Plenty of people picked up new hobbies during the COVID-19 shutdown — some tried their hands at bread-baking, while others dusted off their golf clubs or started a home renovation project. Lowcountry Fungi co-owners Jonathan Cox and Benny Mosiman started an indoor mushroom farm.
“Many years ago, I was part of the Charleston Permaculture Guild and loved making mushroom logs and just did it casually,” said Cox, who also owns local kombucha company One Love. “When COVID happened, production from One Love kind of slowed down. So mushrooms came up, and I saw that there wasn’t really a good gourmet mushroom farm in Charleston.”
An idea started to form, and Cox hit the road in summer 2020, learning the ins and outs of indoor mushroom farming from Myers Mushrooms owner Eric Myers in Wichita, Kansas. Cox and Mosiman then built their own 1,000-foot facility in the same Johns Island warehouse as One Love, where they grow five mushroom varieties: blue oysters, lion’s mane, king trumpet, pioppini and black pearls. According to Cox, growing indoors allows for more quality control.
“Indoor farming is a much more controlled environment, but it allows you to grow a variety of mushrooms as well as a much higher quality than outdoors,” he said. “We’re creating a perfect environment, so it’s a much more efficient system.”
But how exactly does the duo grow mushrooms? According to Cox, “It’s not a very simple process. Mushrooms start off as mycelium, which is kind of like the seed, and you grow that onto substrates — like woods or waste products. It consumes all the energy from that substrate.”
Made of oak sawdust and soybean hulls, Cox’s substrate is placed in a plastic bag where the mushrooms grow. After the bags are run through a steam sterilizer to kill competitive micro-organisms, they are inoculated with the mycelium. The bags are then sealed for 4-6 weeks, allowing the mycelium to colonize the substrate. Still with us?
Once the bags are fully colonized, Cox takes them into his 200-square-foot “Grow Room” — which mimics a forest with 95% humidity and a temperature in the high 50s — and cuts open the bags. Exposure to oxygen, cool temperatures and high humidity stimulates the mushroom growth. Once harvested and packaged, the mushrooms are ready to be sold to trendy downtown spots like 167 Raw, Babas on Cannon, Basic Kitchen and Daps Breakfast and Imbibe.
“People like our mushrooms because our grow room is top-notch,” Cox said. “Growing them in cold temperatures and harvesting them young are definitely reasons why chefs love our mushrooms over most [others’].”
Folks who keep it local when purchasing mushrooms from Lowcountry Fungi are positively contributing to the environment. Every three pounds of mushrooms produce six pounds of compost — Spade & Clover Gardens owner John Warren picks up this compost for use on his Johns Island farm.
“He breaks it up and tills it into his soil,” said Cox, adding that the compost helps with water retention and pest management. “It adds life to the soil.”
Another reason to keep it local is mushooms’ short shelf life, Cox said.
“The main reason to buy local is mushrooms don’t last through distribution really well, so the sooner you can consume after harvesting, the higher-quality they’re going to be,” he said. “The shelf life is going to be better when it’s coming 20 miles down the road as opposed to 100.”
Fungi fans can purchase Lowcountry Fungi’s mushrooms at the downtown, West Ashley and Sea Island farmers markets, along with Lowcountry Street Grocery and Veggie Bin on Spring Street. Moving forward, Cox plans to add medicinal mushrooms and “value-add” products like mushroom patties and mushroom-infused coffee.
“Value-added products are my main focus, as well as teaching workshops on how to grow your own mushrooms at home and gardening with mushroom compost.”
For more information, follow Lowcountry Fungi on Instagram, @lowcountryfungi.
This story was the first installment of “Keep it Local,” a City Paper series that will provide an in-depth look at South Carolina ingredients and the folks behind the scenes supplying restaurants and home cooks with local produce, meat, fish and more.