Inside the plastic enclosure that sits in Jerry Kelly’s basement are bricks of growing medium laced with mycelium, the root-like structure that spawns mature mushrooms. They sit on long rows of shelves, and the stalks and caps of new shiitakes emerge from some of them, bowing outward, then shooting up toward the light.
Kelly ’96, a co-owner of the Village Inn and a volunteer assistant baseball coach for Kenyon’s team, and mycologist Jacob Clark from Mount Vernon are taking a leap of faith in their venture to cultivate mushrooms in Gambier.
Clark, a combat engineer by training, was introduced to the world of mushrooms by a friend. “He took me out in the woods one day and started pointing things out to me that I had been walking past my whole life,” Clark said. Soon after, he became fixated on the idea of cultivating his own.
“From there on, it was kind of like a challenge to bring that indoors and to recreate that environment inside.”
Clark, a combat engineer by training, was introduced to the world of mushrooms by a friend. “He took me out in the woods one day and started pointing things out to me that I had been walking past my whole life,” Clark said. Soon after, he became fixated on the idea of cultivating his own. “From there on, it was kind of like a challenge to bring that indoors and to recreate that environment inside.”
Inspired, Clark researched meticulously and, after months of educating himself and experimenting, found success. “He’s just got a natural inclination for this kind of stuff,” Kelly said. The pair first came to know each other when Kelly employed Clark as a bartender at the VI.
Clark designed and perfected a process through which the two entrepreneurs are now producing pounds of shiitake mushrooms each week, though the number of pounds varies. In Kelly’s basement, they constructed two temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms out of tarp stretched over wooden frames, each for a different stage of the growing process.
Kelly and Clark have begun to implement a business plan. Kelly took a sample of the shiitakes they have been growing to show to AVI Executive Chef Meagan Stewart and AVI Director of Sustainability John Marsh, who expressed interest in cooking with the mushrooms at Peirce. “We now have an agreement with [AVI] to provide them with up to 25 pounds every other week,” Kelly said. The pair has no other formal purchase agreements with other companies in place.
The kitchen is not the only destination Clark and Kelly have in mind for their products. “What we’re doing initially is this bulk growing … but in the meantime we also want to follow these other threads,” Kelly said. Those other threads include uses for mycelium at the forefront of an exciting conversation in the world of biological research. Studies show certain types of mycelium are useful for everything from preventing colony collapse disorder in communities of bees to decomposing islands of plastic waste floating on the ocean.
This semester, Kelly is teaching an experiential class on solar energy in the physics department and hopes to integrate his mycological work with Clark into future course offerings, perhaps in conjunction with the environmental studies major currently in development by the College.