Healing people and the planet
By Alex Smith
It’s rare that a delicious food can have a positive impact on the environment. As a conscientious consumer, we try to minimize the environmental impact of the food we eat. Tasty, nutritious food that positively impacts the ecosystem is a holy grail of sorts. Salmon harvest nutrients from the sea and return to their spawning grounds to fertilize our forests. Honey is the byproduct of bees fertilizing wildflowers and fruit crops. Regenerative livestock systems can revitalize soils and create rich environments where plants thrive.
But we often forget about the overlooked kingdom of fungus in making meal choices. These organisms help to make nutrients available to plants, break down dead plant matter, and are crucial to a healthy biome. It just so happens that they also produce fruiting bodies in the form of mushrooms that are both delicious and healing.
This intersection of tasty food, personal healing, and positive environmental impacts is what led Alex Winstead to start Cascadia Mushrooms. Since studying Environmental Science and Mycology at The Evergreen State College, he’s had a keen interest in how we can find food that is beneficial to both humans and the earth.
Once graduated, Alex worked with Paul Stamets, a well-known mycologist and owner of Fungi Perfecti. After soaking up as much knowledge as he could, Alex moved to Bellingham and continued to grow mushrooms as a hobby, but the desire to enter the food economy was strong. The lack of business experience didn’t deter him, though, and he began by leasing property and by 2006 he was selling at the Bellingham Farmers Market under the business name Cascadia Mushrooms.
Three years later, Alex had his own property. Fast forward ten years to present day, and you’ll find a diverse operation selling culinary and medicinal mushrooms (although the line between the two is a bit blurry). Mushrooms grown on-site are certified organic because, in his words, “we like to keep ourselves honest.”
The mushrooms cultivated on site are largely considered culinary mushrooms – mushrooms that are sought after for good flavor and texture. Oyster and shiitake are the most popular in this realm, because both have rich flavor profiles and work well with a wide variety of dishes. They can be good meat substitutes because of their meaty texture. “I’ve heard stories of vegetarian restaurant customers sending back dishes with my mushrooms because they thought it was meat,” Alex recounts. The nutrition and health benefits are great as well, providing vitamins, amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), and immune boosting properties.
Cascadia Mushrooms also grows and harvests medicinal mushrooms. Reishi mushrooms, which they grow organically, offer a broad range of health benefits from boosting the immune system to helping the body fight off cancer. Wild harvested lion’s mane mushrooms stimulate neural growth while also being delicious with the flavor and texture of crab or shrimp – great in a soup or stir fry.
You may be reading this and thinking “I just don’t like mushrooms” (although if that’s the case you probably haven’t gotten this far). I can relate to this attitude. I spent many years avoiding mushrooms, but I’ve been converted. In the words of Alex, “If you don’t like mushrooms, try ours.” These aren’t your typical button mushrooms. “We grow the best mushrooms here for the people who live here.” One huge difference is freshness. Mushrooms hit store shelves or farmers market booths within 3 days of harvest, so they stay tasty and have just the right firm bite.
Often the foods that taste best are the foods that our body craves. Humans have been consuming mushrooms for at least 5,000 years and it is no surprise that we still desire them. The health benefits and savory flavor are convincing enough, but the positive environmental impact is also a major draw. “Without fungus, there wouldn’t be life,” says Alex.
You can find Cascadia Mushrooms at the Bellingham Farmers Market, Community Food Co-op, Haggen, and local restaurants such as Aslan Brewing, Rock and Rye, DeAnna’s, Archer Ale House, Temple Bar, Mount Bakery, and Chuckanut Brewing.