Mushrooms are 'amazing, mysterious,' says grower

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, May 26, 2014

ORFORDVILLE--The rural Orfordville ranch house smells of incense, glitters with crystals and is hung with psychedelic posters.

Finding two throwbacks from the 1960s living inside is not much of a surprise.

The surprise is the high-tech agricultural operation in the basement.

There, proprietor AJ Grottke cultivates exotic mushrooms for area restaurants and the Beloit Farmers Market—about 100 pounds in winter and up to 200 pounds in summer.

Grottke, 26, has long hair and piercings. His New Age philosophy is tempered by a business acumen and a scientific bent.

Agriculture is simply about creating an environment conducive to growing a crop, Grottke said.

That's not as easy as it sounds with fungi. It is tricky and expensive to maintain the preferred climates.

Mushrooms need fresh air, humidity, sterile environments and cool conditions. They need light, although no one is sure why.

Grottke relies on his duct-tape skills to create the proper environments while he earns the money needed to upgrade his equipment.

In his lab, Grottke nips tissue from mushrooms he forages or buys at specialty markets. About 100 cultures are stored in a refrigerator, carefully labeled and dated. The more exotic the mushroom, the better.

The cultures can last a decade under the right conditions.

Grottke makes his own fungi growing medium. He uses a cement mixer to combine oak sawdust, wheat bran, gypsum and water. He bags the mixtures into blocks and zaps any contamination with industrial pressure cookers.

In a room sterile enough for medical research, Grottke puts a bit of mushroom spawn--grown from the culture--into the blocks and stacks the blocks in the incubation room.

There, the mycelium—the body of the fungus organism that's typically hidden—grows and colonizes as it digests the material.

When the block is bursting with mycelia, Grottke moves it to the fruiting room. The cool, humid air is dreamy with filtered light and the smell of moist, rich earth.

The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the mycelium. They  bloom in a plethora of shapes and colors: blue oysters clump together, sometimes weighing more than a pound; lions mane anchor to the block like pieces of coral; fleshy shitake march around the food source, turning the block the color of rotting wood.

In winter, the munching mycelium create enough heat to reduce the heating bill. In summer, Grottke must use the air conditioner.

The mushrooms can be harvested after six days to two weeks, depending upon the variety. Each block can be harvested several times.

“It's just insane,” Grottke said. “Everything about it is amazing and mysterious.”

Grottke and his partner, Cassie Prigge, are riding the buy local food movement sweeping the country.

People are buying more food locally, Prigge said.

Wisconsin is a great farming state and a new center for organic farming, Grottke added.

“California is old news.”

Everyone wants to be sustainable on his or her own, Grottke said.

“The key is, we can only do it together.”

The pair met when Grottke attended Northern Illinois University. Grottke was studying business, but the general education classes wore him down.

At the same time, Grottke recognized his need to embrace nature and experimented with hydroponic growing. The couple today have a year-round vegetable garden thriving in the basement.

Grottke created a business plan that convinced his dad to give Grottke his remaining college money. The couple set up shop in 2010, forming Lotus Growing Technologies.

“I feel like I could have tried to avoid it, but it wouldn't have worked,” Grottke said.

“It's something that just called to me. It's really just a fascination.”

Grottke read up on mushrooms via such books as “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” and his bible, “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms.”

Farming is hands-on and situational: “You learn when you are up and running,” Grottke said.

Learning was not without frustrations.

His expertise initially did not transfer to the Orfordville basement. He discovered the person selling him his growing medium—straw at the time—had begun using fungicide. Mushrooms are fungi.

“The deeper thing is, it was just something I had to go through to earn my position as mushroom grower,” Grottke said.

“For me, personally, it is very artistic, even though it is very scientific,” Grottke said. “I know it sounds weird, but you actually have to earn it with shitaki. It's gotta love you.”

Mushroom growing is as much a lifestyle as dairy farming. Grottke waters or mists sometimes up to three times a day and harvests up to twice daily in the summer.

The couple are passionate about fungi. They point to research showing mushrooms have medicinal value.

“I just really want these mushrooms to be available,” Grottke said.

The couple eat what they preach. They eat mushrooms generally once a day—often twice on Sundays—and usually just sauté them in butter or olive oil or coconut oil.

This season is the fourth the couple will be at the Beloit market. They also sell mushroom grow kits. Their dried mushrooms are available at Basics Cooperative Natural Food in Janesville.

Grottke offers consulting services for those who want to grow mushrooms.

They also sell flats of living microgreens. Microgreens are grown from seeds such as red Russian kale, broccolli and arugula and harvested when they are about an inch high. Grottke calls them "sprouts on steroids."

When people say they want to return to the land, Grottke believes they want to recapture a connection to nature most people have lost.

Nature and technology do not have to be mutually exclusive, Grottke said.

“I believe that through mushrooms, the hydroponics, the way we live, we can help heal the planet,” Grottke said.

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