A couple’s love of wild food leads them into a thriving gourmet-mushroom business.
By Sara Ruch | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Styling by KIM Brubaker
From the outside, Primordia Farm looks like any other homestead dotting the rolling farmland in Berks County, Pennsylvania, about 60 miles north of Philadelphia. The 14½-acre property in Lenhartsville includes fields and woodlands, and the barns could be full of livestock or equipment. Instead, they house a cash crop of mushrooms growing in a precisely controlled environment. Each week, a ton of mushrooms are harvested and packaged for sale to farmers’ markets and restaurants near and far.
Sicher and wife Jesse Tobin (with rescue dog Otis) support their family of four at their home in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
Matt Sicher and Jesse Tobin, both 34 years old, founded Primordia Farm in 2012, and with the help of friends and family designed and built their house and the other structures. Berks County natives, they met in fifth grade and began dating in their teens. Foraging for wild foods and herbs has always been a shared passion, the woods a common date destination, and the pair also worked at several local farms and orchards while in college. Today Sicher and Tobin are raising two sons, Elijah, 7½, and Asa, 2½, while working together to make the farm a sustainable business.
Mushrooms are handpicked daily and delivered by van to area restaurants.
Primordia began as a small, part-time project nurtured on weekends and during the off-hours of Sicher’s job as a woodworker. In 2014, just after Sicher quit this job, Asa was born two months prematurely and needed a months-long stay in the intensive care unit. At that point, the couple had to decide whether to ratchet up mushroom production to the point where it would support the family, or give up this dream and send Sicher back to a regular job. They made the first option work: Besides providing the family’s main income, mushrooms provide work for nine employees (a driver, four packers, two barn helpers, one clean-room worker, and one market representative) and a host of other helpers and volunteers.
Varieties such as shiitake and pioppino.
Tobin took on responsibility for the practical side of the business, serving as bookkeeper and handling customer service, phone calls, and myriad details. “I come from a family of professional jugglers,” she says. “I can’t juggle bowling pins like they can, but I sure have learned how to juggle in our business!” Sicher oversees the growing side, as well as sales, logistics, and purchasing. He has no formal training in culturing mushrooms, but at the age of 15 began experimenting with fermentation or “controlled and artful decomposition,” as he puts it. His fascination with how simple ingredients break down over time into many different tasty and healthful foods led him to study the science behind the process.
“In my life, fermentation and mushrooms were the ‘gateway drugs’ to science and biology,” he says with a wry smile. Adds Tobin, who has a degree in natural healing: “One of the things we love about mushrooms is that they straddle the line between food and medicine.”
In the clean room, Sicher wears a protective suit.
The system Sicher developed at Primordia is a stark contrast to the dank and pungent rooms a visitor might expect at a mushroom farm. His preferred planting medium for optimal growth (and minimal aroma) is a mix of equal parts straw and sawdust, run through a chipper and soaked for up to 24 hours. Rye, gypsum, wheat bran, or other supplements are added, depending on the mushroom variety. The mixture is strained and packed into 6-by-10-by-14-inch clear plastic bags, which are sealed and placed into a large steel steam chamber for 24 to 48 hours to kill any natural fungal spores present in the medium.
Wild-foraged varieties in the basket have interesting names like chicken of the woods, slippery jack, pheasant back, and lobster.
After the bags have cooled, they pass through a HEPA (high-intensity particulate air) filter chamber into the clean room, a contaminant-free, laboratory-like space where Tyvek suits are required attire. A worker cuts a small incision in each bag and inoculates the medium with spawn (the mushroom equivalent of seed) before resealing the bag. Most of the spawn strains used at Primordia are grown there, though occasionally Sicher purchases varieties from other gourmet-mushroom suppliers.
All production hinges on this critical beginning stage. “When you’re growing plants, if a weed sprouts, you can always pull it out,” Sicher explains. “With mushrooms, we have only one shot at inoculating the growing medium correctly. If any mold, bacteria, or other microorganisms get into the bag, all you’ve got in the end is very expensive compost.” He estimates that about 10 percent of the bags are spoiled due to contamination, and that rate can be as high as 20 percent in the summer, the most difficult time of year to grow mushrooms.
Andrew Long shows off the puffballs he’s collected.
From the clean room the bags are moved to a dark room for 24 days to allow for the growth of mycelia, the thread-like masses from which the mushrooms sprout. When the bags develop a white hue and the medium inside has become a solid block, they are transferred to one of four growing rooms. Depending on the variety, the bags are then either perforated with more slits and hung from hooks, or the blocks of medium are removed from the bags and placed on shelves. Most mushrooms thrive at a temperature of 65°F and a relative humidity of 80 percent, and the grow rooms are well lit with rows of fluorescent fixtures. Only common white button mushrooms need to be grown in the dark; in fact, light is essential for developing proper color of some types, Sicher says—for example, the intense hue of the golden oyster.
Once the mycelia begin to fruit (in days to weeks, depending on variety), mushrooms will appear in three flushes. Each flush is slightly less prolific than the previous one. After the mushrooms have been harvested, they are kept in a cold storage room, where they await pickup or delivery, and the blocks from which they grew go outside to the compost heap.
Primordia’s Jamie Dunkelberger shows her favorite type: lion’s mane.
Primordia, which has quadrupled its sales since its founding, makes deliveries to restaurants and markets in New York City three times a week, Philadelphia once a week, and other locations, such as Pennsylvania cities like Bethlehem and Harrisburg, less frequently. “Primordia’s mushrooms play a huge part in every aspect of our menu,” says Lee Chizmar, chef at Bolete restaurant in Bethlehem. “People often ask me which mushroom is my favorite, but it’s an impossible question to answer because they are all so different. Each variety has its own flavor and characteristics. When someone says ‘I don’t eat mushrooms,’ I think that’s like saying ‘I don’t like fruit’ or ‘I don’t like vegetables.’ ”
In order to keep up with demand, Primordia has also become a purveyor of mushrooms and other wild foods harvested by small growers and foragers in the region. This allows chefs and customers to have regular access to high-quality mushrooms at a set price, a key to sustaining the company through every season.
As their operation grows, Sicher and Tobin plan to produce an even wider selection of mushrooms and offer their customers more varieties of added-value wild products. “Ultimately, the goal is to maintain a viable business foundation that can support both our sons’ families down the line if they choose to become involved when they are older,” Sicher says. “Until then, we’ll be working to keep the business successful for ourselves.”
Sara Ruch grows and caters food—and writes and sings about it—with her family in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Learn more at 14acrefarm.com.
7 Savory Varieties
Gray oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Anyone who walks through woodlands is used to seeing shelf-like clusters of this off-white mushroom growing on living trees. Gray oysters spoil quickly, so use them soon after purchasing.
Trumpet (Pleurotus eryngii)
Dubbed the king oyster or king trumpet, this mushroom keeps well in a paper bag in the refrigerator. The very mild flavor is often compared with that of abalone, and it goes well with lamb, fish, and pork.
Golden oyster (Pleurotus citrinopileatus)
The vivid color makes this mushroom a beautiful addition to many dishes. Cooking transforms the spicy and bitter raw taste into a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth nuttiness. Handle gently and use quickly.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Native to East Asia, where it’s been cultivated for over a thousand years, this brown-capped mushroom has a slightly smoky flavor. Try sautéing it in a mixture of sesame oil and soy sauce.
Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
When you look at this fluffy, white pom-pom, you can see how the fungus got its common name. It’s in great demand in China for both culinary and medicinal uses. Cook it slowly to reduce the water content and concentrate its seafood-like flavor.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
Sometimes called hen of the woods, this delicate fungus is prized in Japan for its smooth, nutty flavor. Reports of its effectiveness as a treatment for HIV are being investigated.
Pioppino (Agrocybe aegerita)
Also known as black poplar, this mushroom is an Italian delicacy. Its flavor, which is reminiscent of pork, holds up well in stews and soups.