Love Thy Farmer: Pontchartrain Mushrooms

Love Thy Farmer: Pontchartrain Mushrooms
Photos by Tim Black
 A collision of concern and curiosity led Wade Watson, owner of Pontchartrain Mushrooms in Slidell, Louisiana, out of a restaurant kitchen and into a new life as a mushroom farmer. With three young children, the former chef was weary of missing birthday parties and other mundane moments due to his schedule. “I got tired of not being there for things,” he says. “The restaurant industry’s hours can be hard on a young family.”

At the same time, a long-held interest in nature and farming, fed well by his work as chef, was growing alongside his concern for his kids. A walk in the woods one day turned into a foraging outing when he found 30 pounds of chanterelle mushrooms. “I’d always liked mushrooms and liked cooking with them, but that day pushed me to study them,” he says. He wondered why chanterelles were usually harvested only from the wild and not cultivated, as are other varieties. “I learned that they rely on a symbiotic relationship with the soil on and around specific trees. I also found out I really knew very little about mushrooms in general, and I just got more and more fascinated.”

This newfound knowledge led him to search out species that could be farmed and then to give it a try himself. He and his wife started Pontchartrain Mushrooms in 2015 and began small, growing just one kind, king oysters, in a tiny greenhouse they set up in their living room. He saw a void he felt he could fill in the nearby New Orleans market of countless restaurants. “At that time, there was only one other commercial mushroom grower in the state, and he wasn’t producing a lot,” Wade explains.

In May 2016, in the wake of pretty quick success, Wade left the restaurant industry completely to focus on his farm. Ever since, Pontchartrain Mushrooms has grown, expanding in both size and scope (but remaining at Wade’s home) by adding new species to its offerings to meet the demand of chefs all over New Orleans. Wade’s wife went to work as a restaurant manager, and while she still has input, Wade handles the day-to-day operations.

He starts by adding an actively-growing mushroom culture to sterilized grains in a step called inoculating. Next is a period of rest while the culture colonizes (or spreads) in the grains. These colonized grains act as mushroom “seed” that are added to a hydrated substrate. Wade’s substrate is a mix of sawdust and agricultural byproducts. The mushroom “seedlings” continue to grow in the carefully controlled environment of the fruiting chamber. Here they finish their growth and “fruit” into the recognizable cap-and-stem form that makes them ready for harvest. From start to finish, this process can take anywhere from two months to six, or even longer, depending on the species.

Pontchartrain Mushrooms is currently cultivating several varieties of oyster mushrooms, including blue, pink, Phoenix, and an oyster species native to Louisiana that Wade cloned. But the first mushroom the farm ever produced is still its specialty—the king oyster. It also grows maitake mushrooms and a few varieties of lion’s mane.

Wade is savoring the farm’s progress, but it’s not just about profits. He’s also giving back to his community by incorporating into his business model the repurposing of the farm’s byproducts. “There are several things they can be used for, like filtering polluted water,” he says. He’s working with the Meraux Foundation in St. Bernard Parish to put his used substrate to work in coastal soil restoration efforts.

That walk in the woods a few years ago was the spark that ignited Wade’s deeper interest in mushrooms, and he still spends time foraging wild mushrooms to further his self-education. “You can’t get everything out of books,” he explains. “I’m looking to learn more about new varieties, mainly so I don’t get bored.”

An upcoming expansion should ward off any monotony. Last spring, when he made it to the semi-final round of a start-up business competition, his presentation earned him an investor and funds that built his mushroom lab (where his process begins) and a new fruiting chamber shed in the backyard.  Soon, Pontchartrain Mushrooms will be moving to a larger piece of land that should allow the farm to increase from 100 pounds of mushrooms per week to 500.

The larger harvests will also help Wade satisfy new customers. “I am still selling wholesale direct to restaurants, but I’m doing a farmer’s market as well, and I want to do more retail sales like that when I have more product,” he says.

His passion for his work is spreading too. “I enjoy every aspect, not just the actual farming. I like teaching the positives of mushrooms to others—the important role they play in our environment and their health benefits.”

And he’s relishing this role that’s keeping him connected to both family and the culinary world he still loves. “Pontchartrain Mushrooms got me away from the hours I didn’t like. It lets me be at home and be both a full-time dad and full-time farmer. I love the relationship this has given me with my kids, but I’m still a part of the restaurant business too, now on the other side providing chefs with a quality local specialty product,” he says. “I’m the ‘mushroom guy,’ and I like that.”