In a residential two-story Detroit house a few minutes away from Eastern Market live Deana Wojcik and Chris Carrier, real-life couple and co-owners of Detroit Mushroom Factory. They have turned it into an urban mushroom farm where they grow culinary and medicinal mushrooms year-round.
They show me a reishi mushroom that looks like it belongs underwater in a coral reef. I drink reishi mushroom tea in their living room and bring up medicinal mushrooms. When I first heard they grew those, my mind (a little too eagerly) went straight to Psilocybin mushrooms, or psychedelic mushrooms.
“Reishi is technically a medicinal mushroom,” Carrier said. “Reishi tea and reishi capsules. In Eastern medicine, they’re known for reducing inflammation. They are Immune boosters. It’s called the Immortality mushroom.”
Chris started growing mushrooms as a hobby that turned into a large obsession. His entire house was dedicated to growing mushrooms. At the same time, he was a software developer in Silicon Valley. Deana was a high school teacher.
Their jump from cosmopolitan Californians to full-time Detroit urban farmers is fascinating. They formed a limited liability company (LLC) in January 2015, and since then they have cultivated relationships with trendsetters in Detroit’s food scene, like Rose’s Fine Foods. They also sell at the Grown In Detroit booth at Eastern Market.
“Detroiters prioritize sourcing locally,”Wojcik said. “People were willing to work with us early on. We could approach other business owners and say ‘hey, we are trying this and would you be willing?’”
Their big problem is needing to produce more for the demand. Lisa Ludwinski uses them for Sister Pie’s oyster mushroom scones. David Kirby from Parker Street Market talked to them about packaging mushrooms for his upcoming grocery store. Detroit chocolatier Alexandra Clark from Bonbonbon wants to make a bonbon using their mushrooms. Perhaps a reishi extract that can be turned into a sugar? I’d try that.
They got to the point where they knew they were done with California and they knew they wanted to start a small business, so they took a nation-wide road trip and lived in their car while looking for “home.”
“We got rid of most of our clothes and our books,” said Deana, the charismatic people-person leading their outreach efforts. “We each had a ‘this is not what I’m ready to get rid of.’ For Chris, it was the autoclave.”
Think of an autoclave as a big pressure cooker used to sterilize everything before growing the mushrooms, so more contamination doesn’t come in.
Deana and Chris give me a tour of their upstairs, where their urban farm is spread out in two bedrooms. The first room is the “inoculation room,” where the mushroom are still mycelium, a condensed web of silver filaments growing in large plastic bags and mason jars filled with sawdust, rye berries and spent grain from Atwater Brewery.
In the next room, the mushrooms become fruiting bodies. I watch as they put on face masks because of the spores, and harvest phoenix oyster mushrooms to be sold at Eastern Market. The room pleasantly smells a bit like damp and earthy petrichor.
Chris included Detroit in the roadtrip because he thought if people are saying such nasty things, he had to go see for himself, and not just believe it. They stayed for a week at Knuckle Head Farm, the Detroit urban farm and bed and breakfast near Eliza Howell Park, before driving to Kalamazoo. They never made it. Captivated by Eastern Market, Detroit’s gorgeous architecture and the Detroiters they met, they turned back.
“Detroit has blue collar roots, actually hardworking, getting sweaty,” Chris explained. “Silicon Valley is ‘I’m going to do something and become a millionaire overnight.’ It’s live fast, get rich, and not necessarily about substance. We see people here that work hard, who don’t get the same sort of payback as they should, but they keep working. Detroit is the traditionally hardworking and Silicon Valley is the new hardworking.”
In October 2014, they took a class at BUILD Institute, which offers classes to entrepreneurs who want to turn their dreams into reality. They started the class thinking they would create education software. That’s when they met Anthony Hatinger, whose work with aquaponics at Central Detroit Christian got him a mention in National Geographic. Anthony attended the class to start an urban bug farm to raise insects like crickets as meat substitutes.
“He’s so excited about his ideas, it was an infectious,” Deana said. “Would we be as excited as him about education software? The answer was no. Anthony was a catalyst for meeting the growers we have become close with.”
Detroit has been compared to Chernobyl (thanks, Esquire). Chris compares Detroit to mushrooms.
“Detroit has a coolness to it,” Chris said. “Our mushrooms are kind of the same way. It has a roughness to it.”