My Favorite Mushroom Farmer
Chatting with Elizabeth Almeida from Fat Moon Mushrooms
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When I was growing up in the 1980s, the idea of feeding your family with food grown at home was novel. As a kid in suburban Cleveland with a fenced postage stamp backyard that was mostly grass, the food that we grew was limited to a handful of tomato plants that my mom would plant every summer. Sometimes they were planted in a dirt patch next to our garage, other years, they were in plastic pots on our patio.
Those tomato plants were a small rebellion against the larger food system. My mom enjoyed the taste of fresh tomatoes and she knew that the varieties that were bred for supermarket sale and the distance they were shipped often meant an inferior product.
I don’t recall growing much else in the summers of my youth, perhaps a single plant of zucchini or cucumber one year, but with hardly memorable yields.
As an adult, I realize why we didn’t grow more: gardening is hard work! Vegetable plants are fragile, finicky, and require lots of water. They also happen to grow during the exact time when most families want to travel in the summer.
Perhaps that’s why all of my attempts at gardening have failed over the years. I am simply away from my crops for too long, either for work or vacation, and I always come home to a dried up mess that proves difficult to revive.
This does not mean that I have been robbed of the freshness and flavor that my mom correctly taught me is difficult to find in a supermarket. Quite the contrary in fact.
As I have described in this newsletter before, I have been on a journey for the last decade or so of trying to eat better. This started with eating organic, then incorporating some foods from local farms in season, and now today, we try to purchase most of our food locally, including meat and seafood, eggs, produce, and even some dairy.
By sourcing local ingredients, I buy right where the food is grown and get to know the producers and their methods directly. This connection often starts at the point of sale, but then continues on social media.
One of my favorite local growers is Elizabeth Almeida. She founded Fat Moon Mushrooms out of her house in Eastern Massachusetts, first growing mushrooms in a small greenhouse in her basement. Production is now located in an indoor mill building, where she can control the temperature and humidity to encourage beautiful mushrooms.
I’ve been inspired by Elizabeth’s social media presence for a long time. She uses her platform for education and to connect consumers in the Boston area to amazing local growers, suppliers, and retailers. I always learn something new from her and can tell that she is a big thinker.
I have suspected that she would make an interesting interview subject on my podcast, although I was apprehensive to invite her as a guest, mainly because my show has dealt with how the entertainment and media industries have adapted to COVID. Elizabeth does not work in these industries.
I ultimately decided that one of the joys of having a podcast like mine is that I have the option of doing whatever I would like, so I invited Elizabeth to be my guest on last week’s show. We had an incredible talk that is worth a listen!
Elizabeth and I both have Ohio roots. Mine are suburban, but hers are very rural:
“I grew up on a beef cattle farm in the Midwest, in rural Ohio. My parents still live on the same farm and have probably 50 head of beef cattle. Every summer, we would raise 200 meat chickens, actually, it was my older sister had a little business since the time she was 10 or so, raising and selling meat birds every summer.”
“It was the kind of farm where we grew most of our food- livestock and a huge garden and a lot of canning and freezing, two big chest freezers.”
One of Elizabeth’s early attempts at a food business was a vegetable CSA (community supported agriculture) farm on leased property in the Boston area. The cost of land in this area proved prohibitive for expanding her growing operations, so she started looking at ways to farm that wouldn’t require a large acreage.
Her young son had purchased a small mushroom grow kit from the supermarket, which got Elizabeth thinking that perhaps raising fungi would be a worthwhile pursuit. However, she had very little experience beyond that DIY grow kit. Enter the internet:
“I tell people you can learn a lot on YouTube when you ask the right questions. There happened to be two mushrooms growers who had competing YouTube channels. So I would watch all of their videos. I’d listen to what they’d say, but I’d also be looking over their shoulder to see how they had their grow stations set up. I learned a lot that way.”
Elizabeth grows mushroom varieties that are often not seen on grocery store shelves like oyster and lion’s mane, plus more well-known varieties like shiitakes. Her products are sold at local farm stands and independent grocery stores.
The quality is very high, and over the last few years, they have gone from an occasional impulse buy for me to a weekly staple in our kitchen. Elizabeth recognizes that her mushrooms have a place for families like mine with the disposable income to choose her product. She also recognizes that her mushrooms may be out of reach for other families and sees that producers are needed at all ends of the food spectrum:
“If we lived in a world where every pound of mushrooms cost $15 and if chicken everywhere was $7-10 a pound, it needs to be that price for local producers, but if that was the only option, we would have a lot more hunger in our communities. And so I see that there are these much bigger societal issues related to food and affordability, and it’s a double-edged sword where we want food to be affordable because everyone needs to eat and we want everyone to be fed, right? We want to live in a society where everybody can access adequate healthy food. But if our food is cheap, then we know there are other consequences to that.”
One of the things that has always drawn me to Elizabeth is how she connects like-minded people and gets them excited about shared interests. This was evident during the pandemic, when she would lead guided mushroom hikes through a local nature preserve.
Elizabeth said on one hike she and her fellow hikers located 75 varieties of wild fungi growing in the woods, some that were easy to identify and some that remain unknown. We often discuss the importance of the tropical rain forest in containing a secret cancer cure or something else of great value, but Elizabeth made me realize that our own backyard forests also hold great value and require conservation:
“The promise of future environmental solutions may be buried in some old forest, and if we don’t have the capacity to figure it out this year, we need to preserve it, so that by the time our children are old enough to be working on these problems, we’ve kept that for them.”
I had so much fun talking with Elizabeth and hearing her perspective on the health benefits of mushrooms and how to eat more of them, weathering the pandemic as a small business owner, the good and bad parts of our food system, and more. I hope you’ll take a listen if you haven’t heard the interview yet.
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If you’ve missed past issues of this newsletter, they are available to read here.