How to Turn an Abandoned Factory into a Thriving Mushroom Farm
The team behind Mycopolitan, based in impoverished North Philadelphia, takes its cue from mushrooms—transforming decay into a healthy, fertile environment.
All photos by the author.
It's been just ten minutes and a mild euphoria is already coming on. I'm feeling relaxed—blissful, even. My thoughts are beginning to slow and I'm searching for another question to ask Tyler. He laughs as he ushers me out of the incubation room: "The CO2 levels in there are elevated. Mushrooms basically exhale carbon dioxide as they grow; you're probably experiencing a little oxygen deprivation."
Tyler Case is a mushroom farmer. In 2014, with friends Brian Versek and Dan Howling, he found what was an abandoned auto parts factory in an isolated section of North Philadelphia and proceeded to transform the cavernous, subterranean space into a thriving urban farm.
While Pennsylvania is known for its prodigious edible shroom production (close to 50 percent of all mushrooms consumed in the US come from PA), nearly all farming activity happens in rural landscapes. Traditional grow methods involve manure, so access to animal agriculture was essential. Although the science and techniques have evolved dramatically (Tyler's products thrive in a substrate mix that includes organic grains and local hardwood), with infrastructure in place, established fungi farms have simply stayed put.
No one in Philly has attempted an inner-city grow on this scale. Keenly aware of their position, they named their business Mycopolitan. Today, through a combination of DIY ethic and intensive mycological study, they're producing top-class mushrooms that have chefs taking notice.
And they've chosen a remarkable location in which to do it. With no subway within walking distance, Tyler and I exchange a few texts and arrange for him to meet me at a station about a mile away. He's waiting there in a red pickup, sporting a gray thermal shirt and a pair of broad suspenders—he looks like any proper farmer, though a bit paler than you might expect. He's got a big smile as he shifts pounds of foraged black trumpets to clear a space for me to sit.
Our approach to the farm takes us through one of Philadelphia's most blighted areas. Driving down Front Street, we pass over "El Campamento," a homeless enclave regarded by the DEA as the East Coast's largest heroin market. While most locals are quick to avoid the area, this stretch is part of Tyler's regular commute. Where I see serial neglect, he finds possibility for renewal. To succeed in this business, he tells me you have to "think like a mushroom." It's a mantra that makes his choice of location feel apt: In nature, fungi have an unparalleled ability to manage decay and restore healthy, fertile environments at the molecular level.
The Mycopolitan operation remains just out of sight, even when you're standing right on top of it. Tyler parks his truck at the terminus of a dead-end street and leads me into a massive brick warehouse. We descend some stairs and cross the threshold of an old factory door into the farm's carefully controlled microclimate.
Tyler's voice resonates in the 10,000-square-foot space as he explains that a mushroom's needs are fairly straightforward: "Fresh air, light, cool and stable temperatures, moisture, and cleanliness are the essentials." While aboveground farmers often work at the will of the weather, Mycopolitan creates its own. Some of the earliest mushroom farms were built in caves outside Paris in the 17th century; this subterranean space is a perfect cave analog, regulating temperature through significant thermal mass. Come winter, his mushrooms "are one of the only things being grown locally."
The air is cool and heavy with moisture. Ventilation fans drone and a dim light falls from a series of fluorescent fixtures; without any windows, one's ability to accurately judge time disappears. "We do try to emerge semi-regularly. But there are definitely stretches where I'm in the zone picking mushrooms and I go upstairs to be surprised seeing the moon in the window."
This hidden space they've created is unlike anything I've seen. Built out with dimensional lumber, PVC pipe, and thick plastic sheeting, it has more in common with a Bushwick loft than any typical vision of farm. From the carefully controlled grow rooms, to the speciality equipment needed to sterilize the substrate within which the mushrooms grow, everything here has been purpose-engineered and built by hand.
Brian Versek led the design and build process. Prioritizing common materials and working with a minimal budget, he says "this is absolutely a model that others can follow. We've proven our farm design is workable in any industrial space. And that's really important, because the closer farms are to urban centers, the more food secure cities become."
I spot a bouncy castle blower rigged to a large white ventilation pipe. "That's temporary!" laughs Tyler. "Actually, it's not temporary, but I need to build an enclosure to hide it." He adds, "While we'd love to make everything look super elegant, we realized the mushrooms don't give a damn."
The mushrooms are more than content in this climate. We walk through stacks of king trumpet and glistening nameko clusters ready for harvest. They're picture perfect examples that put packaged grocery store offerings to shame. But what makes them taste so good? To answer that, Tyler leads me to the "lab" at the far end of the basement. Assembled from a tailgate tent and heavy plastic sheeting, it resembles an ad hoc field hospital.
Dan Howling emerges from the enclosure looking like a mad scientist. He's decked out in a Tyvek jumpsuit, nitrile gloves, and a surgeon's mask. His meticulous dress is in stark contrast to the surrounds, but their commitment to maintaining clean spaces is absolutely serious. Dan passes me a sterile suit of my own—he helps me zip up and, after giving my shoes a quick alcohol bath, invites me inside to watch him inoculate some substrate.
For years, the guys at Mycopolitan have been researching and collecting all variety of edible mushroom strains. "We focus on the best strains we can find and grow them out on great ingredients. It makes all the difference," Dan explains. "We have really good relationships with nearby sawmills and rely on Castle Valley Mills for awesome local bran [for the substrate]."
Looking forward, plans include cloning locally foraged mushrooms for cultivation. Tyler tells me that excellent maitake grow nearby, and he's ready to experiment: "Because of natural competition, I think wild mushrooms are more robust. The flavor is different. I'd really like to replicate that at the farm."
Mycopolitan distributes their products to locals through a CSA and has also worked with an area school to bring fresh mushrooms into the cafeteria, but the greatest beneficiaries of their efforts so far have been restaurants (and diners). At Vetri, Philly's prix-fixe temple to Italian cuisine, chef Joey Delago explains that mushrooms are one of the ingredients that define Philadelphia's cultural identity. And he insists on quality: "A well-made product grown minutes from our door means getting the freshest available."
For George Sabatino, chef and owner of Aldine, "product is first and foremost, but it's also about the relationship with your producers. It was really fucking rad to find these guys who are not only great people but also amazing farmers. You feel good supporting them. They're doing it right, the mushrooms are always consistent, and the flavor is just killer." He adds that Mycopolitan mushrooms also inspire his dishes indirectly: "Any byproduct is really phenomenal, too. The quality is so high that we get to utilize all parts of the mushroom. We make mushroom oil and stocks, taking advantage of everything they give us."
And for any chef ambivalent about working with local ingredients, Sabatino has a story to share: "Craig LaBan is Philly's top food critic; he can pretty much make or break you. [LaBan] happened to come in for dinner one night when Tyler and everybody were eating here. He made a nice remark to his server about the mushrooms and she was able to point to that table over there and say, 'Those are the guys that grew them'. There are so many important reasons why we work with local producers, but I think that honestly says it all."
We exit the lab, strip out of our Tyvek suits, and collectively decide it's time for lunch. Tyler has been cooking up a batch of soup incorporating so many different mushroom varieties that he struggles to remember them all. He serves the mix in bright orange bowls, shaving a bit of black truffle on top. His shout—"staff meal!"—echoes across the farm.