Pickens County farmer explores new uses for mushrooms
Published: May 30, 2014
Pickens County farmer explores new uses for mushrooms
Amy Clarke Burns, The Greenville News 11:17 a.m. EDT May 28, 2014
Tradd Cotter, owner of Mushroom Mountain, gives a tour of his new production and research facility to Greenville Technical College students and teachers studying at The Culinary Institute of the Carolinas.
Tradd Cotter is a little like a preacher holding up a prayer book to the choir when he lifts a plump morel mushroom from a basket.
The gathered chefs-in-training, students at Greenville Tech’s Culinary Institute of the Carolinas, murmur appreciatively at the mushroom with its pocked, coral-like surface and light ochre coloring.
These visitors to Mushroom Mountain farm in Pickens County know Cotter has a rare find and joke about surreptitiously pocketing the delicacy.
But Cotter has bigger plans for this one than just lunch.
A mushroom researcher and cultivator for two decades, Cotter recently moved his business into a massive new facility where he can not only grow mushrooms by the ton but also immerse himself in the science of his beloved fungi.
He’s growing edible varieties coveted by chefs and home cooks alike. He’s developing new products like mushroom-infused beers with medicinal properties. He’s exploring what mushrooms can do for their environments, like cleaning up plastic waste and oil spills. He’s using mushrooms to replace some of the work of pesticides. He’s unearthing new varieties that may yet hold a wealth of knowledge for humans.
“It’s discovery, and it’s discovery at a level that I think has come at the right time,” he says.
Mushroom Mountain 2.0
Cotter says his vision for Mushroom Mountain was born years before he brought it to fruition in his Liberty home about five years ago. A spare bedroom became a lab space, and the backyard became home to several greenhouses.
He focused his work on creating spawn, essentially mushroom seeds, to sell to commercial and private growers. He was supporting himself and his family from the confines of the 8-by-16 bedroom, but he was limited in how much growing and research he could do.
He began looking for an opportunity to expand about a year ago and eventually found the perfect spot just a few miles from his home.
The 26-acre property includes a 36,000-square-foot production facility and 8,000-square-foot building he’ll use for his lab, among other things. It’s a $1 million expansion for the company. That sum includes about $250,000 worth of advanced lab equipment.
“It’s overkill for a mushroom farm,” says Cotter, who in 2011 was named the Clemson Student Entrepreneur of the Year. “Nobody in their right mind would be doing it this way.”
He tells the visiting students from the Culinary Institute that they’re the first and last people to tour the still-in-construction lab. Once it’s completed, it’ll be more sterile than a hospital waiting room, and touring visitors will have to satisfy themselves with peering through the glass.
“It’s not just a mushroom farm. It’s a biotech facility,” Cotter says.
The vision for this reboot of Mushroom Mountain is to begin growing mushrooms on a commercial scale, the proceeds of which will support Cotter’s research into how mushrooms and fungi can be used in medical applications, pollution cleanup, waste reduction and more.
“People who buy our shiitake mushrooms are actually funding research to make more environmentally sensitive products,” he says.
He calls it “bioprospecting.”
“You look at organisms. It’s like panning for gold. You just see kind of what they do,” he says.
Some of the things they can do, he says, are nothing short of amazing.
Mushrooms can be used to clean up polluted areas, a process known as mycoremediation, and many are naturally antibiotic. Cotter envisions infusing consumer products such as flip-flops or cutting boards with fungi to make them bacteria-resistant.
“He’s got all these ways of improving the world with fungi,” says Julia Kerrigan, associate professor of mycology at Clemson University.
Cotter says one of his pet projects is a natural pesticide. There is a species of mushroom that attacks and kills fire ants, he says, and he wants to use that to tackle the pest without environmentally hazardous chemicals.
“It’s amazing. It’s native. We found it here in South Carolina. It’s all natural. It’s more target-specific,” he says. “It’s poetic.”
General interest in mushrooms has increased in recent years as consumers invest in sustainability and local eating, and Cotter does a booming business selling edible mushrooms at Greenville’s Saturday Market.
A law winding its way through the state Legislature would allow wild foraged mushrooms to be sold and served to the public in restaurants for the first time. South Carolina remains one of only three states where it’s illegal to serve foraged mushrooms.
Cotter says he’s been among those calling for change and will now be part of the solution by leading a certification course for licensed pickers, teaching them about a dozen easy-to-identify varieties.
That dozen are selected from the 4,000 or 5,000 mushroom species in South Carolina.
“A lot of them are edible, but nobody knows how to grow them” he says. “I culture everything that I can find. I just test it for different reasons.”
He’s cultivating about 120 species in the lab. About 20 of those will be put into commercial production.
Before the outfitting of the cinder-block building is even complete, wooden racks in an open bay are stacked with Cotter’s mushroom-growing blocks. Broad, flat shiitake mushrooms sprout from every side.
Cotter says his goal for his first year in the expanded facility is to produce 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of shiitake mushrooms a week, many of which will go to Whole Foods for sale in regional markets.
He’s also producing oyster mushrooms, nameko, miyake and a special Brazilian almond portobello that’s currently imported for about $300 a pound.
Over the years, Cotter has become an expert at coaxing mushrooms to grow just how and when he wants them to. He’s got a book coming out this summer on the topic: “Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation.”
“Every mushroom is like a person. They’re all different. They don’t grow the same way; they don’t act the same way,” he says.
He holds up a standard Petri dish covered in mycelium, the starting point of mushrooms. This one circle of cream-colored mycelium, he says, will readily grow and eventually produce a million pounds of mushrooms.
“My job is to stop them growing,” he says.
He’s currently working on a way to grow the coveted morels in the lab. The morel, which fruits for only three weeks a year and sells for $80-$100 per pound, is among a category of mushrooms that grows in symbiosis with its environment.
The sample Cotter demonstrates in the lab still has hunks of soil attached to its roots. The number of microorganisms in that soil is almost immeasurable, Cotter says, and replicating the conditions in a controlled environment has proven impossible in the past. But he’s nearly got a process figured out.
“If the fire ant thing doesn’t work, here’s my retirement,” he says, holding up the mushroom. “It’s a multimillion dollar patent if it does work.”
Spawning a passion
Cotter, 41, got his start with mushrooms by accident.
On a whim, he decided to tour a mushroom farm in Charleston, not far from the Summerville home where he lived during his teenage years.
“The owner showed me around and I could tell he was really busy,” he says. “I was asking a lot of questions and even making suggestions.”
After the tour, Cotter was just pulling away in his car when he heard a startling bang.
“I thought I blew a tire, and it was the owner running after my car. He ran after me and banged on my car,” he says. “The first thing he said when he caught his breath was, ‘Do you want a job?’ ”
Cotter started producing 1,000 pounds of shiitake mushrooms a week in the commercial facility. He was 20 at the time.
It was also around then that he started foraging for wild mushrooms. He started with chanterelles, a bright yellow-orange variety beloved for their peppery flavor.
“That was the first one I knew,” he says. “There wasn’t anybody to teach mushroom ID back then in South Carolina.”
Cotter left the mushroom farm about a year and a half later with his own vision for a different kind of mushroom farm. He began purchasing lab equipment, largely teaching himself along the way.
“Tissue culturing fungi and mushrooms is not something they teach in school,” he says with a laugh.
For the next several years, his career took him on another path. He worked in landscape design in Hilton Head, Tennessee and Florida for several years, still pursuing his passion for mushrooms on the side. Doing research, growing mushrooms, leading walks in the woods, giving talks.
“I was leading a double life,” he says. “I was making really good money but at the same time I always had that itch and I always knew that the mushroom thing was going to be the one thing that I was really good at and that nobody else was doing at the level I could do it.”
He met his wife, Olga, in 2006, and the pair decided to move back to South Carolina and start a mushroom farm. They chose the Upstate for a variety of reasons, not least of which were the opportunities for Cotter to study microbiology at Clemson University and to exploit the area’s naturally rich population of wild mushrooms.
“I can spot a mushroom and identify it going 80 mph,” Cotter quips. “If you see our car pull over, we don’t have a flat tire. We’re picking mushrooms.”
Cotter is co-founder of the South Carolina Upstate Mycological Society (SCUMS for short), along with Kerrigan, and has been helping lead classes and mushroom foraging expeditions with that group since 2008.
Kerrigan says Cotter has a remarkably broad knowledge of local mushrooms, and his enthusiasm has helped spread interest in the fungi.
With his hands and heart dug deeply into the rich South Carolina soil, Cotter is also a passionate force for environmental care and conservation.
He’s turning his own farm into a zero-waste facility and often teaches others how to recycle trash, such as old pizza boxes, coffee grounds, even worn-out blue jeans, into a growing medium for mushrooms.
“I just love discovery,” he says. “I love the woods. I love making stuff grow.”