Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Evolution of a Sustainable Mushroom Farm

Avery Stempel harvesting Golden Oysters in Wynantskill, NY.

An interview by Sandra Stempel

Avery Stempel is a mushroom farmer, poet, philosopher, entrepreneur, artist and the face of Collar City Mushrooms in Troy, New York. His reach into the world is akin to a network of mycelium running miles under the forest landscapes. Continually reaching out to share his ever-expanding knowledge of the healing power of mushrooms.

What was the impetus landing Avery, feet running, in an indoor urban mushroom farm built from the ground up? Step inside 333 2nd Avenue in Troy, New York – home to Collar City Mushrooms – and enjoy the aura that is Avery Stempel.

SS: You and your team have built an inviting space here at Collar City Mushrooms. The fireplace, fungi art, mushroom library, grow room viewings and all manner of mushroom products. What started you on this trajectory?

AS: Thank you. I love sharing my story. Raised in the Helderberg Mountains in East Berne, New York, my roots are anchored in the forest. From the family sawmill business built by my grandparents, to forest visits with my dad as a youngster, the outdoor world’s been my playground. Joining my dad, Brian Stempel, on log truck runs to the Catskill Mountains, my mom, Kathy, and I spent hours in the surrounding forest as Dad cut trees and readied them for transport to the mill.

This outdoor experience exploring the landscape of trees, lichen, rocks and fungi sealed my connection to the earth.

At our house, there were always chunks of wood around sporting mushroom growth. Dad’s procurement of huge bracket mushrooms from the forest decorated our home. Having “sawdust in my blood” from our family sawmill business, I am now convinced mycelium is concurrently running through my veins. Mushrooms are just that cool.

Bree Morehead and Amy Hood putting mushrooms into grow and packing orders. (Courtesy images)

SS: Did you forage mushrooms as a child?

AS: While I felt connected to the fungal world in my youth, foraging came later. After meeting my current partner, Amy Hood, we discovered a mutual love of all things fungi — especially after realizing both of our phones were filled with wild mushroom photos. Amy was already growing Shiitake mushrooms as a hobby. I happily partnered with her in this enterprise. It was great fun but thoughts of running a mushroom farm was a ‘one of these days’ pipedream.

SS: During this time, you worked as front-end manager of EMPAC – the experimental performing arts center on the RPI campus.

AS: Yes, that’s right. I started there in 2008. In March of 2020 I was furloughed. It was devastating. My support network, however, is huge and with encouragement from my brother Nathan, my father and my band of mushroom enthusiasts, plans for full time mushroom farming bubbled to the surface. As ideas evolved and team members came on board, Collar City Mushrooms leapt from a collection of ideas to a brick-and-mortar storefront with our grand opening on March 11, 2021.

SS: A rewarding day for you and your team, I’m sure.

Blue Italian, Pink, and Golden Oyster mushroom

AS: Indeed! Starting a business from nothing is a tremendous lift. I’m thankful for the enormity of support from family and friends. Their encouragement, enthusiasm for our offerings and deep belief in what we are doing, ensures our continued growth and idea development.

SS: What else goes on at Collar City Mushrooms, besides the farming piece?

AS: Oh, my! The plate is so full. Featured artist events paired with social elements enjoying mushroom snacks and teas, artist intros and mingling, mushroom coloring books, shrooms and poetry, and mushroom card games. There are educational workshops, local garden club talks, library and classroom presentations. Also, homeschool visits and mushroom meditation sessions, as well as establishing and growing partnerships with local restaurants, catering businesses and educational institutes.

A recent undertaking was the creation of a mushroom experience and dinner at SPAC (Saratoga Performing Arts Center) this past year as part of their culinary arts program. It was over the top exciting.

SS: If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?

AS: I would choose the ability to increase compassion and empathy in people, leading to possible better understanding and implementation of sustainable living choices, reasonable compromises and more kindness.

SS: You exude a clear passion for mushrooms. Why?

AS: As a food source, they have low environmental impact, high nutritional content, sustainable production and a fast-growing cycle. They are protein rich, fiber full and nutrient dense. And, leftover grow blocks can be used as compost for soil rejuvenation. Mushrooms have been eaten and used medicinally for thousands of years.

SS: You are a human mycelium as well as a poet. Please share a snippet of mushroom poetry.

Chestnut mushrooms growing
at Collar City Mushrooms

Finding Fungi
Suddenly you see it,
A splash of color,
A little rounded nub.
Just off the path,
You inhale sharply
Breath catching
Excitement filling your head.
You leave the well-worn trail
Strike out into the unknown.
On the hunt
One dollop of orange leads you to a few splashes of red.
Next, some circled sproutings of brown
Then on to a collection of tiny white tubes

To see this article in a pdf file, as it appears in print, please click HERE.

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