Shiitake mushrooms tend to thrive on hardwood logs in damp, temperate climates, far from the penetrating heat of the Sonoran Desert. But if Barry Pryor has his way, the shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms that Tucson eateries serve will soon be grown much closer to home.
The University of Arizona professor has been working with students from his class “Mushrooms, Molds and Man” to cultivate edible fungi in a lab on campus. However, instead of breeding their crops on the oak and maple logs that normally play host to mushrooms, the team is using materials that are easier to come by in Baja Arizona—mesquite bean pods, coffee grounds, and old pizza boxes. The aim is two-fold: to reduce waste in Tucson landfills and become a source of local mushrooms.
“We’ve found that a variety of mushrooms can be grown on certain non-compostable materials,” explains Pryor. “These are materials that rot in compost piles so they generally end up in landfills and generate methane gases. Mushrooms colonize them and break the materials down to such an extent that they become compostable.”
The team started by growing pink oyster mushrooms, which, Pryor says, are among the most heat tolerant. After some initial successes, their ambitions, well, mushroomed.
To ramp up production and create the conditions in which less forgiving strains can survive, the professor and his students built “mushroom houses” with solar-powered evaporative cooling. “We’re harnessing something abundant in Tucson—sunlight—to create the moist and cool conditions that mushrooms need to grow.”
Pryor and his students are now harvesting mushrooms at three locations around town: the UA campus, the Tucson Village Farms, and the Campus Agricultural Center, and expect to scale up production in the coming year.
“We’ve already been approached by a number of restaurants that are interested in buying our mushrooms,” says Pryor. He and his team are ramping up production to make their mushrooms available on the shelves of grocery stores around town. He’s also making plans to donate a portion of his crop to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
Freshness is another advantage in local production, Pryor notes. “Mushrooms have a very short shelf life. You can really taste a difference in quality between one that’s grown locally and one that comes from 2,000 miles away.” But what about the taste? Does growing mushrooms on used pizza boxes rather than lush oak trees change their flavor? “I haven’t measured the organoleptic properties of mushrooms grown on different [materials], but I’ve tasted all of our mushrooms and they’re delicious.” ✜
Vanessa Barchfield is a freelance journalist and independent radio producer based in Tucson.