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.”