Takeaway: Though they don’t grow your typical crops, Ches & Laura Stewart, mushroom farmers extraordinaire, are devoted to bringing fresh, local, and healthy products to area markets and restaurants every week.
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Laura and Ches Stewart don’t match up with a lot of farmer stereotypes. They don’t work their fields in the hot summer sun, they don’t do too much bending over when harvesting their crops and their harvest depends on neither sun nor rain. What kind of farmers are these!?! Mushroom farmers, and I can assure you that one farmer stereotype match is being hard workers.
On the day I visited them—ashamedly, unannounced, and at the end of a long CFSA Piedmont Farm Tour weekend—they and their crew were cheerful, albeit weary, from welcoming 250+ guests to their homestead and farm in Saxapahaw. After starting as hobby mushroom growers in 2012, the scope of their operations today is impressive. Visitors were able to see their entire operation, from mixing and sterilizing substrate, inoculation area and finally the grow room, situated in the final two-thirds of a forty foot climate-controlled tractor trailer.
What they grow
Ches and Laura haven’t harbored lifelong dreams of becoming mushroom magnates, but after a year growing diversified produce on an incubator farm, they began falling in love with the mystery and magic of mushrooms. Today, Laura holds a Wild Mushroom Food Safety Certification, allowing her to sell 19 varieties of seasonal foraged mushrooms. Indoors, they grow primarily oyster mushrooms, lions mane, and shiitake and also often offer piopinni, reishi, and king trumpet.
Each week they and four production workers harvest 200 to 400 pounds of mushrooms which are sold at fifteen local restaurants, three area farmers’ markets and two local co-op grocery stores. They regularly offer classes at their property, teaching mushroom log inoculation and more. Besides mushrooms, they offer tinctures, grow logs and bags, and more. In addition to shepherding fungi, they have twin daughters that ensure any downtime they may have is well-filled.
How they grow it
Though the grow trailer may have the most exciting part of the operation from an eater’s perspective, the hard work happens well before. The majority of their mushrooms are grown in bags filled with substrate and inoculated with fungal spores. Sawdust is obtained from a sawmill in Liberty, twenty-five tons at a time. This growth substrate is mixed in their special hopper, bagged and then sterilized for 24 hours at 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Sterilization ensures the only thing growing in the bag is the intended mycelia. After introducing the spores, the bags rest in a climate-controlled room until sufficient growth can be seen inside the bags. At this time, the bags are transferred to racks in the sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit grow trailer where they produce fruit, AKA, mushrooms. Mature mushrooms are cut, packed and prepped for delivery or sale.
If the only mushrooms you’re familiar with are the standard white button and perhaps shiitakes, I can’t recommend enough seeking out and trying some of the offerings from Haw River Mushrooms. Lion’s mane and asparagus make for a fantastic omelet that will remind you of shellfish. Oyster mushrooms, greens, and a bit of Asian seasonings complete a quick and easy rice bowl (try it with a fried egg over the top). If you’re stumped, ask them for recommendations—another farmer stereotype they live up to is enthusiasm for their food.
Learn more about mushrooms & grow your own
Visit their website or Facebook page to learn when their upcoming classes are. They are reasonably priced and typically held at their homestead in Saxapahaw in a covered outdoor area.
Where to find their mushrooms:
Saturdays, 7am-12pm (Seasonal)
Year Round on Saturdays:
201 S. Estes Drive
Email them via their website
 If you aren’t excited about mushrooms, you probably don’t know enough about them. Check out these sites for more:
- NYT short article on health and nutritional value
- Mushroom Council (like any other food council, their agenda is to promote “their” food, so be aware of the bias. that said, they have some great looking recipes on their user-friendly site)
- Short write-up by doctor from Penn State regarding the potential benefits and some of the emerging science
- And this one, a loving layperson’s guide to mushroom appreciation
- Finally, a mycology blog from Cornell.