Mushrooms in the Desert
By Lesley S. King
Among the parched hills above the Rio Grande north of Santa Fe, Danny and Maria Rhodes grow one of nature’s more peculiar wonders: the mushroom. It’s an odd denizen of the desert, indeed, but their passion for the delicate fungi has helped them build, since 2000, a thriving business called Desert Fungi and its accompanying Lady Bug Fields. But their story is not without hardship. In fact, last spring the forces of nature nearly snatched the farm from them.
The endeavor started years ago, when Danny was a child in southern California. Already at age five, he had a passion for the chemistry of cooking. Back then, he would make boxed brownies and muffins and sell them on a neighborhood street corner. Years later, he took that entrepreneurial passion to culinary school in Portland, Oregon. It was there in the humidity of the Pacific Northwest that his attention turned to mushrooms. He enjoyed the flavor, but was especially fascinated by the growing process.
An internship at Santa Fe’s Coyote Café brought him to New Mexico, where he met and married Maria. She grew up in the village of Chimayo, her ancestors precursors to today’s vendors at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. “My great-great grandfather used to bring the village’s weavings and produce—chile and tomatoes, whatever they grew—to Santa Fe to sell,” she says. “Back then everyone subsisted on what they made with their hands and grew.”
Those roots took Danny and Maria north to El Guique. And thus they began playing with the process of taking a mushroom culture, putting it into a Petri dish and seeing it spawn. “It’s so amazing,” Danny says. Once the process is in motion, he breaks up the colony and adds the spawns to oak sawdust logs. Misting them frequently creates the necessary humid environment for them to grow.
Within about four weeks the mushrooms start popping out of the sawdust logs. “Surprisingly, it’s not so much the region’s dryness as the extreme heat and cold that present problems for the mushrooms,” Danny says. In order to temper the extremes, he’s moved the fungi into a greenhouse. This has also alleviated problems he’s had with gnats and mushroom beetles.
The outcome is worth the effort and worry, he says. Not only are mushrooms flavorful, but they also have numerous health benefits. “They’re good for your cholesterol, have lots of protein and boost the immune system,” he says. “It’s slowly being proven that mushrooms are really important in this world. They’re primarily beneficial for their antimicrobial qualities. They have to produce the chemicals to survive in the wild, especially when they live in often-rotting debris.”
Desert Fungi mainly grows oyster mushrooms. But they also raise wine cap, shitakes and lion’s mane. “The oysters are one of the easier ones to grow and they’re quite versatile,” Danny says. “The shitakes are very flavorful, though not easy to grow. And the lion’s mane are quite mild.” At Danny and Maria’s Farmers’ Market booth, shoppers fill baskets with the fungi and other delectables as well, such as sweet onions, kale, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes and Chinese cucumbers, grown in fields stretching below the mushroom beds.
These carefully tended crops raised under the name Lad Bug Fields provide a stable base for Danny and Maria in case any failures occur with the mushrooms. But in 2007, one late-spring day, a hail storm blew through El Guique. “It was one of those freak storms,” says Maria. “It just hailed within a couple miles radius. We came home to six to eight inches of it on the ground.” She and Danny ran across a bridge over the acequia to the fields. “It looked like an atom bomb had hit,” she says. Though the storm didn’t harm the mushroom crop, the tomato plants were nothing but “sticks,” and the greens had what looked like “bullet holes” in them.
This occurred just weeks after Maria had given birth to their first child, a boy named Kiran, so Maria wasn’t in a position to help put the farm back together. But the farming community stepped in. Led by Danny and Maria’s friend Nao Sadewic, people donated time and money to help them replant. “It was touching,” says Maria with a catch in her throat. “A little overwhelming even.”
The experience challenged her and Danny to reevaluate their goals. They had been very focused on their farming. “We realized we needed to round out our lives,” Maria says. “We love to grow food; we always will. But we’re now taking time to pursue our other passions and interests.” For her that means focusing on raising Kiran, but she’s also learning to make micaceous pottery. Meanwhile, Danny, “a real Renaissance man,” as Maria calls him, is doing some woodworking. The new endeavors will dovetail with the farming, which takes place most intensely for nine months of the year.
For the distant future, they hope to buy their own land, where they can focus more on perennials such as fruit trees and asparagus. As well, they’d like to incorporate a permaculture system into their farming. And, of course, the mushrooms will keep popping up. “Farming teaches you so much about life,” Maria says. “Change is constant—it’s definitely not boring. Danny, especially, thrives on that.”