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No shortcut to mushrooms

Brockport merchant cultivates a niche among discerning fungus fans

The woodsy aroma of mushrooms simmering in white wine pervades the rustic farmhouse. Right then and there, I know I am in for the real deal and not inert, mass-produced supermarket mushrooms.
Along with farmer Steve Galbreth, I am a dinner guest of Andrea and Mathias Reisen, owners of Healing Spirits Herb Farm and Education Center in Wallace, Steuben County.

Galbreth sells fresh and dried products to restaurants and to the public at farmers markets and online. Tonight, Galbreth is stirring a huge pot of wild mushroom cream soup simmering on the stove. He turns to greet me with an easy smile. The recipe is not a secret, he tells me. You can find it on his website. There’s more to come. We stand around the kitchen island talking about the benefits of locally grown food. Galbreth brings in a box of fresh pink oyster mushrooms from his farm in Brockport. He pours the plump, light mushrooms into a skillet with butter, garlic, and a little olive oil.

Galbreth is somewhat surprised that his business has “mushroomed” into a specialty market, with a focus on legal medicinal uses. His product is sought after by both professional chefs and home cooks with adventuresome tastes. The Flour City Bread Company makes mushroom bread from Galbreth’s fresh mushrooms. Meanwhile, the chefs at Rochester’s Restaurant 2 Vine, Natural Oasis, and Cure Restaurant order a regular supply from his farm. “Chefs buy everything we bring them. They are educated in what to look for,” he says.

Fresh mushrooms have a short shelf life, and chefs work those deliveries into recipes that day. Diners are intrigued by the pleasing appearance of the bubblegum pinks and neon yellows of tropical varieties like the golden oyster—often described as having a seafood-like flavor. Galbreth jokingly calls himself a “moonlighter in mushrooms.” His day job, a technician at the New York State Fish Hatchery in Bath, keeps him occupied raising fish and stocking area streams in the spring. However, Galbreth stays on a learning curve in mycology, the study of fungi, and is growing ten varieties of oyster mushrooms along with other unusual strains.

Supermarket mushrooms are one or two weeks old before they arrive in Rochester from factory farms Pennsylvania. Most crops are heavily sprayed unless they are labeled “organic.” Commercial mushrooms, grown in sawdust, are handled several times between farm and store. Certain varieties are fragile and don’t do well in those conditions. “We, at Willow Harvest Organics, are growing as nature intended, allowing mushrooms to provide us with a source of vegetable protein. They’re great for vegan diets and they’re high in vitamins, minerals, and antitoxins,” he says.

Galbreth grows mushrooms outdoors on logs. Wine caps, oyster, and shiitake are Willow Harvest Organics’ main strains, which he buys from licensed culture labs. He hopes to expand into a full-time operation with indoor cultivation. So far, Galbreth works at balancing between a growing demand and his limited supply. He is most interested in growing methods, although he admits that fresh organic produce can be pricy. However, he recommends not compromising when it comes to mushrooms. “A mushroom is like a sponge. It absorbs pesticides.”

“If you would have told me ten years ago I would be doing this, I would have told you that you are crazy. I’ve always loved to hike in the woods and find edible plants. The cultivation of mushrooms stemmed from that,” says Galbreth, who grew up in a home where all things natural were valued and investigated—from the life cycles of butterflies to a variety of four-legged creatures underfoot.

You’ll not miss the meat in a simmering bowl of wild mushroom cream soup.

We are seated around the large family table, toasting Galbreth’s culinary expertise with a Finger Lakes riesling. We settle into a mouthwatering and filling meal with helpings of each of the sautéed mushrooms. Fortunately, his mushroom soup can be frozen, and I am offered a container to take home. “People have a natural fear of mushrooms,” says Galbreth, who has a degree in environmental science. He teaches seminars in mushroom identification and cultivation at Healing Spirits Herb Farm here in Wallace.

As I am walking out the back door after a satisfying evening of all things mushroom, Galbreth calls out, reminding me to “keep the log moist and shaded.” There is a three-foot one plugged with spawn started at my house, and I can’t wait for the first crop of mushrooms at the end of the summer.

Willow Harvest sells at Kirby’s Farm Market in Brockport and Quest Farm Produce in Almond.

Kay Thomas is a freelance writer living in the Genesee Valley. Her work can be found at She is also the author of a book of essays called And One More Thing

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