Valley Bounty: Spreading the gospel of mushrooms: Livingstone Mycology brings clarity to the mysteries of mushrooms
|Published: 12-01-2023 11:48 AM
More than most foods, the popular understanding of mushrooms tends to be shrouded in mystery. How do they grow? How do you cook with them? What medicinal effects might they have?
At Livingstone Mycology, scientists and farmers Hunter Linscott and Nich Livingstone are helping people approach mushrooms and the benefits they bring with more clarity and confidence.
“We are a small gourmet mushroom business focusing on growing fresh mushrooms and making medicinal extracts using state-of-the-art techniques,” explains Linscott. They also upcycle food waste to grow their mushrooms and sell their wares at farmers markets across western Massachusetts.
Just like their mushrooms, Linscott and Livingstone’s farming careers were born from a lab. This one was at Connecticut Valley Biological, a now-defunct company that grew and sold living biological supplies for science classrooms. There, Livingstone served as head of microbiology and Linscott as head of vertebrates and invertebrates, both applying their scientific training to optimizing the growth of tiny plants, animals, fungi and bacteria.
When COVID hit they were laid off and soon channeled energy into foraging, learning more about different mushroom species and their uses. When the lab closed for good, they used their savings to buy discounted lab equipment and repurposed it to begin Livingstone Mycology, pouring themselves into the business full time.
Mushrooms reproduce many different ways in the wild and in a controlled farming environment. Livingstone Mycology’s process starts with a liquid broth culture where tiny fragments of mushroom mycelium are suspended in a solution with the sugars and minerals they need to grow. From there, some strains are transferred to a Petri dish of gelatin to continue growing out. Then either the gelatin or liquid solution is used to inoculate a final growing medium.
“To make that growing medium we use spent coffee grounds and brewers’ grains, mixing them in specific ratios with water and sawdust from a local cabinet maker,” Livingstone explains. “We put that into smaller containers (usually plastic bags or buckets, though because of their shape most mushroom farmers refer to these growing units as blocks) and then pasteurize them.”
Pasteurization ensures no foreign fungi remain to outcompete the farmed mushrooms. Right now, they’re producing over 100 pounds per week, including different kinds of oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane, shiitakes, reishi and chestnut mushrooms. Most of that is grown in just a 10-by-10-foot mylar tent set up in a converted art studio.
“We have mushroom blocks stacked on shelves to take advantage of vertical space, a humidifier, and waterproof blue LED lights strung up around the shelves,” says Linscott. “Blue light helps mushroom caps grow larger than the stems.”
Livingstone Mycology sells a lot of their mushrooms fresh, doling out ideas for how to unlock their culinary potential.
“I often tell people to start by trying oyster mushrooms,” says Linscott. “I like to shred them and fry them up in butter until they’re crispy. I think a lot of people have issues with mushrooms because of texture, but if you just keep cooking them on low, these become crunchy, chewy and savory, like bacon. Lion’s mane on the other hand is great for making mushroom steaks or as a replacement in seafood dishes like crab cakes. You can also pull it apart like shredded chicken or bread it for a faux fried chicken sandwich.”
Other mushrooms are destined for medicinal tinctures and extracts. The key process here is called vacuum-assisted ultrasonic refluxing. This aims to pull the desired compounds out of mushroom tissue as efficiently as possible.
To start, mushrooms are put in a flask with an alcohol solvent and loaded into the machine. When the machine’s vacuum turns on it renders everything weightless. Then high-powered sound waves are used to cavitate and denature cell walls, releasing various compounds into the alcohol solution with ease.
“As far as we know, we’re the only mushroom company combining these techniques to create extracts,” says Livingstone. “It allows us to use fewer mushrooms to make a more potent tincture and limits needing to heat the solution, which causes as little denaturing as possible.”
From there the solution is filtered and, for tinctures, standardized at 40% alcohol content. Powdered and crystalized extracts have additional steps of evaporating off the alcohol solvent before final formulation into capsules.
“All of these extracts aim to be anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, antioxidant and anti-microbial,” Livingstone continues. “Lion’s mane is our most popular because it helps promote nerve growth factor associated with better memory, cognition, and focus, and has been studied for all sorts of mental illnesses and neurodegenerative diseases. Others like oyster, shiitake, maitake (hen of the woods) and cordyceps also lower blood pressure and cholesterol.” (None of these statements are FDA approved.)
Linscott adds, “We feel it’s helpful to hear not just that mushrooms are good for you, but why they’re good for you. What are the chemicals? How are they affecting neural pathways?”
These conversations are common with curious farmers market customers who are drawn to their table’s colorful display. This winter, Livinstone Mycology is selling at farmers markets in Greenfield and Forest Park in Springfield (both running December 9, then every other Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) as well as Holyoke (running December 2, then every other Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), the Center Fresh Market in Chicopee (running December 7, then every other Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.), and monthly Saturday markets in Pittsfield.
Livingstone Mycology mushrooms and supplements are now also for sale at the Urban Food Brood, a collaborative, food manufacturing and retail space in Springfield. Online sales may also begin soon. For updates on their product line and where things are sold, Instagram is the best place to follow them (@livingstonemycology).
Linscott and Livingstone have big ideas for their future. First up is making bigger batches of liquid mycelium culture (their first step mushroom cultivation) in large bioreactors. That would allow them to make tinctures and extracts directly from liquid culture, removing steps and increasing quality, and to expand their mushroom harvest ten-fold. Selling grow-your-own kits to home cooks is another possibility.
They are also excited to keep educating people about mushrooms and mushroom cultivation. In that vein, Linscott will speak on a panel following a public showing of the film “Fantastic Fungi” at Amherst Cinema on Tuesday December 5. Tickets are available now.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms and where to find local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org.