INDIAN RIVER SHORES — Stepping into Mike Johnson’s backyard grow house is like stumbling onto a woodland fairy tale.
There in the cool shade of his Indian River Shores backyard, sitting in rows on musty shelves, are dozens of mulch bricks sprouting tiny Shiitake mushrooms like earthy pearls on pillbox hats.
Johnson is the gnome of this messy milliner’s shop and the various outbuildings nearby, where he works his alchemy late into the night.
In another shed, where the air, smelling faintly of runny camembert, is purified by a roaring machine, petri-dishes glow with a white curd-like moss of spore growing over the agar. Johnson breaks up the crusty formation and drops it into jars of rye berries to nourish the fungus as it grows.
A blender on the counter purees the growth into a milkshake of mushrooms- to-be. Johnson uses the spore-filled slurry to inoculate whatever medium the species of mushroom prefers.
“Shiitakes love wood, pioppino love wood, oysters love straw,” he explains.
Nearby, a steel drum filled with water is heated with a gas flame to just the right temperature to pasteurize clumps of hay, killing off any errant germs while leaving nutrients to feed his fungal crop. Lifting the steaming clumps from his makeshift cauldron, he allows the hay to cool, then drops it into clear plastic bags, tossing in the mushroom spores, oysters this time.
“I was up until two in the morning pasteurizing and bagging straw,” says Johnson.
Johnson, 54, is a respiratory therapist who moonlights with a pressure cleaning business.
Mushrooms have been a passion since 1986, when he worked as a picker for a mushroom grower. He moved to Vero Beach in 1992, where he met his wife, Ginger.
He started growing mushrooms here in 2003, when he read about a small grower in Fellsmere and realized he had the perfect medium for shiitakes right in his own yard.
“I had 200 logs stacked there, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do this again?'”
The log technique is an old one, involving drilling holes in the wood and pounding in dowels to inoculate it with spore. Within a few weeks, he had more mushrooms than he knew what to do with.
He sautéed, he dehydrated, he gave them away.
Finally, thinking he could sell them, he took a batch to local chef and restaurateur Ian Greenwood.
“He loved them,” says Johnson. “You can’t get shiitakes this fresh anywhere around here.”
Just as interest was building, a disease hit his logs, deteriorating them and stripping off the bark. //He solved that issue, but others sprang up.
“I had a hard time keeping the logs disease free.”
Then the hurricanes hit in 2004. It wasn’t until last year that he finally got back into growing.
“My goal is to get between 200 and 400 pounds in less than two months,” he says.
So far his biggest supporters have been chefs: Windsor’s Brian Jones, Orchid Island’s Jeff McKinney, and Chelsea’s Gourmet Market’s Patrick Festa.
Windsor has invited him to sell his wares at their new Wednesday afternoon farmers market.
“The mushrooms people are using are either dehydrated, or they’re coming from Pennsylvania, which right away has to be a five-day transport time,” he says. “I pick my shiitakes so fresh the margins still turn down.”
He is also experimenting the Asian paddy straw mushroom, the third most commonly eaten mushroom in the world (after domestic mushroom and shiitakes), though not well known in the United States.
Though reports say attempts to grow the paddy straw mushroom in the southern U.S. have so far been unsuccessful, Johnson is convinced they would adapt perfectly to Florida’s warm, humid climate.