A Happy Harvest
A lifelong passion for mushrooms inspires Memphis native and now Hattiesburg biologist to pursue a different
kind of farming.
When dawn crept across the sky, it sent a shaft of light onto a beautiful white ball. Using binoculars from his deer stand, Dr. Brian Mitchell spotted a hunter’s prey, a lion sitting just below him. No shots were fired as he climbed down to use his knife to scoop up the magnificent Lion’s Mane mushroom. For his 14-year-old son, the hunt was unsuccessful. For Mitchell, it was the start of a new and tasty product for Happy Valley Mushrooms, LLC.
“I wild harvested and cloned it, just like I have with most of our mushroom products. Many of our mushrooms grew within 100 feet of where we now produce them,” said Mitchell, age 46, founder and owner of the company.
Mitchell first came to Happy Valley Farm in 2000, when he started his forestry-based Ph.D. program at the University of Southern Mississippi. Rather than live in campus housing, the family of four moved into an old, vacant house on the farm, right outside of Hattiesburg.
The farm had been used since 1969 as a horse trial venue by his mother-in-law, but no one had lived there in decades. When she retired and stopped the equine competitions, Mitchell spotted an opportunity to satisfy his lifelong passion for mushrooms. He began with a few logs seeded with shitake mushrooms. A forester by trade, logs were easy to come by for this woodsman of both experience and education.
His interest in mushrooms dated back to childhood when Mitchell’s mother would dip out a portion of spaghetti and toss in mushrooms just for him. Those little button mushrooms from the grocery store whetted his fungi appetite. On weekend hunting trips to Arkansas’ Cache River, Mitchell bagged wild mushrooms to complement the fish and venison captured by others.
“My father was an avid outdoorsman and we went hunting and fishing every weekend, whether we wanted to or not,” joked this Memphis native. “When we were out in the swamp, I was paying attention to chanterelle and oyster mushrooms. I would collect them and my dad would cook them up.”
It was the flavor of the mushrooms that attracted him to growing them. Healthy and nutritious, Mitchell points out that mushrooms must be cooked to release the nutrients. Their cell walls are made of chitin, a material similar to a crab’s shell. Cooking breaks down the chitin to release nutrients, and medicinal values. According to Mitchell, Lion’s Mane mushrooms contain some of the only natural compounds known to repair neurons, earning them a lot of attention in research seeking treatment of dementia, Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury.
Today, he grows seven varieties of mushrooms: Shiitake, Maitake, Grey oyster, Blue oyster, Common tree oyster, King trumpet and Lion’s Mane. All of them offer gourmet taste and most add in medicinal properties.
A career forest biologist, who works in a laboratory, not a forest, Mitchell is meticulous about the products he grows. Understanding the life cycle of each mushroom is critical to his success. He works in a converted bedroom from the old farmhouse that is now a sterile laboratory.
First, he takes clean tissue samples from the inside of a mushroom. He grows the tissue samples out on a sterile growth medium in petri dishes. Once he’s sure the tissue samples are viable and not contaminated, he transfers mycelium (the vegetative portion of the mushroom similar to plant roots that are normally hidden from view underground) from the petri dishes to sterilized grain to create mushroom spawn. Once fully colonized, the spawn is transferred to sterilized bulk substrate blocks made from an organic blend of locally sourced sawdust enriched with soybean hulls and rice bran. When the substrate blocks are ready (different mushrooms have different indicators), they are moved into the fruiting chamber, a type of greenhouse mimicking the growing conditions of that particular mushroom. Sometimes a certain amount of stress is introduced to help stimulate fruiting.
“A lot of things reproduce when they think they are going to die. If a pecan tree is stuck by lightning, you get a lot of pecans,” he explains.
The results are a delicate fruit that he harvests by hand and delivers to local Hattiesburg restaurants. The mushrooms arrive in the chef’s kitchen having been touched only once. At the Purple Parrot, the chef makes a faux crabmeat ravioli with Lion’s Mane mushrooms, which Mitchell says tastes like crab or lobster. Another restaurant, Pier 98, serves dishes with his mushrooms year-round. Over in Laurel, Mississippi, Slowboat Brewing Company transforms Happy Valley blue oysters into a mushroom-infused beer named Psychic Channel Blues.
“It’s cool seeing my mushrooms served in my hometown. A big part of selling mushrooms in Mississippi’s Pine Belt is education. People in bigger cities seem to be more familiar with the flavor profile of mushrooms,” he said.
While he does not give farm tours, Mitchell has sold growing kits nationwide. He is considering starting a series of workshops at the farm. He enjoys helping people grow their own mushrooms in a sterile environment via log cultivation. Meanwhile, he still works full time for the State of Mississippi as a forest biologist. It is his dream to grow mushrooms full time. However, a product that cannot be shipped makes it more difficult to be successful when serving a smaller market.
He continues to build his buyers with high quality mushrooms and great recipes he has developed on his own. According to Mitchell, the work combines his two favorite activities: science and cooking, add in a few walks in the woods searching for new and tastier variety, and you have a Happy Valley farmer.
Eating Wild Mushrooms
“Don’t do it without absolute positive identification by an expert. The risks are too great. You might end up with a delicious meal, you might experience the world from an entirely new perspective, or you might suffer complete renal failure and die.” Brian Mitchell
Recipe for Lion’s Mane Mushroom Pasta
1 pound of fresh, organic lion’s mane mushrooms from Happy Valley Mushrooms.
One cup of heavy whipping cream
A dash of black pepper
One tablespoon of butter
Slice the mushrooms into one-inch thick pieces. Very lightly coat an iron skillet with olive oil, or use a dry non-stick skillet. Brown the mushrooms over medium heat, approimately seven minutes on each side. Mushrooms absorb quickly, so use as little oil as possible to retain the natural flavor. Roast until most of the water has cooked out. Add in the pepper and cream. Stir frequently until thickened. Add butter and mix until creamy.
Serve over pasta or grilled chicken.Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.