Stockbridge Grad Willie Crosby Grows a New Business

By Cori Urban | Special to The Republican  on June 08, 2016

 

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Willie Crosby teaches a class on growing mushrooms for the UMass Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture

HADLEY –Twenty-five year old William R. “Willie” Crosby grew up in a family of golfers in Boxboro, so it made sense that he went to school to study turf management at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in plant soil science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2012, and he completed two internships at golf courses.

But he wasn’t satisfied with the work.

“I didn’t feel satisfied with the end result – a place for people to go and hit a ball around,” he said. “I want the end product (of what I do) to be something I’m really proud of and exciting to offer to my community.”

So, he changed courses and got involved in vegetable farming. Today, he is in the business of growing mushrooms.

“I didn’t see a huge opportunity to start a business in vegetable farming, so I started looking at mushrooms,” he said, noting that they are a medicinal food source and grow on waste products from other industries like sawdust or soybean hulls.

He learned how to grow mushrooms at a workshop in the state of Washington and during an internship in Nevada. He continues to learn “by trial and error,” he says, as well as from other farmers, buyers and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

Founder and owner of Fungi Ally in Hadley, Crosby began growing mushrooms in North Amherst in 2013 when he and a friend inoculated about 500 logs with shiitake mycelium.

fungiIn 2015 he moved the business to a 3,000-square-foot rented warehouse in Hadley where he and his two part-time employees harvest about 150 pounds of shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms a week.

The process there begins with a delivery of oak sawdust from Lashway Lumber in Williamsburg – about 20 yards every couple of months.

Working with about 200 gallons of sawdust at a time, Crosby mixes in wheat bran, sorghum and gypsum to act as a nitrogen supplement. The mixture is wet and put in special 18-by-8-by-6 inch plastic bags with filters and then steamed to kill bacteria and unwanted fungi.

A small amount of mushroom mycelium is put into each bag; they are then sealed and stored in the warehouse where it takes one to three months to colonize. Holes are then poked into the bags – or the sawdust blocks are removed completely from the plastic – and placed in the fruiting (growing) room for about 10 days until the mushrooms are harvested.

Crosby eats mushrooms every day; he likes them sautéed, roasted and dried as well as in soups, salads and pate.

Mushrooms are harvested daily at Fungi Ally, where they are packaged then distributed to two area food co-operatives, restaurants and distributors for the Worcester, New York City, Boston and Providence markets.

Mushroom sales total about $10,000 a month.

Fungi Ally received a $10,000 grant earlier this year from the state Department of Agricultural Resources‘ Matching Enterprise Grants for Agriculture Program that helps beginning farmers grow or improve their farm operations. Crosby used the grant to begin construction of a lab for the steaming and inoculating process and to grow spawn to provide to people to grow mushrooms at home.

Fungi Ally sells shiitake and lion’s mane mushroom growing kits for $20; they produce about two to three pounds of mushrooms over two three months.

Grant money also was used to build a second fruiting room. “It has given us the opportunity to increase production and begin looking at large customers buying 100 to 200 pounds of mushrooms each week,” he said.

Besides selling mushrooms and kits, Fungi Ally offers workshops about mushrooms and how to grow them at home.

“Mushrooms are really tasty. They are a fun, different food source and good source of protein,” Crosby said. “And they have medicinal benefits like boosting the immune system.”

As he looks to the future, he would like to add more mushroom varieties to his business and expand production of the shiitake mushrooms, which he said are popular.

“Providing food for the community I’m living in and seeing the people my work is literally feeding feels really, really good,” he said. “As decomposers, (mushrooms) transform dead material into basic nutrients for plants and animals to use. They are a link between death and life.”

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