A mushroom masterclass

Words by:
Caroline Bingham
Featured in:
December 2023

Learning to love fungi has taken Shanon Folgate of Cathedral Mushrooms on a journey of discovery, which she shares with her customers and through education to young audiences. Caroline Bingham visited her lab to learn more about the science behind her crops.

Shanon grew up in Michigan, USA and has settled in Lincoln with her children and husband, who is in the RAF. “My grandparents, who raised me, grew most of their own food,” Shanon explained.

“It was a fishing and hunting community, spending lots of time outdoors, and we foraged for morel mushrooms in the autumn.

“When we were in married quarters, I dug up the garden to plant vegetables to feed our young family and eventually I got an allotment, which meant we were virtually self-sufficient.”

Now in their own home, the couple still grow lots of their own food and keep chickens but their garage has been turned into a lab where Shanon can prepare the cultures for the wide variety of edible fungi which she grows.

“Prior to Covid, I was busy as a professional face-painter and wedding dress maker but the pandemic took all that away. I saw empty supermarket shelves and started to grow food again and we had always enjoyed hiking as a family. My husband was stuck serving overseas and I began to forage on lockdown walks.”

Her confidence was further fuelled by a Christmas gift of the book Mushrooms by Roger Phillips, one of the definitive guides to fungi. Shanon’s first homegrown crop soon followed, oyster mushrooms grown from a kit given as a birthday present.

“This time coincided with me developing a bad reaction to meat protein, so mushrooms became a great substitute in my now vegan diet. Most mushrooms in supermarkets come from Asia or Poland and are probably 8 to 10 days old when they go on sale. This doesn’t account for the shipping miles too and yet we have ideal conditions in this country to grow mushrooms.”

There has been an awful lot of experimentation for Shanon to develop the processes necessary to produce an organic crop. The ideal substrates for growing are either chopped straw or wood pellets, which must be pasteurised firstly using heat or lime. One of the biggest reasons for a crop failure is bacteria or other spores infecting the substrate, so everything in the early stages must be kept as sterile as possible to protect the mycelium.

The spores are bought as a liquid culture in syringes which is a starter for each strain. This starter is then inoculated into a petri dish of agar where the mycelium begins to grow – each variety having its own distinct shape, which reflects the variety of mushrooms; even the agar becomes tinted to the colour of the cap.

The next stage is to upscale the growth of the mycelium into a bag of pasteurised but cooled wheat. The mycelium colonises the 1.5 kilo bags very rapidly at ideal temperatures of 20-23°C and fully colonises the wheat within 10 days. “Speed is everything,” continued Shanon, “to minimise risk of infection, and once the wheat is transferred to the substrate, fruiting should occur within four weeks.”

It soon became apparent that Shanon had outgrown her own two greenhouses with her ambitions for Cathedral Mushrooms. Her first crop in March 2021 of oyster and speckled chestnut mushrooms was donated to the Lincolnshire Rural Support Network fundraising dinner, where chef Rachel Green used them as part of her bespoke menu for the evening.

Realising she needed to find more space to grow and routes to market, Shanon became a member of the Lincoln Food Partnership and made contacts, looking at many local market gardens.

A community garden which did have space it could offer Shanon was Ropsley Market Garden near Grantham, run by Jemma Crosland. The two-acre plot is run largely by volunteers and grows a wide variety of seasonal crops which are distributed to local businesses including the village pub and also as weekly food boxes in the community.

“Over the past 10 months we have built a circle of sheds from reclaimed wood which have feather boarded sides, wooden roofs and are insulated with silver-lined bubblewrap. This gives shelter as well as ventilation,” said Shanon.

“Wire mesh covers the outside to stop damage by pests such as rats and crows, who would see the vertically hanging fruiting bags as an ideal food source.”

In April this year the first crops of mushrooms were harvested at Ropsley and during the season which runs from April through to December, the harvest can be 8-10 kilos per week.

Varieties grown include pink, blue and yellow oyster, Lion’s Mane and speckled chestnut mushrooms. Shanon is particularly interested in the functional varieties which have been shown to enhance cognitive ability. She is working to produce a tincture of Lion’s Mane which can be used as a food additive and supplement.

“The choice of mushrooms within the supermarket system is so limited and yet there is a whole spectrum of varieties which should be part of our plant-based food focus in the future. There is still some public nervousness about not being able to recognise which mushrooms are edible and which to avoid but my work in education is designed to raise awareness.”

Shanon gives demonstrations of her work to schools and works with the education team at Lincolnshire Showground. She was at the Lincolnshire Show and recently took part in the Lincolnshire Day Schools Event which held workshops for children on food, farming and sustainability.

“I introduce the children to the wide variety of mushrooms which can be grown and show that from a petri dish of a small amount of culture an amazing amount of food can be grown within a short space of time. It

Shanon’s future plans are partly frustrated by the lack of grants which a small business like Cathedral Mushrooms can attract in order to invest in upscaling.

“My husband joked when he bought me my first kit that I could make a living from growing mushrooms. That hasn’t happened yet but I am building more consistency with my output and the next stage will be to grow enough to fill a van to deliver out to clients.”

Meanwhile visitors to Ropsley Market Garden will find mushrooms on sale during the growing season.

Facebook: Cathedral Mushrooms www.ropsleymarketgarden.co.uk



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