Mushrooms Are Having Their Moment
The mushroom cultivators at The Lite Work Farm grow and sell a variety of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms at their home-based urban farm in Leland.
Emerging from a dark time in his life, then the existential COVID crisis, Cory Burdick found his purpose in cultivating gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. “I’ve always wanted to grow things, and the mushrooms kind of found me,” he says.
A forager, Burdick began dabbling in mushroom growing at his home a few years ago. He has transformed that interest into a thriving business with the support and assistance of his girlfriend and business partner, Megan Cooney. The Lite Work Farm (LWF) began selling products at the Wilmington Riverfront Farmers Market in April 2021. Now their products can be found at Wrightsville Beach Farmers Market and regularly at Tidal Creek Co-op.
Popular mushroom varieties LWF sells include lion’s mane, shiitake, golden oyster and freckled chestnut. Their dehydrated mushrooms, jerky and medicinal tinctures are also growing in demand. “Customers ask what the most popular type is,” Burdick says. “I find people like variety; they don’t stick with the same ones each week, they like to bounce around.” When working with customers, Burdick likes to quiz them a little about what flavors they like before selling his very different looking and tasting mushrooms.
“People are fascinated by the sight of lion’s mane,” he says. “It is the biggest one I sell, and it looks like a head of cauliflower. I have to ask people not to touch it because it’s going to be somebody’s food. I wear gloves when I prep everything.”
Burdick likes to educate buyers about how the mushrooms are grown out of hardwood and how they are primary decomposers. He educates them about the mushrooms’ flavors, aromas and textures and especially about their nutritional value. He says the mushrooms in grocery stores, portobellas and creminis, have very little nutritional value. And he does not recommend eating raw mushrooms as they can cause stomach upset; plus, more nutrition is released in the heating process. “The biggest aspect of these mushrooms is that they are very nutritious with antioxidants, beta-glucans and ergothioneine. And you won’t get any of that if we don’t heat them up in some way,” he explains.
Burdick recommends simply sautéing any mushroom using olive or avocado oil on medium-low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, achieving a nice sear. He personally always adds garlic. “Every mushroom has a different smell, a different texture, a different flavor, and that’s why I always recommend going the sauté route before incorporating them into dishes,” he says. Part of educating buyers on mushroom purchases includes informing people on which varieties have the longest shelf life. Some of the delicate ones last only two to three days in the fridge.
Lion’s mane or shiitake can last seven to nine days.
“We have a gold oyster that is super thin and delicate, but it doesn’t last two or three days in the fridge before it looks horrible,” he says. “It’s a beautiful, bright yellow mushroom, and when you roast it up it smells like a roasted cashew, but it unlocks a fishiness too, and some people are turned off by that,” he says.
He says lion’s mane is meaty and fibrous and the pretty freckled chestnut has a savory, umami flavor with a slight nuttiness.
The dehydrated mushrooms The Lite Work Farm sells last 18 months or beyond. Burdick suggests keeping them on hand to enhance store-bought spaghetti sauce, soups and stir fries. He also grinds them up, adds flour and uses them to dredge chicken in for extra flavor.
Mushrooms have been a food staple for thousands of years, and the health benefits attributed to the fungi are fascinating. Online medical magazine Healthline.com describes them as no-carb, low fat, a great source of fiber and protein and full numerous vitamins and antioxidants.
“Through no marketing of my own, people are coming across the medicinal aspects of mushrooms. There is a lot of interest in the health benefits,” Burdick says. In his research, Burdick read that reishi has been known for 3,000 years in Asian cultures as “the mushroom of immortality.” Most medical research has been done on rats or mice with some great outcomes such as stunted tumor growth, less heart disease and diabetic complications, and increased cognitive benefits.
LWF has been selling mushroom tinctures for over a year and has begun getting good remarks from customers. “One lady from South Carolina has had pain from, I believe M.S., for almost 15 years. She said the turkey tail tincture has helped her get off one of her long-term pain medications,” Burdick says. “And the compounds in lion’s mane may help stunt early Alzheimer’s and dementia by stimulating nerve growth factors. They may help reestablish or even create new neuropathways.”
LWF is currently selling reishi and lion’s mane tinctures. Each has water soluble and alcohol soluble compounds. You get the use of the water soluble by heating it up slightly in soups or teas. Other compounds and nutrients are extracted from soaking in grain alcohol.
“We do a dual extraction, soaking the dehydrated mushroom in Everclear for about six and a half weeks. We save the solids, strain out the alcohol, simmer it for 24 hours on low heat, then repeat. It is the best way to get all medicinal compounds out of any mushroom and it provides a great shelf life,” Burdick says. Burdick points out that the benefits of the tinctures outweigh simply eating mushrooms two or three times a week. “There are 30 doses in a bottle, and you could take it once a day,” he says of the $15 bottle.
The LWF tinctures come with a label stating the FDA has not evaluated their products or claims, and he states to everyone they should check with their own doctor before taking a new medication or supplement.
The Growing Process
Burdick got his start by trial and error, garnering a base understanding of the growing process from online message boards and YouTube. In an unused downstairs room of the Leland home he shares with Cooney, he has outfitted a grow room and lab, doing all the framing, AC and venting work himself. He divided the room into thirds, with different air conditioning levels for each.
The mushroom growing process begins in the garage, getting the specially purchased mushroom bags with filters filled with sawdust from hardwood pellets and supplements. He buys local products as much as possible, getting wheat and supplements from Holly Bucks in Leland.
“Picture all the sawdust and supplements I use sitting in the bag. I’ll put a jar of wheat grain in there. It will have turned white from mushroom mycelium, which has colonized for seven to 20 days. I break that up, mix it and seal the bag. Slowly, you’ll see small white dots form where that mycelium is taking off and it is starting to colonize and eat that wood substrate. It will turn that bag fully white, that’s when we know it is time to go to the grow room,” he says.
Mushrooms expel CO2, making a moist environment. What triggers the pinning of mushrooms is cooler or fresh air and light. In the second step, the bags are taken from storage shelves, back to the grow room, where excess air is squeezed out. The bags are tightly refolded and a small slit is cut in the bag, and then it goes to sit on a shelf for another seven to 10 days. After that time, teeny tiny mushrooms will be ready to pick in another four to five days.
“We do a lot of prep work in the garage as far as the substrate and growing medium, and then most of the mushroom aspect is done inside in the clean room or lab essentially, which is cooled to 72 or 75 degrees,” Burdick says. “I’ll initiate the genetics into different grains depending on which strains I’m trying to run. And we run 15 different strains right now.”
The prepared grow bags are moved from storage shelves to the grow room, where moisture is pumped in and the air is circulated. “From start to finish everything we run takes one to four and a half months,” Burdick says. “Once inoculated, the bags can sit on the shelf for 10 days to three months depending on the type of mushroom.”
The farm’s newly expanded grow room is more than twice the size they began with, which will allow for product expansion. LWF will boost the varieties they sell and continue expanding value-added products such as food additives, jerky and tinctures. In August, they began a first restaurant client with a retirement center, Trinity Landing in Masonboro.
“We’ve got room to expand and room to put a foot on the gas pedal,” Burdick says. He is quick to give credit to Cooney for her behind-the-scenes work, organizational skills and encouragement. “She is the backbone of the organization with a more organized brain,” he says. “I’m good with ideas and plans, but she’s good at keeping me in check. I have free reign with ideas, but she just dials me in when things grow too crazy.”
Want to try the mushrooms?
The Lite Work Farm
1517 Reagan Court Leland