Why We Do What We Do: Why Jared Grows Mushrooms

This story is part of our series featuring Action Takers from our May 2012 Transition Challenge, and why they do what they do! (You can read Molly's introductory blog post here and links to more stories below.)by Molly Rose-Williams


Growing mushrooms isn’t first on most people’s transition to-do list, but Jared Urchek of Boulder, Colorado, is all about fungi.

As part of the May Transition Challenge, Jared has converted a two-car garage into a fully-capable gourmet mushroom laboratory and grow house, complete with an indoor tent, ventilation system, and humidifier. But these mushrooms aren’t just for eating; Jared is also hoping to use them in mycoremediation projects around the area—that is, using mushrooms to detoxify contaminated sites using mushroom mycelium to decompose toxic waste.

So why mushrooms?
Well, it turns out these little fungi are really cool.

On the most basic level, mushrooms serve an incredibly important role in natural ecosystems, working as decomposers, breaking down waste and transforming the products into food.

Mushrooms have a highly sophisticated root structure, also called mycelial structure, that Jared likens to the internet; the walls of mycelium are only a single-cell thick, and almost infinitely branched, so that a mushroom’s root body essentially acts as an extremely efficient information sharing network. Glance at what’s underneath a mushroom, and it will look kind of like an “infinitely connected cotton ball,” says Jared.

As a mushroom’s root system moves through the soil, the tips find new substances and put out enzymes and acids to find out which chemical breaks the substance down most efficiently. It then sends this information back to the rest of itself, which can produce more of whatever enzyme or acid works best, and ultimately break the waste down.

Essentially, the root structure of the mushroom acts as an “external ‘stomach-brain’.” Jared says he finds this to be kind of a beautiful metaphor; “it senses the waste, digests it, and then incorporates it into itself…kind of amazing.”

In a mycoremediation project, mushrooms are utilized for their decomposition capabilities to detoxify contaminated soil, ideal for areas polluted by pesticides, heavy metals, or contaminated by oil slicks. Right now, Jared has his eyes on a couple different sites around Boulder and is in dialogue with farmers around the region. He hopes to try out some mycoremediation projects as soon as the mushrooms are ready.

Jared was first drawn to mushrooms and introduced to their potential use in mycoremediation after taking a permaculture class while studying in Naropa University. But this interest didn’t immediately translate into action. As Jared points out, there’s a real difference between having an idea, or a guiding principle, and actually grounding that idea in a project.

For Jared, ideas and guiding principles aren’t the problem: growing up in rural Ohio, Jared ate “vegetables from the yard and eggs from people down the street.” He says living off the land is kind of “in [his] bloodline.” Further, Jared is incredibly conscious of the sociopolitical implications of action and nonaction. In this way, taking action works as a grounding principle for him, and he finds comfort in knowing he’s “doing the best [he] can.”

But regardless of the inspiration and motivations behind his actions, he still says it wasn’t easy to get to where he is now. There was never any ‘aha’ moment, no easily identifiable decision to “take action.” Instead, it’s a decision he makes every day when he decides to keep on tending to his mushrooms.

“I’ve been growing mushrooms, or, I should say ‘experimenting’” he adds with a laugh, “for about five years now. At first it felt really overwhelming, and I often felt like it was stupid. I’d have to fight with myself. Honestly, even now I’m not sure why I chose to keep doing it,” he says. But we’re glad he has, because these daily decisions mean that as of May, he has “eked out” 152 square feet’s worth of pure, fungal Transition.

Image credits:
top left: Frankenstoen via Creative Commons, bottom right: Scott Darby via Creative Commons


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