The urban farming scene is diversifying, and instead of growing veggies and greens, Smallhold is fruiting fungi in minifarms located right in the restaurants where they’ll be served.
The virtual explosion in indoor grow units and small vertical urban farms might be an indication that we’re starting to come full circle when it comes to local food production, and although many of these home growing units are rather expensive when compared with DIY solutions, it’s a great step in the right direction. Growing your own veggies, greens, and herbs at home can be a rewarding hobby, and there’s no shortage of information on the web about the myriad ways to do so.
However, when it comes to growing your own culinary mushrooms, there really aren’t too many plug-n-play options other than the pre-colonized mushroom kits that are sprouting up these days like, well, mushrooms after a rain. Those types of mushroom kits are easy to grow, considering that most of the work has already been done for you and all you have to do is give it the right fruiting conditions, but they also cost a fair bit more than just buying those same mushrooms ready to eat from the store. But with any luck, having success with a kit might mean that those people are willing to go to the next step, which is to try going from grain spawn to a homemade fruiting substrate, so perhaps that initial cost should be considered an educational investment instead of a purchase. Speaking as someone who is currently up to his ears in home mushroom production, growing fungi is an addictive hobby and it really isn’t that difficult once you understand the basics.
So why don’t we see more restaurants or markets growing their own mushrooms during a time when self-contained growing units are starting to make it easy to grow lettuce and microgreens at the point of use? Part of that may be because fungi aren’t nearly as well-understood by the average person as plants are, which makes them seem mysterious and dangerous, and part of it might be because they do require different conditions to grow and to fruit than plants do, with certain phases of their growth requiring sterile conditions and high humidity, which aren’t nearly as easy to create as a growing chamber for greens is.
But one Brooklyn-based startup is looking to change that, as its mushroom minifarms can bring not only the beauty and mystery of mushrooms into the restaurant, but can also ensure that the chefs have the freshest possible mushrooms right near to hand. If you’ve ever seen raggedy-looking, bruised, and dried out mushrooms for sale in many grocery stores, you can appreciate the huge difference in quality and taste that freshly-harvested mushrooms have, and for this reason, many chefs go nuts over fresh gourmet mushrooms.
Smallhold builds and manages networked minifarms that are sited in the client’s location and filled with pre-colonized bags, after which the vertical minifarm (about the size of a shelving unit) automatically maintains the correct fruiting conditions, so that clients only need supply the space (and the funds, one would presume) for freshly-grown mushrooms. According to a piece in Vogue, Smallhold uses “a substrate made of recycled materials—mostly sawdust mixed with organic matter like wheat berries and coffee grounds,” so there’s a local reuse component to the business as well.
“Smallhold Networked Minifarms are 100% climate-controlled vertical farms. They employ the latest in agricultural technology, applying advanced lighting and water recirculation to high-density growth chambers. The result? 40 times the output per square foot of a traditional farm with 96% less water usage.” – Smallhold
According to the Smallhold website, these networked minifarms can also be used to grow lettuce, greens, and herbs, depending on the customer’s needs, but considering the sheer number of indoor grow units on the market right now, it’s hard to see how these units could compete on growing plants alone, whereas growing mushrooms on-site is something that’s actually quite uncommon. In addition to have a supply of fresh mushrooms on hand to go on the menu, restaurateurs can also boast of some of the most unique decor around – bouquets of fresh fungi to be admired by their patrons. No pricing information is available on the Smallhold site, but interested parties can contact the company for more info.
[On a related note, if you've ever wanted to try your hand at growing mushrooms, one of the absolute easiest ways to get started is with a piece of a fresh oyster mushroom and some plain old wet cardboard. It's a little more complicated than that, but not much -- it's almost ridiculously simple to do. That experience was my gateway to growing mushrooms, and now I'm currently cultivating a half-dozen different oyster mushroom varieties, as well as elm oysters, shiitakes, lion's mane, wine cap, reishi, and turkey tail, so fair warning that it's quite addictive.]