Olson Kundig Architects' "Mushroom Farm," a Pioneer Square storefront that's been deputized for an urban agriculture experiment, is supposed to foster grand questions about community, sustainability and design. But mushroom farmer Alex Winstead, who's supervising the operation, says many project participants have voiced more prosaic concerns.
"Everyone's wondering if the mushrooms will give them an espresso buzz," Winstead says of the 200 pounds of oyster mushrooms now forming in a substrate of discarded coffee grounds. "I don't think so. Sorry, but no."
The Mushroom Farm is the latest installation to occupy a street-level gallery five floors below Olson Kundig's offices. Conceived in collaboration with CityLab7, the farm is daily collecting discarded coffee grounds from Caffè Umbria, Zeitgeist and Starbucks for Winstead to inculcate with mushroom spores. Winstead returns ready-to-sprout packages to the farm, where they're stored in a warmed growing tent that looks like the top of a prairie schooner.
"In the wild, these mushrooms would be found on fallen alder trees, but they will grow on any agricultural byproduct," Winstead says, pointing out that coffee husks are commonly used as mushroom beds in coffee-growing regions.
At Winstead's Cascadia Mushrooms in Bellingham, the state's only certified organic mushroom farm, mushrooms grow in sawdust, although he previously raised mushrooms in straw. He's now experimenting with shitakes to learn whether they'll also thrive in coffee grounds.
The molecular breakdown necessitated for mushroom growth eliminates any traces of terroir, so it's almost impossible for an eater to tell whether a mushroom was grown in coffee grounds. "Some people claim they can taste the difference," Winstead says skeptically.
But if coffee grounds don't have aesthetic advantages over other types of mushroom beds, Winstead says the environmental benefits are clear. Rather than enlarge a garden's carbon footprint by importing materials, the mushroom project is "a way to collect from the urban core."
"It's a way to extract a tasty product from a waste product to feed people," Winstead says.
After the mushrooms are harvested, the vestiges of the coffee grounds will be a rich compost for community gardens, he adds.
"It's a really sweet idea because there are a whole bunch of tiers to it," Winstead says.
If the project works - there's no guarantee of success, although Winstead is confident the mushrooms will grow - Olson Kundig's Gabriela Frank envisions coffeehouses creating their own little indoor mushroom patches, perhaps raising toppings for a neighboring pizzeria's pies. "All they have to do is find a place to grow," she says.
Winstead likes the system of a farmer salvaging seemingly worthless urban detritus to transform into mushroom breeding grounds. He's now experimenting with phone books as another potential substrate. "Phone books are just wood," he reasons.
The Mushroom Farm will remain at 406 Occidental Avenue through mid-March. Winstead will be at the farm this Thursday from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. to harvest the first mushroom crop; the public's welcome to help. For urban farmers who can't make the Mar. 1 session, the farm also hosts tours and brown bag lunches from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Tuesday-Friday.
Frank says the midday events have been very well-attended.
"We were bouncing around the idea of growing lettuce on rooftops, but people just get excited about mushrooms," she says. "Mushrooms are strange and weird and cool. We realized they had a little bit more capital than lettuce."