From the Bottom Up
Shady Oaks Organics’ Basement Beginnings
by Martina Hemm
Photographs by Katie Noble
A lot of college kids experiment with mushrooms in their basements, but few make it into a career. Devin Stehlin and Nate Seyler are. Behind a rattling garage door in Middleton, Massachusetts, they run Shady Oaks Organics. For them a mushroom trip means a weekly delivery to Menton, the new Barbara Lynch restaurant in Boston. Over the past six months the childhood friends have been cultivating a variety of organic Oyster mushrooms in their basement.
“We took them to a few restaurants and the owners and chefs went crazy about them,” says Nate. That’s certainly not what the recent JamesMadison University graduate had expected when he came home to find bags of mushrooms dangling from his best friend’s cellar ceiling. “He’s a mad scientist,” says Nate of his partner. “It’s magnificent what he can do.”
Devin, an avid hiker, began foraging for wild mushrooms on his trips and soon realized that the high-end restaurants he worked in loved using them but were frustrated by the inconsistent supply. Book by book, he began to teach himself the process of cultivating Oyster mushrooms. By the time Nate moved back to his hometown of Newburyport, after graduating, Devin already had decorated his quarters with a lush fungal flora. And even though Nate had never even heard of Oyster mushrooms before, he never doubted supporting his friend’s “brain baby.” Nate reflects, “He’s my best friend and he is extremely passionate about this project.” Of course it does not hurt that no one in the area was doing anything like them, a fact the business major was fast to catch on to.
Only a week after production started, orders from the Barbara Lynch group had them producing at full speed. “We’ve been trying to keep up with the business as it grows,” explained Nate standing in their oneroom production facilities. Soon they will be signing the lease for a larger space in Newburyport they hope to divide into rooms specialized for each stage in the cultivation of their mushrooms. But the boys aren’t letting demand distract them from what matters most: “We just want to produce the best product. Of course we would love to blow up, but then we would lose what makes this product so great.” From the beginning they agreed that an organic cultivating process was key to guaranteeing quality and keeping a clear conscience. “We want to do more good than bad, that’s something we think about every single day.”
The mushrooms grow in bags that have been filled with inoculated straw, punctured with arrowheads to allow airflow for growth and then hung from the ceiling. They never come in contact with anything that might compromise their organic status. “We didn’t really start with any bad habits,” says Nate about their cultivation method. “Fly papers—that’s as far as we go.”
The process is a science in terms of preparing and packing the bags for cultivation, something Nate accredits entirely to the genius and passion of his partner, Devin, who is constantly in search of new methods.“Every day Devin calls me excited about new production methods,” he laughs. “What’s most pleasing to me is to see the final product, watching the whole process from primordial to mature fruit bodies is amazing.” Together the two focus on producing varietals of Oyster mushrooms, each high in quality, but with subtle yet distinct differences.
Four of their six types of Oyster mushrooms bloom in the cultivation room the day I visit Shady Oaks. Pink, golden, gray, spooky whites—a psychedelic explosion of mushrooms fights against the drab interior. The delicate Pink Oyster mushrooms appear out of place in the concreteMiddleton basement, seeming instead to belong in a Versailles boudoir among matching cushions and velvet hangings. The meaty texture is extremely flavorful and titillates the nose with a slightly seafood scent.
Equally feminine, the Italian Oyster mushroom blooms in the shape of a trumpet flower.The most prolific fruiters Grey Dove and PoHu—close cousins respectively from North America and the Far East—glow like ethereal beings in the shadows of the room. Unlike their greywhite color, their taste is much deeper, ranging from nutty to chocolate. In the other corner of the room, softball-sized clusters of slightly citrus-flavored Goldens sprout from inoculation bags. “You will never find these types of Oyster mushrooms around here [in the wild],” says Nate on the differences between Shady Oak’s cultivated mushrooms versus foraged varieties. “Never would I say that foraged mushrooms don’t taste as good, but I can say that our product is way more consistent,” he clarifies.
The aesthetics of the mushrooms was a huge help for the team when they started at local farmers’ markets. Drawn by the colorful lure, patrons who knew nothing about Oyster mushrooms would stop by the Shady Oaks stand to hear the young entrepreneurs talk about the culinary properties of their mushrooms. “Even if we don’t have products we’ll go to the farmers markets and talk about mushrooms for three hours because people are interested,” beams Nate. Aside from selling their product the duo is excited to introduce the Northeast to a product that is all over the world but underrepresented in their area. “We are so passionate about it and we want our company to be a productive member of society.” Thinking about the greater Boston area, the Shady Oaks boys would love to open an urban farming facility in the future, believing that the best organic products can be grown anywhere. “A space nobody else is interested in is probably great for growing mushrooms.”
They better set those plans in to action sooner than later. As it stands, the Barbara Lynch Group will be taking 50 pounds of mushrooms per week, stretching Shady Oaks’ productivity to its current limit. By the time this article is published their Oyster mushrooms will be on the menus at Menton as well as No. 9 Park. They are also looking to supply restaurants Alchemy Bistro and Fifteen Walnut in Gloucester—that is, if they can keep up with the demand, “Most everything we grow is already spoken for.” But Devin and Nate are not only interested in bringing their product to local restaurants. “We help people who want them have them,” says Nate. “We’ve gone as far as making little rendezvous with people to give them a pound of mushrooms.” They also try to be as reachable to the public as possible through their website, email and calls.
Moving from personal mushroom runs to expanded production might be a lot to take on straight out of college, but don’t worry about these guys. “We really haven’t seen any resistance from people looking down their nose at two broke college kids,” Nate says.
Martina Hemm is a photographer and writer who drinks coffee by the pot and wine by the glass (or two). She has been published in international magazines and most recently her recipes have appeared in Foodies of the World. In her downtime she is a student at Boston University; the rest of the year you can catch her cruising the continents in search of local foods worldwide. Read about her culinary love affairs at www.theforeignkitchen.com .