SUSTAINABLE MUSHROOM FARMING
On his Martha’s Vineyard mushroom farm one August morning I ask Tucker Pforzheimer, “Do your friends and family think you’re crazy?”
Tucker looks at me surprised at my direct question. He pauses, laughs as he looks around, “No…It’s like the story of the fisherman. The guy goes out fishing with his kid every day and they bring the fish to the market. They make some money selling it at a market and they live simply. Then a couple people in town come out with them and they catch more fish. The fisherman shows them how to properly tie their nets. Then the banker comes and tells the fisherman, ‘we are going to have you sell in every port’. Then the fisherman says, ‘why would I want to do that?’ The banker responds, ‘because you’re gonna make a lot of money and you can go fishing with your son everyday and not have to worry about this crap’. It’s a little bit of that. The lifestyle component is big.”
Moments later Pforzheimer turns to me, “it’s about trying to create a different paradigm for young adulthood. It’s the makers movement.”
Last summer while on Martha’s Vineyard my cousin Catie was telling me about her college friend Tucker Pforzheimer. Pforzheimer was growing mushrooms on the island. I wrongfully — and perhaps due to some wishful thinking — assumed it was “special” mushrooms. For those who are familiar with Martha’s Vineyard that assumption is not so far off. Martha’s Vineyard is an island filled with artists, musicians, farmers and fisherman.
I eventually learned the truth late last summer: Pforzheimer and his business partner Truman French were growing the best shiitake mushrooms I have ever tasted.
Ever since attending Harvard University I noticed Catie become, for lack of better word, a “foodie”. She keeps up with the current food trends and knows what new restaurants I have to try in New York City. She is pretty awesome. Being into food is not a specific Harvard thing nor is it a specific my cousin Catie thing. It is a generational thing. Millennials are foodies. In her 2015 book, A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs, and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food, Eve Turow seeks out to figure out why food has become something that the millennial generation is obsessing over. Her theory is people engage with food because it’s tangible and it brings people together in this digital age.
In a 2015 Interview about the book with The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker, Turnow said , “We have formed into a society that’s so accustomed to sitting in front of a screen and typing, for the vast majority of the day. And the truth of the matter is that it’s not exciting all of our senses. Through interviews over and over again, I kept hearing that people want something that’s tangible, that they can see and feel and smell…”
Next time you see a friend post a lobster roll on their social media feed they aren’t just doing it to show off. That is only part of it. They are posting it to connect with others who have enjoyed similar and perhaps unique experiences.
What people are sharing on their social media is adjusting. The best cookie in the world is a must for young people to show off that they had the opportunity to have. However, the best cookie in the world that is used with non-processed ingredients may get you even more likes. Turow turned to research showing that “there is huge progress being made and it’s largely because the industry is seeing that millennials are not going to be spending their money on processed foods”. A couple years later that trend has not died down. What you are now seeing are millennials are getting more interested in the food supply chain.
I asked Pforzheimer, a highly intelligent, thoughtful guy who has the whole world at his fingertips, what got him interested in food in the first place. He pointed all fingers at his father, Andy, a Boston area chef, restauranteur and businessman. “I grew up quite literally in the restaurants,” Pforzheimer tells me with an added excitement speaking about his father. “When [my dad] could not find a babysitter, I would be playing solitaire on the managers computer until I fell asleep and [dad] would take me home when he closed. When you grow up in that environment there were lots of people wagging their fingers saying ‘don’t end up here, stay in school’.
Ironically, it was at Harvard where Pforzheimer solidified his path and entered the food industry, “I wanted to be in food, it was an exciting atmosphere. It’s incredibly warm, familiar community, hospitality is. It’s a very tight knit community that you don’t find in many industries. When I went to school the supply side started to look cooler and cooler.”
Writing for Forbes last year, Turnow looked at how millennials are challenging the supply chain, “[Millennials] are inevitably beginning to reverberate further up the supply chain. It’s no longer just a chef’s challenge to write a menu with kimchi and kale; it’s now the farmer’s job to grow what the consumers are demanding, which often means, re-thinking the system they’ve long worked within. Suddenly, the goal for restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs is not to supply food that’s cheap and chock full of sugar, salt, and fat. Instead, they’re challenged to supply customers with organic, fair trade, vegan, gluten-free, and just plain nutritious foods at a price point that’s manageable. And it turns out that’s not what the food supply chain is set up for. Slowly but surely, Millennial demands are putting pressure on an archaic food system set in its ways.”
If current farmers cannot adapt quick enough to supply organic, fair trade, vegan, gluten-free food to millennial consumers, new farmers must need to step in to provide solutions.
Tucker Pforzheimer and Truman French met in OEB 54: Biology of the Fungi at Harvard University in 2013. Pforzheimer the son of a chef and businessman who invented the 21 Club burger sat on one side of the room. French, a native of Martha’s Vineyard and a son of a well known and respected artist in stone and other natural materials in constructing environments (who is a “hobby farmer”) sat on the other side of the room. The first two to show up to the class everyday sat in silence. They did not interact until one day their professor called them out and said, “you both just got back from Patagonia, you get to class early and sit at the opposite side of the room, this is stupid, talk.”
Talk they did. They would go on mycological walks together, they discussed their travel to Patagonia, their backgrounds and of course mycology. What they bonded over most was their desire to change the supply side, in big part thanks to Harvard University. Tucker recounts it to me, “our professor was going through the tenure process and it wasn’t looking good for her despite being the best professor I had. And as it was explained to us, Harvard likes money and there is no money in mycology. It’s all academic not enough research. We thought that was stupid because you can eat mushrooms and everyone loves mushrooms and there is a business here so we decided to reverse the process.”
French who was graduating that year and moving back to Martha’s Vineyard used his background in mechanics and in production efficiencies to begin the process of growing his own mushrooms. “Truman knew how to build things, look at something and know what it had to look like and get the pieces to put it together, which I am not good at,” Pforzheimer tells me. “He is very good at knowing how things are supposed to run.”
Truman French, a lifetime vegetarian, is a bit of a legend on Martha’s Vineyard. The locals all know him and his family. His father, Lew French a son of farmer, found his way to Martha’s Vineyard through some Buddhist in India. Lew French created a new aesthetic using ancient stones in their natural form. He builds rooms, outdoor spaces, fireplaces, stone walls and sculptural pieces. You can buy his books on Amazon. Truman has been described to me as one of the brightest young men you’ll ever come in contact with.
A few days after interviewing Truman for this article I was at a dinner party. Everyone was speaking about the “mushroom guys”. This is not the first time that has happened. One of the dinner guests went on and on about what an outstanding and special person Truman is. He has watched him grow up and each year he says he grows more impressed by him.
I do not disagree. Speaking with French you realize you are in the presence of a special, yet reserved person. When you meet him he comes across as confident but not arrogant. He is welcoming and interested in what you have to say and he is a good looking kid. It’s somewhat unfair when you meet someone who appears to have the whole package. However he is so likable that you still root for him. If he ever reads this article he probably is cringing during this part of it.
Unsurprisingly, French graduated at the top of his High School class. The local paper, The Vineyard Gazette interviewed him just before his graduation in 2008. They described him: “Truman comes across more as an industry veteran, and expert who approached school as a job. Though advanced placement program sources don’t count for college credit at Ivy League colleges, Truman took a substantial five in his senior year.”
Following his Harvard graduation, French headed back to the Martha’s Vineyard to start figuring out how to cultivate mushrooms. Pforzheimer, who was still in school came out to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time during that winter. The two of them started plugging spores they got online from the University of Wisconsin into Martha’s Vineyard’s own logs. French tells me on how he was feeling at the time, “We were hoping something would come out of it. We weren’t familiar with the market to know if something could come out of it, but we knew we were on the forefront of something.”
Call it happenstance. Call it luck. Or just that it’s meant to be, but what French and Pforzhiemer found out, thanks to reverse engineering, is that Martha’s Vineyard has the same climate as Japan, where some of the world’s best shiitake mushrooms are grown. “An environment that is exactly like the environment shiitake evolved in Japan is the best place to grow them,” Pforzheimer tells me. “We figured that out backwards. Truman planted some logs and I came to Vineyard for the first time in the off season, I was still in school, and we worked hard plugging spawns we got online.”
Grown entirely on Martha’s Vineyard’s own white oak wood logs (oak wood prevents the growth of bacteria) that Truman salvaged, the MV Mycological shiitake mushrooms are grown outside under tents at their natural pace. By the time Tucker moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 the logs began producing meaty shiitakes.
Three years in, MV Mycological has grown (by 4x this past year alone). Today, after journeying down a long Chilmark dirt road, you will come across rows and rows of vertical logs placed on top of wood chips that are filled with beautiful shiitakes.
Shiitake mushrooms are considered to be the world’s healthiest food. They are high in B vitamins, and they serve as a food source of Vitamin D. Health benefits include fighting obesity, cardiovascular health, fight cancer cells, boost energy levels and brain function, promote skin health, reduce inflammation and support the immune system. Shiitakes are made up of highly digestive protein called chitin.
According to MV Mycological’s website what makes their shiitakes so special is lentinan — the polysaccharide that gives their mushrooms their distinctive ‘umami’ and garlicky flavor profile. Their log-grown method yields lentinan level three times higher than those shiitakes grown on sawdust or substrate. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, lentinan is what supports cholesterol reduction, immune system enhancement, and tumor suppression through T-cell boosting properties.
Additionally, wild harvest shiitakes provide an imminently sensible source of protein without any costs externalized in fuel, fertizler or feed. MV Mycological makes mushrooms the most efficient form of local production, both in land and water use. They utilize only five outdoor acres to produce thousands of pounds of protein per season.
Shiitakes are an incredible source of protein. Often the conversation goes to, “well meats and nuts have more protein”. On paper they might be right but it actually is more about the bioavailability — the ease with which any nutrient can make its way from the food you eat to your body — of the product.
As George Mateljan puts it, when a nutrient is highly “bioavailable,” it can be digested and absorbed a high percentage of the time and in a dependable way. When a nutrient is poorly bioavailable, its digestion, its absorption, or both can be much more difficult and much less predicable.”
If you are wondering, MV Mycological shiitakes have a high bioavailability. Perhaps the highest.
I spoke to French while he was cutting mushrooms off of logs — something he does twice a day except for the winter months. My first question to him was, “do you like what you are doing?” “Yeah. I enjoy the ethos behind it,” he says. “I enjoy the lifestyle. At the end of the day picking mushrooms are picking mushrooms…[the lifestyle] it’s liberating. You have the ability to think and talk about whatever you want. I am not sitting in front of a spreadsheet.”
French tells me he never thought he would be back on Martha’s Vineyard doing what he is doing, “I thought I would be sitting in New York City in an office and once you get a little taste of it you realize there isn’t a lot of satisfaction it in.” French can certainly be sitting in New York City in front of a computer getting paid obscene amounts of money but that is not him. He wants to make a difference. He wants to change the way we think about food, “we need to be a more empowered consumer. That’s more our generation. We need to be aware of it.”
The only problem French says is it could get lonely and bit boring. However, French followed up saying “boredom is the impetus of productivity.”
French and Pforzheimer must be bored. They produce around 400lbs of shiitakes a week during the season.
Like Pforzhiemer, French does not seem to be too preoccupied with money coming in. Instead he is focused on changing the ethos and paradigm. “We need to treat land as a finite thing,” French tells me. Both he and Pforzheimer got into mushrooms because of the low carbon footprint, “there needs to be a shift back to where we use the resources we currently have more efficiently and we need to be aware there is consequences to our consumption.”
Pforzheimer added, “we have been relying on fossil fuels to add value to products for far too long. It has to end.”
I asked Pforzheimer — who is the friendliest person you’ll ever meet –if it was a good business model. He just laughed. “We are gonna see,” he says. “The long term goal of this is that this is a food production model that can piggyback on any forrest industry. The idea is it’s a cottage industry and not right here because the Vineyard doesn’t have a forest industry. I am talking central Connecticut or New Hampshire or Maine.”
Pforzheimer admits they are not at that stage yet. However, thinking big is what got MV Mycological to where it is today. “We don’t have any co-op prospects right now,” he says. “This is year 3 of production. We are still working on some kinks but we are getting there. Maybe next year. It’s also about educating a consumer base on what you are doing. What we are doing now is not producing mushrooms you put in your mushroom hash. We are producing top line meat alternative.”
Pforzheimer and Truman would like to change New England’s palates. The way you do that according to Pfrozhemier is with a quality product. “This isn’t a burger alternative, ” Pforzheimer tells me with a slight jab at chef David Cheng (who has tasted MV Mycological mushrooms) and Impossible Foods’ The Impossible Burger. “This is a strip steak alternative, you can sear it, you can grill it.” Shiitakes are not energy intensive. Pforzheimer says, “making a burger that is artificially created with 7 ingredients is not very sustainable it’s more energy intensive and probably costs more than to just grow a cow.”
Being organic and vegan is one thing, but ensuring what you’re eating is also sustainable and does not require too much energy is another. That is where the trend among millennials and younger people is going. They want organic, vegan and gluten-free options that are sustainable.
MV Mycological currently sells their shiitakes to restaurants and markets throughout Martha’s Vineyard. The island has gone mad for mushrooms. There is a line in front of their stand at every Saturday West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. I have waited on it. I have watched and listened to various Islander praise the product to Pforzheimer. Over and over I have heard “these are the best mushrooms I have ever had” and “my kids don’t even like mushrooms and they eat yours.”
Pforzheimer started selling to high-end restaurants in the Boston area. He leaves the island once a week to hand deliver his product. To get off the island Phrozheimer needs to book a ferry sometime a week in advance. Then drive to Boston from the Cape. Total trip can be 2.5 hours each way.
Currently one of their most famous client is the critically acclaimed O Ya Boston. In an interview last year with the MV Times O Ya’s chef de cuisine, Natan Gould said, “Tucker, Truman, and I actually started working together last year, as they were the main resource for my foraging knowledge. They are growing the most beautiful shiitakes I’ve ever seen: Hana-Style, grown on oak, they are dark beautiful caps, full of flavor and amazing soft yet dance texture. Currently we are using them in four dishes at O Ya Boston.”
As great as it is getting the attention from top New England chefs Pforzheimer says, “The goal is to reach an efficiency of operation and we feel comfortable having 8 tents in 5 different locations in New England and supply sweetgreen and Dig Inn. That’s when you start to make an impact. When you are ordering them for lunch instead of meat. It’s not a sacrifice to not eat meat. It’s a bonus. The goal is connecting people to the impact they make by opening the mouth.”
While I watched French walk up and down the aisles of logs cutting fresh shiitakes we talked a bit about how consumed everyone is with their phones. He takes out his flip phone, “I have a lifestyle were I can afford not to be on a phone. It makes you engage with your surroundings more. I remember travelling and you can just talk to everyone and people will talk to you. Now you’re just buried in your phone.”
As he continues to gather more and more shiitakes, French looks back at me. He says, “it’s about getting outside your comfort zone, forcing yourself to have new experiences.”
It was the “new experiences” part that originally piqued my interest in what French and Pforzheimer were doing. It is what piques my interest about my generation, the millennial generation, as a whole. Millennials are willing to sacrifice having material things for a shared but unique experience. Something that older generations don’t always understand.
On what Pforzheimer’s father thinks of his son’s operation, “He thinks it’s great. He doesn’t quite believe the movement part of this that both Truman and I believe is behind it… he doesn’t get why it’s important for people to eat less meat. [My dad] is a data guy. He wants to see the evidence that your generation is eating less beef.”
It’s a generational thing we both agreed.
Although both attended Harvard University, Pforzheimer and French are not entirely similar, at first meeting. When I asked Pforzheimer — who also lives with French — about the partnership he said, “We were always business partners before friends. We were never friends. We found a lot of common interest and common goals. Our union is for that more then for having a good time. And like any partnership you keep your common goal in mind. You give space when you need space, and you compliment and give credit when you need to.”
Both Pforzheimer and French want to change the paradigm. They want to alter the way we all think about food from the supply side down. They want to have a lifestyle where they work hard without sacrificing their core values. And perhaps most importantly, they want to create a sustainable system that helps society cut down on fossil fuels while making everyone healthier. In other words they are providing an actionable solution to millennials food demands.
For the record observing Pforzheimer and French interact today it is clear they are certainly friends — if not family — now. Their mutual respect for one another is heartening. The proof of that is in their shiitakes.
I tell Pforzheimer as we walk in the back woods checking out logs they plan to use in 2019 that there is something romantic about what he’s doing. He responded, “The real sacrifice is being in a similar tract as everyone else. That’s the sacrifice because you have less to talk about with them. I still keep up with my friends from school but I can’t go to Mykonos in August.”
Across the property I get into a separate yet similar conversation with French. He said, “Is it worth working really hard to be able to retire on Martha’s Vineyard when you can just work on the island?”
But what about the money I asked Pforzheimer yet again, “Money is just how to keep score. It’s how you know if you are doing a good job. it’s not a goal. I live in Martha’s Vineyard, I have two months off in the winter to travel. Show me a career where you can do that.”
I replied, “Well, a teacher.”
Pforzheimer without hesitation and with a cat-like reflex says, “Well I teach on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Teach he and Truman French do.