Mushrooms move beyond meals to medicinal and material uses
Mushroom lovers know they are great stuffed and in soups, salads and a host of other dishes.
But there’s more to the fungi, which also have health benefits and are available medicinally in pill, liquid and powder form.
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They can be used to make organic alternatives to plastic, concrete, brick and insulation, too, according to Max Justice, who owns Setas Mushrooms with his wife, Kat Mackenzie.
And when mushrooms are done growing, what’s leftover can be used for compost to start a whole new life cycle.
The growing mushroom business outgrew its previous location, the garage at their home in Falling Waters, W.Va., and the couple bought a pre-1900 Pennsylvania farm in 2022. Their 15-acre farm with white buildings accented in green sits high on a hill along Hege Road in Montgomery Township, Franklin County.
They will showcase their growing process and uses for mushrooms during a grand opening and ribbon-cutting on Saturday, March 18, from 2 to 7 p.m. The address is 7189 Hege Road, Greencastle, but the location is out in the country between Hagerstown and Mercersburg.
How did a near-tragedy steer them to mushrooms?
“I almost lost the love of my life that day,” Justice said, recalling the day in 2018 when Mackenzie suffered a hemorrhagic stroke at age 38.
That’s hard to tell now as she sits at a table during an interview, her hands never stopping as she places labels on packs of Setas Mushrooms jerky.
After the stroke “there was so much pain in my head,” according to Mackenzie, who said medications left her depressed, she slept all the time and “I didn’t feel like me.”
“This is my second chance. I work at it,” said Mackenzie, who has found relief from the headaches with acupuncture, meditation, giving up meat in favor of a pescetarian, Mediterranean diet and turning — at Justice’s urging — to mushrooms, which she used to hate.
Like Setas Mushrooms, Justice has done a lot of growing over his lifetime — from a ninth-grader in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, with a 1.6 GPA to the military to driving a truck to IT work, followed by an active role with the TSA at federal airports in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Today he works in technology and innovation management, specializing in cybersecurity.
When Mackenzie suffered her stroke, “I was beginning my Ph.D. studies, so I knew how to do research,” recalled Justice. Looking for a way to help, he learned about the medicinal uses and healing power of mushrooms. Different varieties have different health benefits, he said, noting lion’s mane is good for the brain and cognitive function, shitakes help with the circulatory system and immunity and reishis boost the blood and overall health.
“He started telling me about all the benefits of mushrooms, I gave the pills a try and my life changed. Lion’s mane changed by life,” said Mackenzie.
“He always wanted to do a business and he said, ‘Why not grow mushrooms?’” recalled Mackenzie. She is originally from Ecuador, came to the United States after college in 2000, became a citizen in 2012 and has worked at McDonald’s, as a nanny and as a medical assistant.
“Now, she’s CEO of a mushroom farm,” Justice said, characterizing their journey as one taken by a hillbilly farm boy and an immigrant.
“I know we have a wonderful story and I’m very proud to tell it,” Justice said. “I pinch myself regularly. We’re living the dream.”
How did their mushroom business grow?
The couple, who met in 2012 and married July 1, 2018, started out growing mushrooms on a little wooden pallet. By the time they left West Virginia, they were producing up to 400 pounds per week.
They’ve been “growing and building ever since” moving to Pennsylvania. Mushrooms will double in size overnight and they expect to be producing a ton a week by the end of the summer.
The large barn on the property is the heart of the business, from receiving supplies to the early stages of cultivation to the fruiting chambers where the mushrooms grow.
Justice calls the lab in the barn “the cleanest area in the tri-state region.” It’s where Mackenzie works with grains of spawn that will colonize and be placed in substrate, a sterilized mixture of materials such as hemp, sawdust, wheat and bran, that’s food for the mushrooms. Incubation continues as small white spots appear and grow, filling an entire block-shaped 10-pound bag of substrate that’s ready for the fruiting chamber.
The fruiting chambers are tentlike structures that resemble greenhouses with controlled air flow, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide where the mushrooms grow. Like humans, mushrooms love oxygen and breath off carbon dioxide, Justice explained.
After the mushrooms are harvested, the “spent block” they were grown in goes into the compost pile and will eventually be used to help grow something else. This year, Justice plans to experiment with 5 acres of beans planted in compost on one side of Hege Road and 5 acres across the road using chemical fertilizer to see which one grows best.
The barn also is where Justice is building his coffin, with the design patterned after casket in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” It will have 3-inch-thick walls and lid made of hemp and petrified mycelium and will breakdown in less than two years as the liquid in his body makes the fungus come alive again.
Justice aims to be the first mass producer of 100% biodegradable, sustainable coffins.
He’s also made a bowl that holds water and said tough mushroom products include brick pavers strong enough to park a car on.
The short-term goal is to sell mushrooms, “Our long-term goal is to reduce the amount of plastic and reliance on resource-constrained material in the world using mycelium as packing material, as building material, and as space material (think satellites),” according to the Setas Mushrooms website.
How can you buy Setas Mushrooms?
“Setas has a vibrant ring to it,” Justice said in explaining the name.
In Spain, “setas” is the word for mushroom. Mackenzie points out it doesn’t come from her native Ecuador, since in mushrooms are called “hongas” in Latin American.
Setas Mushrooms literally means “Mushrooms Mushrooms” and is kind of a riff on Little Caesar’s “Pizza Pizza,” Justice said.
Gourmet Setas Mushrooms are sold to regional restaurants and are available to the public at farmers markets and online.
In addition to the fresh mushrooms, there are dried mushrooms, powders, liquid tincture and jerky in three flavors — Caribbean, black pepper and teriyaki.
“My deer hunter friends ask what kind of meat we’re putting in the mushroom jerky,” said Justice. There’s no meat involved, and the jerky is made from just mushrooms, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic powder, celery seeds, water and black pepper.
People can also order kits, cultures, spawns and substrate blocks to grow their own mushrooms.
What’s happening at Setas Mushrooms on March 18
The grand opening on March 18 will feature live music, fun for kids, farmers market vendors and a cash bar. Visitors can take guided and unguided tours of the farm. Alternates to concrete, plastic and brick made from mushroom products will be on display.
There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5 p.m. and three chefs are lined up for a “Top Chef”-style competition.
“Come hungry!” Justice advised.
Shawn Hardy is a reporter with Gannett's Franklin County newspapers in south-central Pennsylvania — the Echo Pilot in Greencastle, The Record Herald in Waynesboro and the Public Opinion in Chambersburg. She has more than 35 years of journalism experience. Reach her at email@example.com