MUSHROOMS IN MONTEVALLOAt Grandview Farm, Charles and Shiyrah Crowther grow mushroom crops with sustainability in mind.
By Nancy Wilstach
Photos by Dawn Harrison
Depending on where you grew up, the word “farm” may mean cotton sacks or wheat combines, grain elevators or brooder houses … but, once you visit Grandview Farm in Montevallo, “farm” also will mean logs, each with dozens of tiny holes in them, lying beside blue plastic children’s swimming pools.
Charles and Shiyrah Crowther don’t milk or plow; yet they reap. They reap beautiful bumper crops of mushrooms—shiitakes, Reishis, turkey tails, lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms, the latter dazzling to the eye in their pale lustrous yellow and jewel-like softest pink.
On the day Shelby Living visits, the shiitakes are begging for harvest—spreading broad flat brown tops across scores of oak and sweetgum logs. The logs are spread around blue plastic children’s wading pools, like so many sunbathers on a dappled riviera.
The mushrooms grow in semi-shade on a slope behind the Crowthers’ home. Each fungus pops from a hole Charles has drilled in a short log as recently as a few months ago, sometimes more than a year ago. The logs vary from a couple of inches in diameter to six or eight inches, each log two or three feet in length.
Each hole drilled in the logs has had a splurt of mushroom spawn injected into it, a process called “inoculation.”
For the burgeoning shiitakes, the results of this process—after a dip in the pool, a spell under cover and a period of basking propped up much like a Hollywood starlet on a poolside chaise—are these spreading velvety brown umbrellas of gourmet delight.
Charles and Shiyrah are quite clear about the purity of these mushrooms on their web site: “ … sustainable farming without the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides.”
But, as in any kind of farming, the weather can make you or break you. The mushroom logs, once inoculated, start their journey toward the harvest with a good soaking in those blue plastic wading pools, held down by mini boulders, the length of the bath depending on the size of the log. The objective is a good soaking.
However, the logs can get too wet if rainfall is heavy. Then, the Crowthers must drape them with plastic. If there is too little rainfall, the logs must not be allowed to dry out, so the sprinklers are turned on.
As any good cook can tell you, a few mushrooms added to an otherwise mundane meal can turn it into a gourmet repast.
Shiyrah is skilled in creating demand.
The harvested mushrooms go to market like any good farm crop. The Crowthers bring them to Montevallo’s Farmers Market on Monday afternoons and to Birmingham’s Pepper Place on Saturday mornings. Because sometimes cooks are unfamiliar with the taste difference between an ordinary white, plastic-packaged, store-bought mushroom and a freshly harvested peak-of-flavor shiitake, Shiyrah sautés a few of her delectables for shoppers’ sampling.
The Crowthers launched their Montevallo enterprise six years ago, but Charles has been growing fungal varieties for 14 years.
The Grandview web site hints at what else the Crowthers are doing: Grandviewfarmmushroomsandmore.com
Besides the intriguing mushrooms, the couple raise free-range chickens for brown eggs and have added “micro greens,” living plants that are bigger than sprouts but not yet leafed-out plants. Besides the log-grown shiitakes and turkey tails, the delicate oyster mushrooms grow in the Crowther greenhouse in pesticide-free pasteurized wheat straw.
The Reishis are either gathered wild or log-grown, and the Crowthers make tea from them. Shiyrah battled erratic blood pressure until she started the regimen, she said, “but my blood pressure is normal now.”
The turkey tails also have medicinal properties, the couple said. Over all, exotic mushrooms fight gout, lower cholesterol and boost the immune system, they said. “There is research right now that is showing the shiitake is a remedy for stomach cancer,” Charles said.
Come October, the Crowthers are going to take their mushrooms on the road—or in the air—on a journey to Italy where they plan to teach what they have learned to farmers in Tuscany. Farmers are signing up in small groups there to gain the Crowthers’ mushrooming insights.