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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Stonington mushroom farm growing with help of science, technology

    Carly Paterson, head of sales, harvests shiitake mushrooms Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in a grow room at Seacoast Mushrooms in Stonington. Paterson also helps harvest the mushrooms. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Harvested shiitake mushrooms Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in a tray in a grow room at Seacoast Mushrooms in Stonington. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Owner Chris Pacheco shows Basil Gooden, undersecretary of USDA Rural Development, left, how to harvest shiitake mushrooms on Monday, April 1, 2024, at Seacoast Mushrooms. (Carrie Czerwinski/The Day)
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    Shiitake mushrooms Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in the grow room at Seacoast Mushrooms in Stonington. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Scott Soares, USDA rural development state director for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island; USDA Rural Development Undersecretary Basil Gooden; and owner Chris Pacheco on Monday, April 1, 2024, during tour of Seacoast Mushrooms in Stonington. (Carrie Czerwinski/The Day)
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    From left: U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Scott Soares, USDA Rural Development state director for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island; USDA Rural Development Undersecretary Basil Gooden; and owner Chris Pacheco on Monday, April 1, 2024, during tour of Seacoast Mushrooms in Stonington. (Carrie Czerwinski/The Day)
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    Stonington ― Chris Pacheco spends his days farming king oysters, blue oysters and golden oysters, but he is not an oyster farmer.

    He is a mushroom farmer.

    In what looks like a big blue warehouse with several shipping containers out back, Pacheco, the owner of Seacoast Mushrooms, and his seven employees grow oyster mushrooms along with several other types of flavorful fungi at the company’s new 12,000-square-foot Taugwonk Road mushroom farm.

    Pacheco grew up planting trees for his family’s apple orchard in Rhode Island, where he learned to hate farming in rocky New England soil. He got an engineering degree to get away from farming.

    His time in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Hartford brought him to the area, and when he got out of the submarine service, he stayed in the area working in the corporate world. Fifteen years later, in 2015, the challenge of growing mushrooms brought him back to his roots.

    He created a business plan to connect with his community through food.

    “What I learned very quickly is that the business plan was total garbage,” Pacheco said Monday. “People, not only could they not pronounce our mushrooms, but they had no idea how to cook with them.”

    But the community was curious, so he began to teach people about mushrooms, which are a good non-animal source of vitamin D, as well as selenium. He taught them how to cook mushrooms, and “the rest is history,” he said.

    In December, the company moved from its Farmholme Road location, and today, less than a year after breaking ground on the new facility, it produces more than 1,000 pounds of fresh mushrooms a week. It has the capacity to eventually produce upwards of 10,000 pounds a week of maitake, brown beach, lions mane, shiitake and the various oyster mushrooms, among others.

    The farm routinely grows eight to 10 varieties of mushrooms and also forages for wild varieties like maitake, also known as hen of the woods, and chicken of the woods, which the company sells to dozens of Connecticut and Rhode Island restaurants, including, in Mystic, The Shipwright’s Daughter, Oyster Club and Engine Room. Seacoast also sells its mushrooms at the Stonington and New Haven farmer’s markets and at McQuade’s Marketplace locations.

    Turning to science

    Sustainability is always at the forefront of Pacheco’s mind, both from an environmental standpoint and an economic one, and he looks to technology and science as well as the byproducts of other industries to accelerate the growth of his crops and reduce his energy consumption.

    Jake Fedors, production manager, said the farm uses hardwood sawdust from sawmills and soybean hulls to create its growing medium.

    Mushrooms grow on hardwood, but growing through the dense wood takes a long time. Sawdust is easier for the mushrooms to grow in, and the soybean hulls provide nutrition, creating an ideal substrate for the mushrooms and speeding up the growing process.

    Once the growing medium is mixed and bagged, it is sterilized in an autoclave, a high heat and pressure device traditionally used in medical and laboratory settings, which reduces typical sterilization time from between 12 and 24 hours to four hours and saves energy.

    After cooling, the bags of medium are inoculated with spores that grow into a network of thread-like structures known as mycelium over a period of around two weeks, depending on the variety.

    “Mycelium is one of the largest living organisms in the world. When you are out in the woods and dig up some dirt, and you see white veins, that’s mycelium,” said Victoria Georgetti, the farm’s pack out manager.

    Once mature, the bags of substrate are moved to shipping containers in the rear of the facility, each variety in its own container, where the mycelium fruits, producing mushrooms.

    The entire process takes between two-and-a-half and seven weeks depending on the type of mushroom, Fedor said.

    However, the transition from mycelium to mushroom creates one of the biggest problems facing mushroom farms.

    Mushrooms are exothermic, meaning they release heat when growing, and the fickle fungi need temperatures of between 65 and 72 degrees with high humidity, which requires cooling the shipping containers to maintain proper growing conditions.

    Pacheco said the company has seen electric bills in excess of $4,000 a month in the summer, and many mushroom farms do not survive because they cannot afford the energy costs.

    On Monday, Seacoast took a step forward in combating the energy obstacle when U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for rural development, Basil Gooden, toured the facility and announced Seacoast had received a $279,000 federal Rural Energy for America Grant to help purchase and install a solar energy system for the farm.

    “We’re going to nail the energy piece,” Pacheco said. “The future is very bright.”

    The project, estimated to cost $600,000, will generate 248,000 kilowatt hours of clean energy each year, enough to power 22 homes. The system will provide all the power the farm needs to run the air-conditioning units that keep the shipping container grow rooms at optimal temperatures.

    “We are not going to be inhibited in our ability to grow and feed people because of energy costs,” Pacheco said.

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