm, sterilized by invasive prairie dogs, into a sustainable way of living off the land. His answer was in Paul Stamet’s book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.
He flips to a page in Mycelium depicting a prehistoric mushroom that evokes a rounded monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He tells me how it’s been theorized that fungi were the first living organisms to crawl onto dry land. Besides the shocking similarities, its growth patterns share with maps of dark matter or the Internet or neural connectivity, its extremely efficient at recycling.
Arnold goes on describing how Stamet and his team of scientists sterilized tanks of soil, saturating it with diesel fuel. They next inoculated one tank with oyster mushrooms. Within three weeks the mushrooms fruited from it. In another month it began revegetating. Arnold is essentially approaching Turtle Springs Farm with the same outlook, reusing and composting the farm’s materials, like wood chips and old hay, to grow oyster mushrooms.
Inside his clean room—that is, his one-car garage he converted into a white-walled, three-room lab—through a large window, I make out a stack of petri dishes, containing oyster mushroom cultures he uses to colonize grain in jars. “In an ideal world,” he says, “I could take one petri dish of fungus cultures and turn it into 100,000 pounds of mushrooms within three months.”
Before doing that, though, he must purify grains in one of his three pressure cookers at 15 psi. Once he’s sure the mycelium jars are not contaminated (a problem which would exacerbate exponentially), he transfers the inoculated grains into a larger bag where they vigorously consume the entirety of it as a white mass resembling splintered cotton bolls. Next, they’re spread over hay he pasteurizes in a tank.
It’s the last leg of my tour of Turtle Springs Farm, future home to 10 species of mushrooms—more than Hazel Dell Mushrooms Farm in Fort Collins. I wick the moistness from the dimly lit incubation room off my arm as Arnold leads me to where oyster mushrooms are fruiting. The atmosphere is thick. The walls are draped with plastic sheets. Dangling from several metal racks are inoculated bags—a couple primordial mushrooms, aka pinheads, poke through holes. The bigger, fleshier ones, like an oyster, have an undulating frill around its edge. Arnold cuts me some full-grown souvenirs.
Full disclosure: I have a bit of a mycophobia. But when I return home and cook them into a salad and filet mignon, the damp juices, the spongy textures are incredible. I swear I’ll never bad mouth a mushroom again. And, as Arnold pointed out, as it pertains to the future fertility of his land, there’s a good reason not to: “Whenever something dies, it wouldn’t decompose without fungi. It breaks organic material down—molecules and compounds into simpler forms of nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium that are utilized by plants to grow.
“Without them, life wouldn’t exist.”