Alan Kaufman and Julie Horigan of Shibumi Farm explain how mushrooms can feed the world, save the environment and maybe even cure cancer.

Jake Kaufman, 13, at the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market on Aug. 22, 2015.
Jake Kaufman, 13, at the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market on Aug. 22, 2015.

If you’ve encountered mushrooms from the Princeton area’s Shibumi Farm at the West Windsor Farmers Market or any of the other handful of markets where its owners—the husband and wife team of Alan Kaufman and Julie Horigan—offer them, there’s no mistaking Shibumi’s for anyone else’s.

Vibrant pink oyster, shaggy white lion’s mane, long-stemmed pioppino, golden enoki, chicken-of-the-woods (which the couple swears tastes like Chicken Francaise): these beauties bear little resemblance to common white button mushrooms and their brown, mature selves, the portobellos.

Kaufman has developed about 28 new commercial gourmet mushroom strains using sustainable methods, and a good portion of these get hand-delivered, within 24 hours of harvest, to the best chefs in New York and New Jersey—among them Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, David Burke, and Chris Cannon—and to leading restaurants in the Princeton area (Agricola, Elements, Mistral, and Brothers Moon. That last was the first Shibumi customer). But the Shibumi mission goes startlingly beyond providing chefs and the public with mushrooms that are beautiful and delicious and which happen to naturally have powerful health benefits. “Part of our mission is to raise awareness and educate around the intersection of food, health, environment, and sustainability,” Kaufman says.

Those are not idle words, as I discovered when I sat down with Kaufman and Horigan recently. Kaufman, the chief “mycomagician” and spokesperson, launched Shibumi in June 2012, peddling mushrooms he grew in his home garage following nine years of experimentation. As the business grew, he worked out a deal to use controlled-environment grow rooms belonging to a former specialty mushroom farmer in Delaware, not far from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. About 65 percent of all fresh commercial mushrooms in the U.S. are grown within 40 miles of Kennett Square.

A few weeks ago, Shibumi purchased a 12-acre farm in Lambertville that will become “largely an experimental research environment” where Kaufman says he will not only continue to develop mushroom strains, but also establish complementary hydroponics and aquaponics operations. There are four existing buildings, and Kaufman will be adding new construction, including an outdoor kitchen. The facility will be open to the public for events and education.

That’s not all. In order to service his rapidly expanding client base, Shibumi’s full-scale production will soon be moved from Delaware to a larger facility—a former apple farm—in Pittstown, Hunterdon County. In another first, Kaufman has just hired a chief operating officer, one who, like Kaufman himself, has Wall Street experience. Shibumi will be expanding its workforce significantly in the coming months.

The company recently went from selling an average of 5,000 pounds of mushrooms a week to an all-time high of 35,000 pounds when it received a commission from Blue Apron, the national food delivery service that ships to users’ homes all the ingredients necessary to prepare a meal. That limited run went so well, Kaufman said, that Shibumi Farm is going to do its first national supply for them—a blend of maitake and cremini—in September.

Shibumi will shortly enter into a similar experiment with Amazon Fresh, a mechanism that Kaufman hopes will make his mushrooms widely available to restaurant chefs everywhere. Kaufman says he is most excited about the opportunities these provide to educate a whole new audience about the marvels of fresh gourmet mushrooms.

“That’s also what I love about doing farmers markets and meeting people—not just chefs, but also consumers—and teaching them,” he said.

The mighty mushroom

What are some of the things Kaufman wants to spread the word about, beyond the meaty deliciousness of his mushrooms? In a nutshell, that mushrooms can save the world. He backs up this remarkable claim with first-hand knowledge and a boatload of facts.

For seven years, he consulted for a nonprofit on a program called Mushrooms with a Mission, which to date has lifted more than 225 families in Vietnam out of poverty, sustainably. “What really made me fall in love with mushroom cultivation is that around the world, mushrooms are a high-value product and an undervalued resource,” Kaufman said.

Mushrooms convert any kind of plant-based waste material—even cardboard or toilet paper—into protein. Mushroom growing doesn’t require land; it doesn’t require a lot of space; and it can be done in a very short profit cycle, Kaufman said. In Africa, families are growing mushrooms in four-foot plots that produce enough to feed themselves and provide income by selling surplus to restaurants.

Since mushroom growing has largely resisted automation, it also generates jobs. Kaufman knows of a plant in California that’s almost entirely robotic, but said that because mushroom flesh is so delicate, the process needs to be extremely standardized. “What you get is beautiful looking, but basically flavorless,” he said. (Those familiar with supermarket hothouse tomatoes can relate.)

Humans, he said, are still the best instrument for determining by sight, feel and smell when a mushroom is ripe for picking. Kaufman plans to staff the Pittstown production facility with ex-convicts, military veterans and single mothers. As to those last, Kaufman says that because the harvesting schedule is pretty flexible, it’s perfect for workers who can’t commit to a normal eight-hour workday or forty hour workweek.

He cites examples of how mushrooms are a cheap and remarkably efficient way to clean up the environment, sustainably, via the process of mycoremediation, in which fungi are used to capture or degrade contaminants. Mushrooms have done this not only in Vietnam, removing Agent Orange from soil, but also in 2007 in San Francisco, where they were used to help clean up a shoreline oil spill. Within weeks, the resulting soil was clean enough to be used for roadside landscaping.

Years of formal education in behavioral neuroscience and self-guided research into mycology means Kaufman, who spent 30 years as a founding partner and senior executive of boutique financial investment firms on Wall Street and in Princeton, can cite as articulately as any microbiologist how mushrooms are nature’s perfect mechanism for turning waste into high-quality protein, as well as quote the growing body of research that confirms their function as natural body detoxifiers and disease fighters.

By dry weight, he said, mushrooms have 25 percent to 60 percent protein—a complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids. “Mushrooms are the best natural source of vitamin D, because they contain the same chemical in their flesh that we do to convert sunlight into vitamin D. In fact, their DNA is closer to humans than it is to plants.” (Mushrooms are fungi: neither plant nor animal.)

Kaufman said they’re being tested right now with some success as a treatment for some cancers. And he asserts that lemon oysters produce a chemical that will help modulate your blood cholesterol and sugar just as well as synthetic statins do, but without the side effects.

Of course, little of this would matter to a profit-based specialty mushroom growing business except, Kaufman said, that it can be done sustainably while at the same time being capable of being “egregiously profitable.” Shibumi Farm is just coming to the point of profitability.

Origin of the specialist

Alan Kaufman’s long and winding road to mycology began with two unrelated events: the opening of the Whole Foods market in Princeton in 2004, and the desire to take care of his dying mother.

“I always enjoyed cooking with mushrooms, which at my age (he’s 58) started with those little brown things that came in cans,” he said with a chuckle. “As I got older, I became fascinated with the array of flavors and textures I saw [fresh] mushrooms could have.”

He attended high school in Queens, where he grew up, regularly skipping class to experiment with baking bread. He was so bored by high school, in fact, that he started college at 15, at Stevens Institute of Technology, with the aim of becoming a biomedical engineer. Eventually he transferred to a joint program between Columbia University and Queens College that specialized in physiological psychology, which is concerned with the relationship between the physical functioning of an organism and its behavior.

“My focus was vision research: looking at how the eye captures information and how it’s represented in the brain,” he said. Because his particular focus was on the mathematics of such signal processing, he relates it to the success he later had in trading commodity futures, among other activities, on Wall Street. “A lot of it is quantum and deals with advanced computation, trying to tease signals out of noise,” he said.

Twelve years ago, when Kaufman’s mother was nearing the end of her life, he decided to devote himself to her care. This included cooking for her. He had by that time shut down his Princeton-based investment management firm, Trilogy Capital, but was still doing some consulting. “So I was probably the first one in line at Whole Foods,” he joked.

At Whole Foods, he was fascinated equally by the array of gourmet mushrooms and the high prices they commanded. “That’s what led me down the path to playing around with mushrooms as a hobby,” he said.

By this time Kaufman had met and married Julie Horigan, who grew up on a farm in Kansas where her family has raised beef (conventionally) for a century. Both had been married and had children previously. Together they have two children, including Jake, 13, who staffs the Shibumi table at the West Windsor farmers market.

Horigan, 48, is on the board of Princeton Learning Cooperative and is co-founder of Shibumi Farm. She has a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University, but by the time the couple met, she had ditched a career with Bell Labs to try her hand at community theater. She was waitressing at the Alchemist & Barrister in Princeton where Kaufman had become a regular patron, since the financial management firm he was then with, Mount Lucas, had an office nearby.

From the start, Kaufman wasn’t interested in producing mass-market cultivated white and brown button mushrooms, which have little or none of the aromas and flavors evidenced by many of the 5,000 species of edible mushrooms that exist in the wild. He began by collecting interesting samples from the other obsessed amateur mycologists he had encountered mainly on internet bulletin boards. “You germinate literally thousands of spore samples looking for certain characteristics,” he said, to which Julie Horigan added, “Kind of like Star Search.”

Among those desirables is that the strain will colonize the growing medium—known as the substrate—aggressively. Since mushrooms derive all of their energy and growth materials through decomposing the substrate, it plays a key role.

Making magic happen

Shibumi’s mushrooms are grown on logs composed of natural plant materials and mineral supplements, with no animal waste. Currently, these are tightly compressed logs of sterilized straw and hardwood sawdust. Eventually, Kaufman plans to collect paper waste from Princeton restaurants that the restaurants would otherwise have to pay to have hauled away and recycle it into substrate, since some mushroom varieties thrive on cellulose.

Purchasing farm straw in this area is “ridiculously expensive,” Kaufman said. “Fortunately and interestingly enough, because we live in the (pharmaceutical) drug corridor, a lot of the research laboratories are here and they need animal bedding, and it has to be sterilized, standardized, and tested for contaminants with stiffer than usual analysis. So I can actually buy sterilized straw or corncob or wood chips — pelletized and tested for heavy metals and all possible contaminants — from suppliers of drug companies for less than it would cost me to go out and buy a bale of straw.” He also plans on collecting used coffee grounds from restaurants, and long term will produce apple cider on the Pittstown farm. “Apple pomace is a wonderful substrate to grow on,” he said.

Where does hydroponics figure into the operation? Shibumi’s mushrooms are grown indoors in tightly sealed, controlled-environment chambers. Mushrooms breathe oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, just like humans, while plants use carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. Shibumi has computer controls, Horigan said, because a lot of the mushrooms require extremely specific growing conditions and timing.

The biggest single expense of growing mushrooms, Kaufman explained, is heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Mushrooms are very sensitive to changes in carbon dioxide, so a heavily stocked grow room needs a full air exchange between four and six times an hour. For a 4,000 square-foot grow room that’s 10 feet tall — 40,000 cubic feet — that means moving almost 250,000 cubic feet of air every hour.

In the wintertime, that’s not a concern because there’s so much biological activity that they produce enough heat so that even if it’s zero degrees outside, Shibumi just needs fans. But in the summertime when it’s 95 degrees and the temperature has to be brought down to 60 degrees for growing purposes, it’s enormously expensive. “That cost has been the undoing of many large-scale hydroponics operations,” Kaufman said.

It is possible in a sealed environment to pump air from an oxygen-producing room to the carbon dioxide-producing room and vice versa. Down the road, Kaufman is considering combining mushroom growing with hydroponically grown spirulina, a nutritious member of the algae family that produces massive amounts of carbon dioxide. “The reality is, once we set this up, we could throw the spirulina away and it would still be profitable for us because we’re saving 90 percent of a 40-percent budgetary line-item,” Kaufman said. “[But] we don’t have to throw it away! We can use it to feed animals on nearby farms.” Growing lettuces in winter is another option.

One thing that won’t change is that Kaufman will continue to personally delivering his products to those chefs who are devoted to experimenting with his mushrooms, even those who are able to buy only ten pounds per week – chefs like Will Mooney of Brothers Moon and Scott Anderson and Mike Ryan of Elements. In time for the recent relaunching of Elements in its new quarters on Witherspoon Street, Shibumi grew wood ear mushrooms, which are hard to find fresh. Kaufman said with Anderson and Ryan the process is really a collaboration. “Mike and Scott say to me, ‘We want to come there, we want to see them growing.’ They want to know everything.”

In addition to the rotation of 20-some current varieties, Kaufman has plans to start growing straw mushrooms (only available in the U.S. in cans), red wine caps (“No one grows them commercially”), and blewitts. Because the Lambertville farm is bordered by 150 acres of protected woodlands, Kaufman plans to put in beds for wild-crafted morels. “They can be grown indoors, but the quality and commercial quantity is not there,” he said.

By combining the efficiencies of mushroom cultivation, hydroponics, and perhaps aquaponics (a form of closed-loop hydroponics that incorporates raising fish or other aquatic life), Kaufman’s long-term goal for Shibumi is to be a shining example of a profitable, closed-loop agriculture system that is fully sustainable in terms of water use, the environment, waste, energy, and people.

“Absent that,” he said with a laugh,” we’re just trying to grow great mushrooms.”

Pat Tanner blogs at dinewithpat.com.