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.