the rise of the mushroom kingdom is a defining characteristic of the pandemic-era ZEITGEIST.
by Rey Joaquin
Banana bread-making, gardening, and home workouts came to define the culture-shifting 2020 lockdown that went into effect around the world. Some people got into Peloton, some got dogs, and others still got into something seemingly other-worldly. Welcome to the era of the Fungi. I got to sit down with Andrew Carter, Co-Founder and CEO of Smallhold, to talk about mushroom things and why they’re poppin’ everywhere.
Rey: What’s in the name — what’s the story behind Smallhold?
Andrew: Ah, how the name came up? So, a smallholding is a type of small farm that exists everywhere, but the word itself is incredibly popular in the United States. Generally speaking, it’s a small farm, but it can also mean someone who grows their own, say tomatoes, on the side or something like that.
Originally, when we built this company, we wanted it to be a platform for other farmers to grow mushrooms. We built all this technology — those mini-farms you see at Whole Foods or Central Market or at The Standard Hotels — originally to be more commercial. What ended up happening, we were playing with this idea around 2015 – 2016, when we made our first installation out of a shipping container in Williamsburg at the Domino factory. We started showing it to people, and everyone who got to see it kept saying things like, “I want this in my restaurant,” or “This would be cool to see in a grocery store.” It became clear to us that this was so much bigger than we originally thought it would be.
The name “Smallhold” still fits with what we’re trying to do. We have centralized ways of managing waste, creating our substrates, and other such operational stuff, but the idea is still very much rooted in empowering each of our local facilities to grow mushrooms. Urban farming is growing like crazy, but this kind of thing we’re doing isn’t actually that common. There’s no one that’s truly made a network of farms to grow local food for local communities.
Rey: Yeah I mean, it’s really cool man. It’s almost going back to the roots of agriculture. Can you tell me a bit more about the mushroom industry?
Andrew: Yeah, of course. The mushroom industry is similarly affected by the same issues that affect most of American agriculture. Most of the mushrooms are produced in one place — in Pennsylvania, in a township outside of Philadelphia. There are some amazing farms there, but because they’re trying to ship over such large distances across the country, they focus on mushrooms you can ship. Usually buttons. They’re great mushrooms, but there’s just so much diversity out there in the mushroom kingdom. To actually sell these other fantastic mushrooms and create this experience we want to have with the community, our operations need to be local. We started with our installations, grow kits, and now we have our larger operations that work with grocery stores — we call those macrofarms.
Rey: That’s incredible. Can you tell me what mushrooms feed on? What makes up Smallhold’s substrate?
Andrew: Of course. First off, within the edible mushrooms, there are 2 main types. There are mycorrhizal mushrooms and there are saprotrophic mushrooms. Mycorrhizal mushrooms are usually the ones you forage for. Chanterelles and truffles are good examples. Their mycelium, the living organism, has a symbiotic relationship with plants — usually a tree. They trade nutrients and water, communicate with each other, and all that. People don’t really know how to cultivate those. There’s starting to figure out morels, but truffles are basically witchcraft, and no one knows how to grow chanterelles. We understand what that [symbiotic] relationship is conceptually, but I don’t even know if it’s for us.
Saprotrophic mushrooms are decomposers. They have mycelium that releases enzymes that break down carbon. Most of the mushrooms that humans know how to cultivate are decomposer mushrooms. So at Smallhold, we grow our mushrooms using waste from the timber industry. Sometimes, their waste goes into making plywood, but a lot of the time it just ends up in landfills. So we divert that, supplement it with oat, rye, and barley, and then we hydrate and sterilize it to make sure we’re only growing what we want using our substrate. And then we inoculate it with whatever mycelium we’re gonna grow. Then the mushrooms come outcropping. It’s kinda like an inside-out stomach.
We understand what that [symbiotic] relationship is conceptually, but I don’t even know if it’s for us.
Rey: That’s fascinating. And from what I understand, the blocks of the substrate are then recycled?
Andrew: Yeah, it’s really neat. In New York, a lot of our waste goes into composting programs, then they’re sent out to big farms in Long Island to be used to grow other things. In Austin, we have a really cool program where the same thing sorta happens, but then a lot of people actually come and pick them up and do their own projects with them. People are growing mushrooms in their backyard, or use the substrate to remediate wounded soil. We work a lot with the Central Texas Mycological Society and they’re helping us out in getting these mushroom blocks into the hands of the masses. The country is vast, so as we expand, there will be various ways to do this, instead of a standardized operation for every community. But that’s kind of the point. We want to work with local communities and serve them in ways that they want to be served. We try to treat every region with respect.
On the topic of the Mushroom Movement
Rey: So I grew up in the Philippines. I remember eating various different kinds of mushrooms, right? Then I moved to the US when I was twelve. I remember my friends were like “Ew, you like mushrooms?” And they made me feel so othered in that way. I laugh looking back because mushrooms are having a moment — now they’ve entered the zeitgeist. What happened?
Andrew: That’s funny. I think it’s been happening quietly. But in a way, COVID really accelerated it. In the 90s, shiitake became a thing, partly because of the vegan movement. Then portabella burgers was a campaign. It’s funny because portabella’s just a button mushroom that’s been allowed to grow. But I would say that over the last six or seven years, it’s been a lot more mainstream to experiment with food. People (in the US) are much more open to eating foreign foods like kimchi. I think people in the US are becoming more creative with their food, more open to trying new things. And I think that’s what brought people onto mushrooms. But I think what really happened is COVID happened. It drove everyone out of restaurants and into grocery stores. At the same time, people are trying to be healthy. People are trying to be vegan. There’s also a lot of research coming out recently about mushrooms and their positive benefits on people’s health and diets, so more and more people started paying attention to it. Fantastic Fungi came out on Netflix. It’s kinda random to mention that, but it absolutely changed the perception of mushrooms.
Rey: It’s truly incredible. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked into Central Market and saw a Smallhold mini-farm. I was like, “Wait, is this real? I no longer have to smuggle mushroom blocks on the plane from NYC?”
Andrew: It’s definitely one of those “right place at the right time” kinda thing for us. It’s funny looking back at the grocery display of mushrooms now. But back then, I kept thinking, “Why is the most sustainable product shipped from across the country, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic?”
On Symbiotic Relationships
Rey: How do you choose who to work with or where to place a mini-farm?
Andrew: I mean, our goal is to sell fresh mushrooms to everyone, to have them grow as close as possible to the consumer. When we’re thinking about a mini-farm installation, it really kinda has to be a special place, making an impact on whoever sees them. Central Market is an amazing example of that. They’re a family-owned business, and they were just so excited to have us. That’s another thing, too. We want to work with people and places that are just as excited about mushrooms as we are. I’ve never seen a cornucopia of mushrooms before. Larger grocery stores, on the other hand, get our mushrooms from our regional macrofarms.
Rey: I know! That’s why I truly couldn’t believe my eyes. The way they merchandise your mushrooms is such a sight to see. No lie, Andrew. I B-line to the mushroom aisle every time I walk into Central Market.
Andrew: I’ve been a grower for a while now, I used to grow lettuce before I got into mushrooms. What’s fascinating is that I’ve never encountered another food product that gets people so excited. I mean, there are lettuce societies out there, but mushroom fanatics are next level. So the hope with, say our mushroom blocks, is to get more people excited about mushrooms — and maybe drive change to the mushroom industry and push it towards a more sustainable direction.
Rey: Personally what I find fascinating looking at mushrooms as an artist is that they do look like alien sculptures or very weird ceramic vases. Which you beautifully capture in your new cookbook, by the way. I want to talk about that! Who did you work with and why make a cookbook?
Andrew: It was definitely a group effort, and it was a lot of fun. But Abigail, who runs our Marketing, took the lead on this. We worked with Aliza Abarbanel; she was the editor and kind of the wrangler. Our friends who are chefs cooked and prepared the dishes, and Laura Murray photographed the final products. It’s really cool because they’re all friends of ours, we didn’t have to work with anyone random. Through the years of working in the food industry, we’ve built relationships with so many wonderful people, so it’s been really fun to just rally everyone we know and love to work on this thing. And this thing, this cookbook, is an extension of getting people to try new things and showing them what you can make with mushrooms.
Rey: I mean, it’s fascinating because it kind of mirrors the way that mushrooms work in the fungal network, right? The interconnectedness of things. Bringing different people together. There’s something poetic about that.
Andrew: Thank you, and yeah we talk about that all the time. In a way, our business mimics the mycelial network. “Spreading the spores,” you could say.
Rey: This is my last question: If people were to take away only one thing from our conversation, what would you hope that would be?
Andrew: Eat more mushrooms. That’s it. It’ll change your life, it will change the planet in so many different ways.
Rey: Andrew, this has been such a pleasure. Big fan of what you guys are doing at Smallhold, so thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
Andrew: Thanks so much, Rey. Pleasure to meet you.
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Photography courtesy of Smallhold.