Pioppino mushrooms. Photo courtesy of Westchester Mushroom Co.
The Westchester Mushroom Company grows its specialty mushrooms locally, which means they’re harvested just before reaching your dinner plate.
What started out as a unique opportunity in an untapped market soon flourished into a greater passion for mushroom growers Benny Liu, Austin Schatz, and Jonathan Vantman.
The trio began growing mushrooms at the height of the pandemic when locally grown food was in demand. Between their background in agriculture, curiosity for growing specialty mushrooms, and just enough money to rent a growing space, they were able to found Westchester Mushroom Company. The company grows a specific type of mushroom known in the culinary world as specialty mushrooms. If you were to stumble upon these mushrooms in the wild, they would be found growing on a dead or dying organic matter, such as a tree.
The mushrooms, which differ by season, require extremely specific growing conditions, and they don’t travel well. This means that the mushrooms you see in the individually stamped Westchester Mushroom Co. boxes were harvested just hours before, not days. Each week, the farmers pack their cars with quality goods and distribute them to local grocery stores and restaurants. All of the unsold product gets donated to Fred’s Food Pantry in Peekskill.
We sat down with one founder and grower, Austin Schatz, for an insider’s look at the growing and distribution process to learn more about the operation at Westchester Mushroom Co.
What is the process of growing specialty mushrooms?
Austin: In a cultivated setting, we grow them on a substrate made of sawdust and soybean hulls, both of which are by-products of other industries. First, we cook the substrate to kill unwanted microbes. Then, we introduce mycelium, which is the root-like structure of the fungus which spreads and digests the sawdust over a period of weeks during a process called “colonization.”
When the fungus feels like it has digested enough of the substrate to produce a mushroom, it will begin to create “primordia,” the beginnings of mushrooms. These delicate primordia require specific temperature and humidity ranges to grow into mature mushrooms, so at this stage they are moved into specially designed fruiting chambers, where they finish the fruiting process over a period of (roughly) a couple of weeks, depending on the mushroom.
We then cut the mushrooms from the substrate and place them into hand-stamped cardboard boxes. We aim to deliver mushrooms as close to harvest as possible, usually the same day.
What led you to growing specialty mushrooms?
Austin: My passion for sustainability inspired me to pursue agriculture and, ultimately, mushrooms. During the pandemic, I was managing the farm team at Fable Farm in Ossining. We tried to grow mushrooms in small batches, which our customers loved, but we were ultimately unsuccessful in scaling it because we didn’t have an indoor controlled environment.
I saw a unique opportunity to bring an untapped product to market, so my partners and I cobbled together the money to rent a tiny space and start growing for a handful of chefs.
Why is there a lack of mushroom farms in Westchester?
Austin: Unfortunately, there is a lack of farms in general in Westchester – most have moved upstate or out of state where land is cheaper, and they can ship products into urban centers. Specialty mushrooms, however, don’t maintain quality when shipped long distances and have a relatively short shelf life, so the big mushroom farms out of state don’t produce them. Since we are local, we can deliver them fresh from a short distance in Westchester. Not to mention that this helps keep our carbon footprint low.
What makes your mushrooms different from the others in the grocery store?
Austin: Button, cremini, and portabella mushrooms make up most of what is available to consumers currently, in part because they can be handled and shipped long distances by big producers out of state. As for the taste and texture difference between their tired old mushrooms and ours, I’ll have to let our mushrooms do the talking!
Additionally, we grow our mushrooms as ethically as possible. We source most of our growing materials from by-products of other industries and compost it when we are finished. Mushrooms don’t use much water compared to other crops.
What’s next for the Westchester Mushroom Co.?
Austin: Our goal is to become the premier supplier of specialty mushrooms to the Hudson Valley. We are currently exploring ways to grow into more/larger facilities to meet demand.
Most recently, The Westchester Mushroom Co. partnered with Sing Sing Kill Brewery, and the local duo are creating a mushroom beer called Oyster Mushroom Saison.
To learn more about Westchester Mushroom Co., visit its website.