MONCKS CORNER—When the monks at Mepkin Abbey started looking for a new business to help support themselves, growing mushrooms sounded like perfectly simple solution.
After all, mushrooms grow in the wild just fine. All you need is a little dirt and — voila! Right? Wrong. Really, really wrong.
What the Trappists soon discovered was that growing shiitakes, and the extremely delicate oyster mushrooms, required the patience of a saint — or at least a monk — and the farming know-how of, well, a farmer.
Because as it turns out, edible mushrooms are very finicky. They require constant care and extremely clean conditions to grow properly, according to Jimmy Livingston, a local farmer and Mepkin’s mushroom operation manager.
“It’s an enormous amount of work that goes into it. The brothers are constantly working,” he said.
A mushrooming business
The monastery produces 1,600 pounds of mushrooms each week, Livingston said. Considering a single delicate oyster, or even a shiitake, weighs next to nothing, it’s a lot of mushrooms. The monks and other workers pick six days a week, sometimes up to six hours a session.
Almost daily, they truck their crop to Limehouse Produce, which then delivers to an ever-expanding client list. Lyle Passink, a spokesman with Limehouse, said they have well over 100 customers using Mepkin’s mushrooms, including grocery stores and restaurants.
The monks have been growing mushrooms for five years now, ever since they ended their egg production business because of protests from PETA.
Brother John Corrigan said it is the rule of St. Benedict that the monks participate in honest, hands-on work that keeps the men close to the land and provides a service for the community. After a comprehensive study of various options, the Trappists decided mushroom farming fit the criteria, with the added benefit that they could re -use the sheds and other buildings from egg-farming.
Or so they thought.
“It’s been quite an experience — a good experience,” said Brother John, “but there’s no end to learning with the mushrooms.”
One of the first lessons was that — despite what they’d been told — the open-air sheds were not at all conducive to growing mushrooms because, as they soon discovered, temperature changes and pollen are fungi killers.
Livingston, who grows produce such as strawberries and cabbage on his own farm, said Mepkin lost several crops because the mushrooms were too exposed to the elements.
“They’re very finicky. Even in a controlled atmosphere, it’s like they sense changes outside and respond,” Livingston said, adding that even now growth will slow down when pollen is blowing around outside.
The operation was moved to trailers, and eventually the monks built climate-controlled houses. They now maintain diligent watch on temperature and cleanliness, changing the air filters up to six times a day.
Livingston explained that mushrooms constantly cast out spores which clog the filters. Also, if young fungi become coated in spores, they won’t grow.
Despite the learning curve, shiitakes and oysters have become a successful venture. The monastery has even expanded the business, adding bags of dried mushrooms to its list of produce. They are sold in the gift shop, complete with recipe cards, and will be available online.
A higher purpose
In the storage room, which is kept so cold workers can see their breath, Charles Myers quickly loads dozens of boxes into a truck bound for Limehouse. He has volunteered at Mepkin for 15 years and said any type of farming is a finicky business.
“We’re always making adjustments,” he said simply.
And that’s what the monks have done; adjusted as needed.
They opened their doors to visitors, and altered the work of their hands.
As Brother John said, it is only part of their greater purpose to bear witness to God’s love.
They do this through prayer, and mostly in silence, even as they work. Livingston said it is peaceful and spiritual, although the monks are not without humor. Pointing to a white board outside the shiitake room, he said they often leave him messages there, complete with smiley faces. When they’ve reached a big goal, sometimes a celebration is requested, such as pizza.
“It’s the coolest place you get to work,” said Livingston. “Who gets to work with monks every day?”
RELATED VIDEO: Growing mushrooms at Mepkin
Photos: Miscellany/Deirdre C. Mays