Today’s episode features Bashira Muhammad, founder of Zoom Out Mycology as she talks about “Driving Sustainability with Fungi!” Zoom Out Mycology is a fungi farm based in Southern Oregon. Their mission is to apply mycology towards a sustainable future.
When asked “How does fungi save the planet,” Bashira lists “so many ways!” She and her team focus on medicinal mushroom teas for holistic health, small batch sawdust production so their local community can grow their own food, and community education. They grow 18 different species.
Bashira also leads a Western SARE Farmer/Rancher project, Mushroom Farming Research and Education to Bring Greater Equity and Diversity to the Food System. This project educates farmers about outdoor reishi mushroom cultivation and researches the most water efficient ways to grow reishi mushrooms.
Thanks for listening to Fresh Growth! To learn more about Western SARE and sustainable agriculture, visit our website or find us:
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Speaker 1: 0:08
Welcome to Season 3 of Fresh Growth, a podcast by the Western SARE program. That's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. I'm your host, Steve Elliott, alongside co-host Stacie Clary. Just for background, Western SARE promotes sustainable farming and ranching across the American west through research, education and communication efforts, like this podcast. It is funded by the US Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Fresh Growth introduces producers and ag professionals from around the West who are embracing new ways of farming and ranching. They'll tell us about their experiences adopting more sustainable agricultural practices and challenges and benefits they've seen. Today's guest is Bashira Muhammad, owner and operator of Zoom Out Mycology, a fungi farm based in Southern Oregon. Zoom Out Mycology’s mission is to apply mycology toward a sustainable future. Bashira also leads a Western Farmer Rancher grant funded project on reishi mushroom cultivation. Welcome, and thanks for sitting down with us, Bashira.
Speaker 2: 1:07
Thank you for having me.
Speaker 3: 1:10
Hi Bashira. As a start, can you define mycology and let us know what Zoom Out Mycology works on?
Speaker 2: 1:18
Absolutely. So, mycology is the scientific study of fungi and that makes me a mycologist. Mycologists can study a wide range of things from human health, to forests, plant pathology, to farming and zooming out is about shifting your focus to problem solve at different scale . So, you can think of zooming out like a microscope or a camera or a map where you look at like different scales of life. So with those two combined, our mission is to drive sustainability with fungi, and we do this by the creation of fungi-centric products and programs. So we do some manufacturing, some education and some research. That's what I do.
Speaker 1: 2:15
How did this get started?
Speaker 2: 2:18
Okay, so this I take it as Zoom Out Mycology and as the owner it's a bit of a personal journey, but I always knew I wanted to be involved with sustainable development. I didn't have the scientific knowledge to know exactly what that meant or what that could look like though until like high school. So in high school, I took this AP Environmental Science class that really gave me the language to really be able to say like, oh, here's what I can do. And then college was even more deep and I started studying geography. That's where I learned about the mental concept of zooming out. Studying geography we look at local scale to global scale, to all kinds of scales of life. Okay. So now we're up to , uh , freshman year of college and then my, so my sophomore year or between freshman and sophomore year, I applied for the national student exchange program that brought me from New Jersey to Southern Oregon, where I went to Oregon because it was one of the most sustainable states in the country. And while I was there, I got introduced to fungi and mycology . So that turns out to be a huge part of Oregon culture, Oregon knowledge. So, okay, that brings us to about 2015 is when I met Paul Stemets who talked about how fungi I could save the planet. And two years later I founded Zoom Out Mycology. That's the story.
Speaker 1: 3:58
Okay. So that begs the question. How can fungi save the planet?
Speaker 2: 4:03
Wow. So many ways, that's such a great question! The ways that I choose to, or practice myself through Zoom Out Mycology look like a T-line and a sawdust spawn line. So those are the two product types we make right now. That's pretty separate from education and research which I definitely look forward to telling you about, but I'll just start with simple products. So tea, for me, is a strategy towards personal sustainability and individual scale wellness. It's made with medicinal mushrooms like Reishi and Maitake. We can have many health benefits and then Sawdust spawn is more up our mixed-group alley. Well, one's still agricultural, but , uh , we have the challenge of like, how do we grow enough mushrooms for all the tea we sell? So, that's what makes it little less agricultural, but the sawdust spawn we produce it, we do it often. It's like our thing. And that has many uses. Are you, familiar either of you familiar with ecosystem services? Okay, awesome. Ecosystem services are essentially like the benefits that humans derive from nature and fungi are responsible for ecosystem services, and pretty much every category from supporting, to provisioning. And, so, for one, the biggest reason I grow sawdust spawn is so others in my local community can grow their own food. So it's like a toolkit for producing your own mushrooms. And that's just one use and , or application of mycology. What's another, I think that's a really good one. There's a lot of types of mushrooms. We grow 18 species. Some of them are more on the medicinal side. Some of them are more on food as medicine.
Speaker 3: 6:09
Okay. So I'm curious, you've talked a little bit about research and education. We're going to get to that later. Yet, you started a business with a team and I'd like to hear a little bit about the team as well. What prompted you in the journey to go into the business side as well as research and education, as a way to make a change in the world?
Speaker 2: 6:31
Ooh, well, that comes more from my family, I think, the business path. I definitely come from a family of business people. Not that either of my parents own businesses, but like my greater family. So I had that type of nurturing and my family saw that business side in me while I was growing up , uh , and really supported that provided me skills and tools to exercise it and practice it as an adult.
Speaker 3: 7:03
Tell us about your team.
Speaker 2: 7:05
Okay. So, I am so grateful for the people that I work with. They're really an awesome bunch and I'm glad we found each other. Uh, so we got Casey, Rebecca and Luis. So Casey helps out with the farm and in the kitchen, Luis helps out with marketing. It's a small team, there's four of us combined, so we all do like a little bit of everything truthfully. And then there's also Rebecca, who is an herbalist and a clinical herbalist has training in that. She is our key player in the laboratory. So one big thing about growing fungi is that it's not always soil based, so, we do a lot of our cultivation in an indoor space, like a lab.
Speaker 3: 7:58
Describe the lab, the indoor cultivation. What does that look like?
Speaker 2: 8:02
So it's about three, no it's exactly, three phases of growth that we go through. So the first phase looks like agar plates. So like little plates of potato jello that you put some fungi on, and then they consume that. And then you take little slices of that, which is a horizontal plane of fungal material. And you add it in small increments to like a new food source, the phase two food source, which is green. And then the third phase is sawdust. Uh, so yeah, so they're all decomposer fungi and they break down and consume the sawdust at the end of the phases.
Speaker 1: 8:43
All right. You have a SARE farmer rancher grant, is that right?
Speaker 2: 8:48
Speaker 1: 8:49
Talk to us about that. I mean, what are you researching, and how did you even come across the opportunity?
Speaker 2: 8:56
Absolutely. So the SARE grant that we are working on is a project entitled Mushroom Farming To Bring Greater Equity And Diversity To The Food System. And as someone who's very interested in sustainable agriculture, I just, I think I always not always, but I've definitely been familiar with the SARE program for at least two years. So I've been like able to say up to date that way. And , we are specifically researching water use efficiency in mushroom cultivation. So mushrooms are a very water efficient crop. To give it some numbers, I was just doing a report the other day. It takes over 6,000 liters of water to produce one pound of beef, where it takes about 6.8 liters to produce one pound of button mushrooms. So, that provides some context for like living in the region of Southern Oregon, which is really drought affected. And then there comes Reishi . So Reishi mushroom is a mushroom that gets buried as you grow it, which is pretty different from other outdoor cultivation strategies. So that kind of just sparked a question for me, like, you know, if we can bury Reishi mushroom, maybe we can try burying it with other materials to attempt to conserve water. So that was essentially the research question. It's pretty straightforward and simple. And I think the, one of the coolest, not coolest, but one of the most impactful , areas from this SARE grant is our educational programs associated. So we're doing four workshops. The last two are this weekend. So I'm really excited for that. And we've been teaching about like a wide range. So we started with fungi and sustainability and the many intersections that exist, from fungi in fashion to fungi in the food system. And, the second workshop was on, warm weather species. So how to grow warm weather mushrooms. The third one is coming up; it's about utilizing medicinal mushrooms. So what do you do with them? They're not edible all the time, so you need to decoct them or make a tincture or something or a tea. And the last workshop is cool weather cultivars. So as far as the sustainability, aspect of this project, I think it really ties into our dimensions of sustainability strongly in the institutional dimension, which is like, what I believe is our biggest lever for sustainable change at Zoom Out Mycology ,
Speaker 3: 12:03
Explain more about the, the institutional part of sustainability. We don't talk as much about that as much. So what do you mean and how do you feel like you're going be able to impact that?
Speaker 2: 12:15
Yeah, so the institutional dimension of sustainability is probably the more complex one to understand. It’s not super concrete but what it is: all actions within, around, and maybe even through organizations as a whole. So that's kind of how I think about the institutional dimension. Our society would look very different if we didn't have all these different types of institutions and if they didn't interact with each other. So to me, that's what the institutional dimensions all about. How are institutions interacting? How are businesses programs like SARE, or universities like the ones we work with, how are those types of relationships able to lead to affecting change? So that's what the institutional dimensions about. And then within that dimension of sustainability, we have two priorities specifically. So the first one is educational partnerships and the second is industry innovation and infrastructure. So to me, the second one is all about all the decision making that is involved with running a business, starting a farm, interacting with society and consumers and employees, and more.
Speaker 3: 13:48
And with the business right now, you're focusing on the fungi. There's a lot of big picture that you are working on, as far as sustainability and the impact you and your team would like make on sustainability and your local community and access to food. Do you see expanding beyond fungi into other products in order to make that impact?
Speaker 2: 14:14
Okay. Expanding beyond fungi. Fungi are fun in that it almost always involves something else. So like, for example, even when I'm working with decomposer fungi, we could not exist without intact forest ecosystems. as far as like being a sawdust fueled operation that doesn't involve fungi , I want to really get involved with forest management and policy in that regard. But I have more specific goals that are product related. Like I personally have been doing a lot of work around pesticides, either remediation or biological pesticide development. And that’s a potential area for expansion and growth and learning more, most of all. So, but I do think that it will always involve some fungi.
Speaker 1: 15:21
Given the name of your business and your focus, it seems like it should , you know , that makes sense.
Speaker 1: 15:31
Sort of what percentage of our food source could be fungi based if, if things went, you know, that way, I mean, you , you talked about the water usage between a pound of beef and a pound of button mushrooms, and I've seen more and more products that are mushroom based and, and you know, that aren't mushroom. Talk about the future of what we eat.
Speaker 2: 15:58
Wow. Yeah. Well, I definitely can't speak specifically on the future itself, but if….
Speaker 4: 16:07
Speaker 1: 16:07
Oh, really, you don't know, you have no crystal ball? Bashira, come on now! (Laughter)
Speaker 2: 16:14
But if I could have a say, like in a policy sense, I would definitely try and advocate for like when making any sustainability plan, I think a great first step is to start with what are the regional abundances and limiting factors. So, I think that's a great place to start regarding our food system. How much of it can be fungal. Another fun fact is , that on, I think one square acre, you can produce 900 million pounds of mushrooms. Like, it's a really ridiculous amount of mushrooms! And , so given that I think we could all live on mushrooms. Like I personally, I was just talking to in my environmental science class about how I hope we can save a lot of varieties of apples, like through climate change and everything, just save lots of varieties of crops. I think that's so important to our to our good health and well-being.
Speaker 4: 17:32
Speaker 3: 17:35
And going back to your workshops and something you said earlier about selling products so that people who grow their own mushrooms, how much interest is there in your community for this?
Speaker 2: 17:49
Wow. Well, I think it's really good because when we do workshops at Zoom Out Mycology , we get 50 to 60 people each time, the SARE program like overall, we there's 50 class people in the last two classes, there were 25 people in the first two classes. I'm not honestly sure how to count that. Do I add up all the people altogether? Do I count people who only came to all four once? Like so, but I think that is a lot of interest.
Speaker 1: 18:24
That's a lot of interest.
Speaker 3: 18:28
Speaker 1: 18:30
What have you tried that didn't work?
Speaker 2: 18:34
Well, this is a little bit painful, although I did laugh when it happened, which was a long term process cause it's farming. But I actually tried to go out and use different medias in the Reishi research project and see which one might retain more water. And it was the top soil was the only effective one. So again, it was a little painful, but it was a great learning experience. And it helped me understand the, that in the future there's, you know, we can build on the benefits of each substrate by you know. Sawdust, for example, I would water it and the water would penetrate maybe like three centimeters, like, because it's just so absorbent, so fluffy. So yeah, it was very compact, so each substrate in our trial had very different characteristics and that was-- no one was expecting that. I'll just say that no one was expecting to have like, even we had lots of tours in the spring and, people would tell me their ideas, like, oh, maybe it'll be the sawdust because it retains so much water or, and yeah, so that was one example.
Speaker 1: 20:04
See, but that's not that didn't go wrong. That was just something you didn't expect and learned. I mean, that's, that's kind of the nature of research is like we have this idea, like, nope, that's wrong.
Speaker 2: 20:17
Yeah. That's part, that's why part of me laughed when it happened. I was like, this is learning. This is learning in real life.
Speaker 1: 20:23
Speaker 3: 20:25
I have a question that isn't as related to the, the agriculture side, but you've talked about policy a lot, and that policy drives so much about sustainability and how rural and farming communities are impacted and urban agriculture. How do you see yourself or your team fitting in with policy?
Speaker 2: 20:53
Well, the most specific vision or goal that I have is to get involved in, I don't know whether that be a board or something of that nature. I think just being able to represent more people in the room is how me and my fellow teammates can stand up for what we care about, what we, what we need to live. We all use intact forests in some way. So, and agriculture is super forestry fueled. So, I think being able to speak from a agricultural perspective in a way that does tie back to like forests or beginning products end products, everything in between. I think that could be something helpful.
Speaker 3: 21:56
Thanks. I realize that was kind of a question that we hadn't really explored, but I was really taken by the fact that you brought up policy so much.
Speaker 2: 22:06
Yes, well, just a heads up I'm doing my undergrad as well at this time at Southern Oregon University. And the program I'm in is called Environmental Science and Policy.
Speaker 3: 22:18
Speaker 1: 22:20
There are boards out there that yes , that are going to need active and smart people.
Speaker 3: 22:26
Speaker 2: 22:29
Coolios, thank you for telling me about that!
Speaker 1: 22:32
You got add into this business and this operation through an environmental focus and a sustainability focus. What advice would you give someone else who's, you know, in school or, you know, thinking along those lines and, and thinking maybe agriculture is the way to go, what would you offer them?
Speaker 2: 22:55
Let me see if I got anything. Oh, yes, I have something good. Okay . So there is a quote that we live by, at zoom out and it's by Arthur Ash. And it says to start where you are, use what you have and do what you can. And I think in everything, but especially in farming, in, you know, agriculture I think using what you have , and maybe starting where you are, might be a little challenging depending on where you live in the agricultural sense, but using what you have and doing what you can, I think should drive like the beginning of the process for, for just even starting, I think starting holds some people back and just, you know, just knowing that there's no pressure to like, have it all figured out at the beginning or have every possible all the shiny equipment is not necessary immediately. And maybe never.
Speaker 1: 24:04
That's…I'm glad you shared that. Because I've written it down and it's going to go up on my wall.
Speaker 2: 24:12
Speaker 3: 24:16
Well, thanks for taking the time with us. It was great talking with you and learning so much. And it was a fairly new topic to me. So I really appreciate it. And it sounds like you're learning a lot, doing a lot and really enjoying yourself, it definitely sounds like.
Speaker 2: 24:35
Yes. Thank you.
Speaker 1: 24:39
Thanks for joining us here today. And, we really appreciate it and it was it was great fun. Thank you very much.
Speaker 2: 24:46
Thank you too!
Speaker 5: 24:49
Thank you for listening to Fresh Growth. We hope you enjoyed this episode. For more information on Western SARE grants and our learning resources visit westernsare.org .