by Cari Marshall
At six years old, Sophia Stack knows more about growing mushrooms than the average kindergartner. She dexterously mists a blossom of oyster mushrooms while pondering their appearance and flavor. “I like seeing what color they are,” she says. “Certain kinds are different colors. And you can really taste the difference of each one.” Sophia’s precocious knowledge of edible fungi is a natural byproduct of her upbringing—she lives at the 100th Monkey Mushroom Farm, a recent addition to Austin’s back-to-basics DIY food movement.
The “farm” is actually the Barton Hills home Sophia shares with her parents, Heather Ralston and Jimm Stack. The trio moved to Austin from Boulder, Colorado in 2011 and settled into a Greenbelt-backed dwelling well-situated for Ralston and Stack’s gastronomic endeavor: transforming Austin’s wild shiitake, oyster and pioppino mushrooms into grow-your-own kits.
Through their new business—named after the purported 100th monkey effect where, essentially, a behavior, thought or ability can spread through a community once it’s repeated enough times—the couple hopes to propel and spread the health-conscious and earth-friendly food movement. “In the late nineties, I began reading about the medicinal effects of mushrooms,” Stack says, “which led quickly to the research of how mushrooms were being investigated as possible ‘remediators’ of environmental damage, such as denaturing toxins in soil, filtering harmful bacteria in water and restoring barren land. I began to grow my own oyster mushrooms on straw and continued to many other species. The passion and experience continued so we decided to make it our career.”
Since shiitake, oyster and pioppino mushrooms grow naturally in the Austin terrain, the kits are developed with local mycelia (mushroom root or stock) from natural and homegrown species that are perfectly suited to this climate. For Stack, this is extremely important. “We’re working on a new kit of the highly medicinal reishi mushroom that’s grown from the mycelium of reishi found in the Barton Creek Greenbelt,” he says. “The genetics of this mushroom are not only adapted to Austin’s climate but have survived the extreme drought.”
The kits themselves are beautifully simple: encased in a compostable cardboard box roughly the size of a loaf of bread sits a plastic-wrapped brick of what appears to be dirt but is actually a delicate mix of mycelia and sawdust from oak trees in East Texas. To activate the kit, a slit is cut in the plastic and the opening spritzed daily with a little water. The brick is covered with the included plastic tent (to retain moisture) and within a few days, a gorgeous, almost ceramic-looking bouquet of about a dozen mushrooms appears—ready for harvesting by simply cutting them off at the base. The kits usually produce two or three rounds of superb gourmet mushrooms filled with vital nutrients, complex vitamins and powerful antioxidants, and completely free of additives, dyes, hormones, pesticides, genetically modified organisms or anything else not intended for human consumption.
Since launching in August of 2012, 100th Monkey Mushroom Farm has grown faster than fungus in a rain forest, selling hundreds of kits at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown and from orders via the Web and phone. Stack says the long-term vision includes eventually moving into grocery stores, garden centers and other retail outlets. “The reception has been phenomenal,” he says. “It seems most people know ‘someone who would love this,’ whether because they’re a gourmet cook, a gardener or interested in science.”
As former schoolteachers, Stack and Ralston felt that creating an educational component to the company was vital. They’ve developed activity books for children—focusing on the environment, fungus, regeneration, sustainability, food, plants and interdependence—plus a curriculum and activities for educators. “I wanted to design the learning so that it is meaningful and thoughtful and challenging,” Ralston says. The educational tools are available on the company’s website, and Ralston and Stack hope to reach out to schools and other organizations to integrate the lessons into their curricula.
In light of the farm’s growth and success, Stack and Ralston agree that Austin was the perfect place to begin. “We came to Austin because it has such an amazing community of support for locally produced food,” says Stack. “The large number of CSA [programs], farmers markets, gardening groups, foodies, permaculturists and sustainable-living projects that exist here make it an ideal location for us.”
For more information about 100th Monkey Mushroom Farm’s kits, visit 100thmonkeymushrooms.com