LA MESA, N.M. It’s taken about four weeks for these mushrooms to begin fruiting from their sawdust blocks. Cream-colored stems elongate in clusters, punctuated by the brown speckled caps of chestnut mushrooms. On the rack above them, the bluish gray bells of oyster mushrooms fan upward. Another shelf over, the lion’s mane mushrooms grow more voluminous, their shaggy spines clumping together so they look like fluffy white clouds.

All this takes place inside the fruiting chambers of Full Circle Mushrooms, a farm south of Mesilla in southern New Mexico. The chambers – misty, temperature-controlled closets – bring the mushrooms closer to harvest. From there, workers ship them off to farmers markets and restaurants in El Paso, Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

More than two years ago, Ximena Zamacona, a chemist from Mexico, started Full Circle Mushrooms to grow what’s known in the U.S. as specialty mushrooms. In El Paso, Asian markets offer imported varieties, but grocery store chains sell mostly white and brown button mushrooms.

Mushrooms are only one part of the operation. After harvest, Zamacona and her team compost the used blocks. This compost goes to fruit and vegetable farms to improve water retention and release additional nutrients in the soil.

This is what it means to come full circle, Zamacona said.

How a mushroom farm started in southern New Mexico

Mushrooms have long beckoned people with their promise of medicinal, psychoactive and culinary uses.

Ancient Egyptians regarded mushrooms as “food of the gods,” a gift from the deity Osiris. The Aztecs ate teotlnanácatl, a psychedelic mushroom, for spiritual purposes. In traditional Chinese medicine, people believe reishi, “the mushroom of immortality,” to have anti-aging properties, though more studies are needed.

Ximena Zamacona packs individual bags with a variety of king oyster, lion’s mane and shiitake mushrooms. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Zamacona grew up in Ciudad de Querétaro in central Mexico, where she studied chemistry and agriculture. She worked for years in Mexico and the U.S. in hydroponics, growing tomatoes and other crops in what she described as “high-tech greenhouses.” Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil that typically uses less water than traditional soil-based farming.

She eventually moved to La Mesa, where her husband Rafael Rovirosa works at Stahmanns, a pecan farm that’s been in his family for multiple generations.

Looking for a new venture, Zamacona wanted to experiment with growing mushrooms from pecan shells and trimmings that farmers pruned from their trees. Her hydroponics background seemed like a natural segway into a mushroom farm. Shiitake mushrooms grow naturally on decaying wood in East and Southeast Asia. But with a controlled indoor environment, shiitake can grow anywhere, including in the Chihuahuan Desert.

New Mexico has a few specialty mushroom growers in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but Full Circle Mushrooms is the closest operation to El Paso.

The process of growing mushrooms indoors has similarities to hydroponics.

“I think it’s the mix between the science and the green thumb, the intuition, and mixing those two,” Zamacona said. “You have to know what you’re doing, the science behind it, and control very specific parameters. At the same time, you have to know how to read the fungi.”

Lion’s mane mushrooms fill several shelves in the refrigerated fruiting room. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The early days, in late 2019, were trial and error. Zamacona devoured books and YouTube videos about mushroom cultivation, and joined Facebook groups and workshops. While she was successful at growing mushrooms with pecan sawdust, she switched to purchasing oak sawdust because grinding her own wood was too labor intensive. In a small 10-by-5 foot room, Full Circle Mushrooms produced 60 to 70 pounds of mushrooms a week.

Today, the farm produces 450 pounds a week, and the business has expanded to a team of five farmers, plus weekend employees who work the farmers markets.

Farm to table: The life cycle of mushrooms

The first phase of mushroom growing begins in a white building off the highway that used to house Stahmanns Country Store.

The main floor is filled with metal rolling shelves and fat bags of substrate, the nutritious blocks from which fungi feed, eventually fruiting mushrooms. Past the shelves, Zamacona and her team make the substrate, mixing oak sawdust and soybean hulls.

Next comes inoculation: In a sterile environment, the team adds spawn, a term for actively growing fungal culture, into each bag of substrate. From there, they wheel the substrates to the main room where they incubate.

The clear plastic bags become foggy with condensation. A network of fungal threads called mycelium grows, the silvery branches multiplying and spreading as they absorb nutrients.

Each type of mushroom has a different incubation period with shiitake clocking in the longest at about 12 weeks.

When the mycelium appear ready and begin to fruit, Zamacona and her team transport the substrates down the road to a solar-powered shed nestled among her husband’s pecan trees. Here they put the substrates in the fruiting chambers, where the mushrooms will emerge from their bags.

Black pearl king oysters, a hybrid of oyster mushrooms and king trumpets, bloom in thick stalks with caps like the bell of a trumpet. The stems of reishi rise like antlers before forming shell-shaped caps ringed in yellow, orange and red hues. Maitake, Japanese for “dancing mushroom,” grows wavy caps that when clustered together resemble coral reefs.

Health and environmental benefits of mushrooms

There’s a misconception that mushrooms only provide texture and flavor in dishes, but little nutritional value, said Mike Davis, co-author of “Field Guide to Mushrooms of Western North America.” Davis taught mushroom cultivation at the University of California, Davis before retiring.

Most mushrooms have a high percentage of protein, just behind Brussel sprouts, Davis said. Mushrooms are also a source of vitamin D and selenium, an antioxidant that helps defend the body from infections and cell damage.

While they don’t have as much protein as meat, mushrooms can serve as a meat replacement in vegetarian dishes because of their texture. Shredded king trumpets, seasoned and cooked, can mimic carnitas. Stringy lion’s mane has a similar texture and flavor to crab meat, so Zamacona likes to make crab cakes with them.

One Grub Community Diner, a vegan restaurant in central El Paso, has made battered buffalo wings using Full Circle’s cauliflower and oyster mushrooms. Juicery Plus, a smoothie shop Downtown, grills the farm’s lion’s mane for the mushroom tacos while the restaurant Elemi nearby adds shiitake to its taco campesino.

Production assistant Nathan Sanchez harvests oyster mushrooms by cutting the large bunch into smaller sections. Most of Full Circle’s harvests go to supply area restaurants. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Then there’s the environmental aspect. Full Circle Mushrooms uses close to two gallons of water for each pound of mushrooms – a sliver of the 1,800 gallons of water it takes to produce a pound of beef or the more than 450 gallons needed to produce a pound of chicken.

Mushrooms also feed off waste products, mainly wood byproducts. For his mushroom cultivation classes in California, Davis would get sawdust from businesses that made oak floors for houses and oak wine barrels.

Why they’re hard to find in the grocery store

While shoppers can find Zamacona’s specialty mushrooms at farmers markets in New Mexico as well as a few independently-owned shops in El Paso, Full Circle doesn’t have enough products or infrastructure to distribute to major supermarkets.

“In the specialty stores, co-ops, we see local mushrooms. For the larger chains, larger grocery stores, a lot of it has to do with consistency. They would want something to consistently fill their shelves with,” said Yolanda González, an urban agriculture specialist who teaches mushroom cultivation at Cornell University’s Small Farms Program.

Agaricus bisporus – white button, cremini and portobellos – by far trump all specialty mushrooms in commercial sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite different names, all three Agaricus varieties represent the same species just at different ages.

More than half the country’s cultivated mushrooms come from one town: Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where Agaricus mushrooms grow in large-scale facilities.

Without economies of scale, it’s also hard for specialty mushrooms to compete with Agaricus mushrooms on price point, González said. White button mushrooms cost about $2 per pound at an El Super in El Paso, compared to at least $14 per pound of lion’s mane from Full Circle Mushrooms.

Companies like Mycopia, a mushroom producer in California, show it’s possible for specialty mushroom farms to scale up in production and distribution. But the main hurdle for specialty mushrooms is cultural: getting Americans to try new mushrooms, Davis said.

In the U.S., specialty mushrooms have the appreciation of cooks and epicurious eaters, Asian communities and wellness gurus. But in general, most people aren’t comfortable with mushrooms they don’t recognize, Davis said.

“It’s not that we can’t grow them, it’s getting people to buy them,” Davis said. “If you go to Japan, you see mushrooms at every market, the little 7-Eleven, the corner store.”

Introducing people to mushrooms they haven’t tried before has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running Full Circle Mushrooms, Zamacona said. For people new to cooking specialty mushrooms, she suggests simply sauteing them in butter, salt and an aromatic herb or garlic.

“Just try and be brave with the texture.You’ll be surprised.”

Closing the circle: How fungi helps the food we grow

The newest project at Full Circle Mushrooms sits outside the shed, where Zamacona and her team are experimenting with composting, the method of decomposing organic material. Compost enriches soil with nutrients and improves water retention. 

She calls the large mound of dirt outside the shed “the alpha pile.” After harvesting mushrooms, workers add the substrate blocks, still high in live fungal activity, to this pile. The compost here can be added on top of soil, like mulch.

Ximena Zamacona relishes the earthy smell of the compost that is formed with a mixture of discarded mushroom blocks. She is marketing the nutrient-rich compost to farmers and gardeners. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Two other methods of compost are happening nearby. One is a traditional compost vessel where workers toss in food scraps and ground coffee from local roasteries.

The other method takes place in tall cylindrical bins. The Johnson-Su bioreactors are named after its inventors David Johnson, a molecular biologist at New Mexico State University, and his wife Hui-Chun Su Johnson, who has an interest in regenerative agriculture.

Mushrooms are often on her mind, but what happens below the surface matters to Zamacona, too.

Johnson-Su bioreactors encourage the growth of underground, mycorrhizal fungi that provide plants with nutrients and water in exchange for carbohydrates, which plants produce through photosynthesis and fungi need to grow.

Modern farming involves chemical and physical disturbances, such as tilling and fertilizers, that degrade the soil food web. But by introducing extracts from this compost and adopting regenerative practices, farmers can begin to restore life in their soil, Johnson said.

Full Circle Mushrooms recently began offering compost through its online shop, for sale by the bucket or cubic yard.

The farm isn’t quite zero waste – the plastic substrate encasings are one waste product they can’t work around. But composting the used mushroom substrates is one way for them to give back to the earth, Zamacona said.

“That’s how we close the circle. Fungi are the primary decomposers of the world. Without them, stuff would die.”

Where to find Full Circle Mushrooms

Here’s where you can find Full Circle Mushrooms. Availability changes each week, so check with each retailer before heading out.

Farmers Market at Ardovino’s Desert Crossing: 1 Ardovino Drive, Sunland Park, New Mexico. Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. 

Desert Spoon Food Hub: Offers delivery and pickup in El Paso

Bodega Loya: 10257 Socorro Road, Socorro

Full Circle Mushroom also has an online shop with pickup locations in La Mesa and El Paso:

  • Full Circle Mushrooms: 22505 S. Highway 28, La Mesa, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Casa Cafetzin: 4111 N. Mesa St., Suite 1, El Paso

Juicery Plus: 201 E. Main St. and 1300 Airway Blvd., Bldg C, Suite 104, El Paso

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...