Local shroom dealer sells to top chefs, Occupy activists

Jeff Schatz's first attempt at home-grown fungus-oyster mushrooms, as he recalls-was in 1998. He'd been intrigued by mushrooms since he was young, and had friends who were growing their own. "It was a bit intimidating at first but turned out to be super-simple stuff and worked great," he says. "I was pretty much hooked from then on."

Over the next 13 years, the native Baltimorean and graduate of Catonsville High School tried growing different varieties of mushrooms. He experimented with different growth media, spores, and equipment, but only for fun while working his day job, managing various city restaurants. It was strictly a hobby-until Occupy Baltimore set up shop a block from the Freshii chain restaurant where he was working. Schatz was intrigued by Occupy's principles and got to know some of the 99 Percent as they came into his shop for food, bathrooms, and Wi-Fi. He became particularly close with members of the Baltimore Free Farm, including Paul Pojman, who, after getting to know Schatz, became passionately interested in mushrooms' potential for biofuel. When Schatz lost his job, the Free Farmers encouraged him to start shrooming full-time.

Schatz hesitated at first-he was married, with three kids and a mortgage, after all-but was intrigued. He did some research. Finding that there were (at the time) only 63 producers of mushrooms in the entire country, and that the vast bulk of production was run-of-the-mill button mushrooms, he realized there was a niche to be filled-profitably.

"I could do all kinds of cool and extremely delicious gourmet species no one else was doing-Italian pioppini, pink oysters, lion's mane," he says. "Not only that, but with the local foods movement, chefs are avid to buy as close to home as they can, and nobody around here was growing any kind of mushrooms at all." His plan was to grow for restaurants year-round and sell retail through his own farmer's market stand. By winter of 2012, his business-named the Corner Spore-was up and running. Response was immediate and enthusiastic, and the business turned a profit its very first year. Now he makes mushrooms that are used by chefs at Corner BYOB in Hampden, the Rumour Mill in Ellicott City, and lots of other local spots.

As he got going, Schatz, 38 years old, astutely recognized that the burgeoning DIY movement had created a trend for growing mushrooms at home and that selling mushroom kits would be a strong third leg to support his new business.

"It's really sort of all based on the kits at this point," he says. "I make them and then either sell them or get forced to fruit them-the mushrooms aren't waiting, and I have to find them a home one way or the other." No big deal if he has a slow week selling kits, he says, because if any of his on-hand inventory starts sprouting, he simply harvests and sells the fruiting fungus. "I don't get too crazy and overproduce," he says. "I just shoot to sell out each week."

His home mushroom farm got started with purchased spores, strains which Schatz has been able to propagate ever since. He starts the spores on an agar medium in petri dishes and then transfers the juvenile mycelium (or mushroom plant body) to quart jars containing sterilized grain as a growth medium. ("We do sterilize it ourselves in a pressure cooker-very DIY!" he says). One quart eventually expands and transplants to 10 quarts, which eventually produce 20 kits' worth of ready-to-fruit mushrooms in sterilized sawdust. Start to finish, the process takes two months but, says Schatz, "Once you get the process rolling, you can spore any time you want, it's like a perpetual-motion machine." He says that startup costs for his grow-op were minimal, since some of the necessary materials like sawdust and plastic to make bags are simple. "It's low financial input but it requires a lot of labor. And perseverance."

Once his fruiting mushroom logs and blocks are spent, Schatz turns them over to the Baltimore Free Farm. "It's a beautiful system," he explains. "They have the available labor to resoak the blocks and coax a few more growths out of them, and when they're truly done, they make great compost for the farm."

Schatz produces his kits and crops from his Catonsville home, with the part-time help of his wife, Judy, and occasional labor from his oldest daughter.

"We crop two times a week, aim for Saturday-night harvest to serve our Catonsville Farmer's Market customers on Sunday," he says. Shelf life is short for most of the shrooms he produces-as brief as 24 hours, for example, for the extremely delicate pink oyster mushrooms he harvests only when he's literally ready to walk out the door to deliver them. Others-like his enormous, velvety shiitakes-can linger longer, but Schatz prefers to sell his fungal produce spanking fresh.

"The mushrooms you can buy at even good grocery stores have just been sitting around for too long a time, between harvest and transport and getting out on the shelf," he explains. "They just dry out and fade. Many people have no idea what a truly fresh mushroom tastes like, the complexity of flavors they have."

Schatz's personal favorite mushroom is the pioppino, or black poplar mushroom, which is popular in Italy (native to Asia and Europe but not Northern America-so they are only available from growers). He describes them as having a dense texture, with almost a crunch that they retain even when cooked, and a sweet, nutty flavor. Proud as any parent, he whips out his phone to show photos of recent crops, thumbing through images of blue oysters, reishis, and bodacious lion's manes.

Anyone interested in sampling the Corner Spore's delicious wares can visit Corner BYOB, the Rumour Mill, or Pure Wine Café in Ellicott City, or purchase directly every Sunday at the Catonsville Farmer's Market. Schatz sells kits through eBay and Facebook.

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