Rob Jones, 33, is the farm entrepreneur at Understory Farm. He and his family live in Carrboro, not too far from the warehouse where he cultivates mushrooms. The fungi are his specialty, especially grey dove – native to North Carolina – Italian oysters, and pink oysters. Here, Rob de-mystifies a bit of his process.
Understory is a lucrative part of Farmers’ Collective because Rob is one of few Southern growers dedicated exclusively to mushrooms. He points out that most of the East Coast’s mushrooms are grown in the same small Pennsylvania town, Kennett Square. In contrast, he grows on a commercial scale in a 1200-square-foot warehouse on Highway 54 outside of Chapel Hill.
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Rob readily admits that mushrooms don’t tend to be mentioned among traditional crops in this region. And there’s definitely a science to producing them in large quantities — Rob can grow edible mushrooms in 21 days, but he does so in massive sealed rooms akin to walk-in refrigerators. “I worked on farms and helped organize young farmers for years,” he says of his initial interest. In college, he spent a semester in the Pacific Northwest. It happened to be during mushroom season, and he saw the link between farm entrepreneurship and mushroom cultivation. “When I had the opportunity to put those two things together, I jumped.”
“Mushrooms are mysterious,” Rob says. “We grow our Oyster mushrooms on a pasteurized straw and cottonseed hull based substrate. The substrate is packed into bags, incubated for two weeks in the dark at about 70 degrees, and then fruit about a week later in our lighted humidified ‘grow rooms.’ Each bag will produce a new harvest every 10 days to two weeks.”
Harvests of mushrooms are called flushes. Their biggest threat is mold fungi, which can be treated naturally with baking soda, lime, or hydrogen peroxide. To fight gnats, mites, and flies, Rob uses sticky tape and good ‘ol “cleanliness.”
Mushrooms are something of a culinary luxury, but Rob’s favorite part of cultivation is the detail-oriented opportunity to always learn something new. His finished product is something to behold. “Hearing people rave about how beautiful they are,” he says, never gets old.