Steve Rice had never eaten a mushroom until he left his family’s tobacco farm near the small town of Marshall, North Carolina and went to college. After spending  a couple of years studying psychology and working 40 hours a week to pay the bills, he opted for a change. “I decided to serve my country and enlisted in the Army Airborne infantry, eventually joining Special Forces.”

He went to Vietnam, where his experience turned him into a mushroom lover. His unit was working with the Montagnards, the people from the mountains in the south-central part of the beautiful country.

“That was the first time I became aware that mushrooms were a good food source,” Steve said. “We were running operations, acting as advisors and eating their food. Their rations were so much better than ours. The men had rice in plastic bags. As we walked along, they would gather vegetables and mushrooms, stir fry them and serve them over rice with these good sauces. The meals were delicious. In contrast, our rations tasted like dog food.”

After the Vietnam war Steve came home to Marshall, “I was working, going to school on the GI Bill and farming part time but was unsatisfied. After Vietnam, nothing I did was as interesting or exciting.” 

Wanderlust struck and he left Marshall again. He helped a friend refit an old German boat and sailed with him to Tahiti, then spent two years helping to build another boat in Pt. Townsend, Washington, where mushrooms came into his life again.

“They were big there, we would buy wild ones and cook with them but I had no interest in cultivating them at the time,” he said.

5

NEW WAY TO GROW

After the boat was built, Steve returned to Marshall, married, had two daughters and two sons. “I became a paramedic, thinking it was a good way to make up for what I had seen and participated in during the war but after 25 years it became too much like Vietnam with helicopters buzzing overhead, things like that. The PTSD that had evolved there became exacerbated. I decided to make a change.”

When the opportunity came along to buy 200 acres of hilly land near Marshall, he took it. Steve raised some cattle, maintained a small organic garden and grew a few shitakes outdoors. They started him thinking.

“I realized that mushrooms could be what I call a ‘post-apocalyptic’ food source,” Steve said, “a high protein food source (10- to 25-percent protein) that once planted would produce for up to 10 years with no input or very much care. And they weren’t being grown by any local farmers.

“I called the extension service, and asked about growing shitakes on a larger scale. They put me in touch with Dr. Omon S. Isikhuemhen, a mycologist from Nigeria, whose expertise was mushroom cultivation. He had obtained funding to help farmers develop a mushroom industry in North Carolina. Omon came up to my farm and gave classes.”

Steve had found his calling. By 1996 he was growing shitakes commercially. With help from others he founded the Mushroom Society of North Carolina, an association to help people interested in growing and marketing different kinds of mushrooms. He knew first-hand how devastating the decline in the tobacco industry was to his Madison County neighbors and others in western North Carolina. Mushrooms were a way they could supplement their farming incomes. 

“A lot of people are starry-eyed about how easy it is to grow mushrooms and how much money they can make. Instead of earning $8,000 a year farming traditional crops, they think they can make $50K to $100K a year. It’s a little tricky and you have to work out a way to sell that many mushrooms quickly because they are perishable, but  they are a perfect item for local farmers’ markets,” he said.

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“MUCHROOMING” MACHINE

As he shared information, he was also thinking of ways to improve his own operation. Like all good farmers, Steve is an inveterate tinkerer, on the lookout for inexpensive solutions to problems. He wanted to grow shitakes and oyster mushrooms year round. 

To do so in North Carolina, he needed a large greenhouse-type structure but didn’t want to spend big bucks for one. He thought shipping containers could be the answer, did some research and applied for a grant to install the system he devised. He received the funding and went to work building what he calls his “muchroom growing machine.”

“My uncle just happened to have a container for $450,” he said. “Next I talked to a shipping agent, brought it here and buried it, then bought another one and buried it. On either coast you can get one for less than $1,000—about $500-600, then of course you have the  shipping fee.”

Steve’s hoophouse last fall before he finished it. This winter he closed it up so the air inside could supplement the geothermal heat going into the containers.

Steve’s hoophouse last fall before he finished it. This winter he closed it up so the air inside could supplement the geothermal heat going into the containers.

SIMPLE GEO SYSTEM

He created a simple geothermal heating and cooling system by digging out a hillside to bury the containers and take advantage of the earth’s temperature a few feet underground—a consistent 55 to 60 degrees F. Around the outside of each container he installed perforated pipe, then 12 to 18 inches of gravel, a layer of insulation and plastic, then another set of pipes, gravel, insulation and plastic, then covered everything with a layer of plastic, and, finally, dirt. In a continuous loop the 55- to 60-degree air flows through the perforated pipes into pipes taking it  inside the containers.

“In summer the temperature in the containers stays between 65 and 75 degrees, which is ideal,” Steve said. “In the winter I need to supplement the temperature and now use infrared heaters that I get from the Chinese. They heat only the mushrooms themselves and the air right around them.”

 He put down a tile floor because it’s easy to keep clean. Next he built a hoophouse outside of the containers to use as a staging area for sorting and storing.  “It also gives me another layer of temperature control and helps heat the containers in winter. I pump the warm air from the hoophouse into the containers.”

    Today Madison County’s mushroom man spends his time developing his wholesale market and value-added mushroom products, such as soup and sauce, and helping beginning mushroom farmers. Ever the tinkerer,

Steve is proud of his latest project—a small growing chamber and washing bin that’s easy to build.  “You don’t need a separate building like I built—I kind of went overboard—to grow 10 to 20 pounds of mushrooms a week and bring in $150-$200; besides, growing mushrooms is a great hobby.” 

This article was originally published in THE NEW PIONEER #167 2013 magazine. Print and Digital Subscriptions are available here.

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