This week in Meet Your Farmers, it's back out to the East End of Long Island where David Falkowski, better known to Hamptons locals as "Mushroom Dave," is the owner and operator of Open Minded Organics.
A Bridgehampton native, Falkowski started growing, foraging, and selling mushrooms back in 2003. He has since built a loyal following who seek out his farm fresh fungi at farmers' markets and restaurants throughout the Hamptons.
His mushrooms have even received praise from a member of the highest echelon of Hamptons foodies, Ina Garten. Falkowski was featured in an episode of Barefoot Contessa when his oyster mushrooms took center stage in the Contessa's lasagna.
The quality of his produce, not to mention his genial personality, has made Dave somewhat of a local celebrity in the farmer's market community in the Hamptons. You can find Dave and many other pioneering small farmers at the Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, and Southampton farmers' markets, or at his farm stand in Bridgehampton.
Without further ado, let's get to know Mushroom Dave a little better.
How did you get started into this? In 2003 I got my mushroom cultivation certification from Paul Stamets out in Washington. I came back, built a laboratory and a 12 feet by 20 feet greenhouse in the backyard. We grew maybe 50 pounds a week, selling to restaurants in the area.
I basically started out knocking on backdoors in restaurants, showing chefs that this is a very different product than what you'll get from a wholesaler. Very often I pick and deliver the same day, my varieties are more aesthetically pleasing, and because the freshness they have a better flavor and holding life.
Why mushrooms? I realized that mushrooms are a key component in the cycling of organic matter. Through mushroom cultivation not only do you create humus, or organically rich soil, the basis of soil, but also, as a bonus, we create awesome healing healthy food and powerful medicinals.
How much has your farm grown since you started? Now we peak out at 300 pounds a week out of 2,100 square feet. It's pretty bio-intensive as far as agriculture goes. Like many other people, we've also diversified on the farm. Last year we brought on chickens and this year we're really scaling up our vegetable plot.
Take us through the growing process. The spawn, the cultured tissue in the mushrooms, is grown out on an organic rye grain in the laboratory. In essence, the spawn is the seed. We take straw (wheat straw this year), we chop it, silk it, and pasteurize it. We introduce the spawn to the straw, it gets mixed and put into columns. They almost look like skinny punching bags."
What kind of varieties do you grow? We regularly cultivate the blue oyster mushrooms, and also have a yellow oyster, a white oyster, and a shiitake. The other wild ones aren't really conducive to cultivation. Things like chanterelles, chicken-of-the-woods, and sheeps head mushrooms are wild exclusively. If we happen to come across those on a foraging hike we'll sell those as well.
What else are you looking for on your foraging hikes? Blackberry bushes. We hike mostly on public land. It's a really nice thing for a farmer to do—to let nature cultivate on its own and just go out and collect.
What are the unique challenges you face growing mushrooms, and doing it on Long Island? Probably one of the biggest challenges out here is just the seasonality in the area. It's nice to have the winter and the break but at the same time when you have the capital investment with your equipment, it's nice to run that for the longest period possible.
A few years ago I had really big issues with fungus gnats, which are like fruit flies basically. That almost shut us down, but I developed an IPM program to manage them. And when I say IPM I don't mean chemicals.
What do you mean? It basically starts with cleanliness and exclusion. We grow in what's called column cultures for the oysters. We also irrigate the growing beds regularly, which tends to kill adults and larvae.
The most important thing we did is start using sticky card traps with UV lights as an attractant. That totally changed everything. We haven't lost a column to fruit flies in the last two years.
How did you wind up on Barefoot Contessa and what was that like? Ina Garten—how did I wind up on that one? They contacted me, I think maybe one of her cooks might have seen my product at a restaurant. She came down to the farm, I got to see her studio house where they film the show in East Hampton. They were very pleasant to work with.
Did you get to eat the meal she made? I did not. I didn't get to taste that lasagna.
Any advice for young aspiring farmers? There are great internship programs and organizations like WWOOF that help place people on farms. I would definitely say do a year or two on a farm and once you have enough experience, go out and try it own your own.
The other option is the school of hard knocks, which is what I did. I didn't have the opportunity to intern on a mushroom farm—there's not very many of those positions available compared to conventional farms. Start small so when you make mistakes you can limit the amount of damage you cause economically.
The future of good food? It would be nice to have food producers be able to run their coolers, their greenhouses, their processing areas with wind and solar to make sure that food will always be available. That creates a more secure food supply. The fire department and other places like that should have similar programs. We need to preserve these important institutions in potential times of crisis.
About the interviewer: Carson Poole calls the Finger Lakes home but is living in New York City trying hard to maintain his farm boy credibility. His first job, at age 10, was in roadside corn sales. He is known to enjoy fresh local food and handcrafted spirits and liqueurs.