Originally published in Arthur No. 35 (August, 2013)
“Everything we grow, we touch”: Norm Fetter and Heather McMonnies-Fetter (plus special helper) of Woodland Jewel Mushrooms
Text and photography by Camilla Padgitt-Coles
I first met Norm Fetter and Heather McMonnies-Fetter a few years ago in their backyard in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. We had an outdoor meal with ingredients the couple had grown in their abundant garden, which was overflowing with vines and healthy-looking edible plants. At the time, Norm also had a recording studio set up in their row house and was making music under the alias Enumclaw—think Klaus Schulze’s Crystal Motion or Ricochet-era Tangerine Dream, but with a warmer, more serene and optimistic overtone. Since then, the couple have moved out to the countryside of Pennsylvania, had two adorable kids, begun construction of their family farm and opened a business, Woodland Jewel Mushrooms.
Late this past spring, I took a train out from New York to interview them for Arthur, listening to Enumclaw’s Opening of the Dawn album on my headphones.
The window scenery changed from buildings to rolling hills and open skies, the sparkling synthesizer soundscapes falling like a calming mist. Heather picked me up from the station in her car with three-year-old Leif in the backseat, and told me the story of how she had given birth to their second child, Cymbeline (named after the Pink Floyd song), in that same backseat as they were en route to the hospital the year before. After arriving at the farm we ate a lunch of delicious oyster mushroom soup and quinoa-oyster mushroom burgers, then headed up to the barn, where I spoke with Norm about what they’re up to…
Norm’s hand holds a bagful of golden oyster mushrooms.
Arthur: When you moved out here did you know you were going to be farming mushrooms?
Norm Fetter: We knew we wanted to do something. We had already decided to radically change our lifestyle by moving out here and having kids. But we weren’t quite sure what it was gonna be, yet. Heather had been working at the art museum in Philly and I had been doing freelance construction and carpentry. Luckily, shortly after we moved out here, we met a couple that have a really successful microgreens business, and they were super influential. They kind of took us under their wing and really got our confidence up. We had been growing mushrooms on a hobby scale at home for a couple years, but had never really considered making the jump to actually trying to do it as a livelihood. But these guys were like, “Yeah, we did it, we started with a small greenhouse in our backyard and now have a 35 by 120 foot long greenhouse.” (laughs) They were super-influential. And they helped us get into the restaurant scene in Philly and start meeting chefs. If it weren’t for them, it would’ve taken us a lot longer to get up and running.
Do you have a science background, or how did you get into farming this way?
Through mushrooms, really. We just started growing them at home. Just occasionally, in our row house in Philly, just for friends.
What kinds did you start with?
Oysters and Shiitake. When we expand, that’ll include a lot more: Maiitake, Lion’s Mane, Pioppino. But there are so many huge mushroom farms down in Kennett Square, which is about 40 miles south of us. That’s actually considered the mushroom capital of the world. I think 60-70% of all the mushrooms produced in the country come from this one town. That’s why we were on the fence forever, we were like, “Do we really wanna start an independent mushroom farm 40 miles from the biggest corporate mushroom center in the world?” But the more we looked into it, it turned out, as you can assume, those huge farms go through big distributors, the stuff sits in warehouses, and by the time it gets into the hands of chefs, it’s wilted. So we decided to focus on certain varieties that they don’t necessarily grow that much, and deal directly with chefs, and people. We try to harvest the day of delivery or the day before delivery, so by the time they’re in your hands you can’t get them any fresher. And they’re super perishable, they don’t have really a great shelf life anyway. We’ve been able to find a niche of people who really wanna deal with a smaller scale farmer. And it’s advantageous being that close to Philly, too, there are so many great restaurants in Philly. And everybody’s on the whole “eat local” vibe, so… We’re going to start doing farmers’ markets, which will be cool. It’s nice to deal with chefs, but I’m really excited to do the farmers’ market thing for the social aspect, meeting people, talking about what we’re doing, getting excited about it. Meeting other purveyors and other farmers there, too.
What staple products do you get that are grown locally?
We trade mushrooms for eggs—we have friends who have chickens. And our friends grow microgreens so they always provide us with fresh salad greens, which is great. There’s organic beef right down the road, really great goat cheese, and dairy, kind of all over here. Chester County has a pretty good history of farming. But it also seems like there’s a turnover happening where there’s a lot of younger people out here. There’s a 450-acre farm that’s been in the same family for years, and this old lady who just died recently set up a trust, and specifically she wanted to create an organic farming community on the land, so they want to have multiple farmers there. Our friends are the first people there so for the first year they’re gonna live in this ancient farmhouse from, I dunno, 1700? And they’re setting up their greenhouse. And if everything goes well, then they’ll have the option of building their own house there, from scratch, on the land. Which is great, because most farms out here are getting subdivided into housing developments, so, I mean, it was pretty awesome of this lady to have the foresight.
Do you think there would be a way to grow on a large scale and still have the same heart go into it?
That’s what we’ll have to deal with. I know a lot of people appreciate what we’ve been able to do so far. It’s a small, family-run place, very intentional, very delicate—especially the varieties we’re growing, they have this inherent delicate quality to them. You can tell when you touch them that they’re very delicate, and that’s how we are with them—everything we grow, we touch. So, how do you try to maintain that by still growing the business with an employee or two? It’s something that we’re going to have to figure out. But I think the intention will still be there, from us at least, and hopefully the people that we hire will have some of that or will learn from us.
Where in nature would the kinds of mushrooms that you grow normally grow?
Decomposing hardwoods. One of the varieties that we grow I cloned from a wild one that we found in the woods.
How does your process work?
I get this wheat straw from a farmer down the road. It goes into this shredder that chops it up into really fine little pieces. It has to get pasteurized in hot water which basically kills off a lot of competing microbes and gives the fungi a window of opportunity to get in there and colonize. Then it goes in these big baskets and gets heated up and sits in there for like an hour, then it gets drained and thrown out on these tables where it cools. And then all this gets mixed together, the straw and spawn, and that gets stuffed into these plastic bags, which basically is supposed to simulate a log in nature. And that’s why we shred the straw, so we can really pack it down as tight and dense as possible. Because it would grow on wood naturally, which would be a lot denser than the straw would be. And that’s pretty much it. You can add different kinds of supplements, natural and synthetic, which will boost your yield, but the oyster mushrooms do really well on just plain straw. They’ll incubate for about 10-14 days while the mycelium completely colonizes the bag. And then we’ll introduce it into fruiting conditions, which would be higher humidity and more fresh air. That stimulates it to start fruiting. So that will be around a week and then we’ll harvest and then it’ll rest again and grow a little more then we’ll harvest a second time. And usually we get around three, or sometimes four harvests per bag. So it’s a couple months beginning to end.
What kinds of mushrooms would be used medicinally that you grow here?
We consider just about everything we do to be medicinal. Like the oysters have this compound called lovastatin, which is the basis of the statin-type drugs which are overprescribed now for reducing cholesterol, the oyster mushrooms contain the natural version of it. And the oysters and the Shiitake both have anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties, so, for me, there’s a lot of overlap. It can be considered a culinary mushroom, but just about every one has medicinal properties too. Once we get bigger we’ll start growing Reishi, which in the East is known as the “mushroom of immortality,” and that has anti-tumor, anti-cancer properties, anti-fungal…they’re still learning. The amount of research we’ve done in the West compared to what they’ve done in the East is miniscule. Lion’s Mane, which we’re going to start growing, has recently been proven to remake neural connections, and neural pathways, so they’re looking into possibly prescribing that for Alzheimer’s patients, or even pre-Alzheimer’s and MS. So, yeah, I consider every mushroom to be medicinal.
What kind of health effects have you seen personally since eating more of them?
It’s hard to know what might be the increased consumption of mushrooms and what might just be being out here—breathing fresh air, working long hard days, sleeping like a rock at night, and getting up and doing it again. (laughs) So it’s hard to discern what might be one thing and what might be the other thing. It’s kind of a combination of everything. We’ve never worked harder in our lives. But I could say we’ve also never had as much energy, either. Working 12-14 hour days…
And doing something you love, and feel close to…
And hopefully working towards something that will be a sustainable business in the long run, and benefit the community out here, and the human community at large.
How do you feel your life has changed since moving out here?
We have no social life anymore. (laughs) But that’s part of it. Your social life kind of becomes everything around here. We’re close enough to Philly that maybe once or twice a year we can make it in to see a show or something. So it’s kind of slowed down and sped up at the same time. ‘Cause we’re so much busier now than we ever were.
And has your music changed?
Yeah, it’s mostly acoustic. (laughs)
Oyster Mushroom Recipes
by Heather McMonnies-Fetter
Oyster Mushroom Soup
Hacho red miso paste
5 lbs Silver oyster mushrooms
Whole wheat udon
Slice mushroom caps and add to stock pot, add enough water to cover, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add 3-4 tablespoons of miso paste. Add the rest of ingredients and bring back to a boil. When boiling, add udon and cook for 4-6 minutes. Immediately serve or chill to keep udon from over cooking.
Oyster Mushroom Veggie Burgers
5lbs golden & silver oyster mushrooms
Fresh thyme, rosemary, tarragon
Salt & pepper to taste
Cook 2-3 cups of quinoa. Cut mushroom caps and lightly pulse in food processor. Add to a hot buttered skillet and sauté with minced herbs and white wine, being careful not to add too much liquid. Transfer to mixing bowl. Add mushroom mixture to quinoa and mix in bread crumbs ‘til mixture is crumbly. Whisk and add eggs to bind. Butter a few square baking tins or large casserole dishes and flatten mixture to about a 1/4 inch thickness in each. Bake at 350 for about an hour. Let cool and slice into squares or use round cookie cutters to make ‘burgers.’